Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Deadline Recipes: Casseroles and Story Structure

Harlequin Intrigue author Paula Graves joins us with a few basic principles she applies to cooking and the writing craft...

I'm pretty sure I've blogged somewhere about my love of casseroles. As a not particularly successful cook, I've found over the years that casseroles are about the easiest way for me to create something not just edible but enjoyable, probably because I understand casserole structure. Broken down to the basics, casseroles are: vegetable and/or grain, protein, sauce and topping. Or, in the case of a sweet casserole: fruit, sauce, topping, which is even simpler. But the fun of casseroles is that once you get that structure in your head, it frees you to experiment with the components to create new and unusual casseroles. Having the structure in place, simplified to its basic elements, unleashes your creativity as a cook.

I think stories can also be broken down that way, into their simplest components. A story has a few more components than a casserole, of course, but once you understand the structure, once it's as basic to your storytelling as breathing, then you can unleash your creativity as a writer, too.

I think there are seven basic components to a story, at least in genre stories. I call them the Seven Cs: Change, choice, complication, commitment, crisis, climax and conclusion. I've written a longer explanation of the Seven C's in an article on my website (http://www.paulagraves.com/the7cs.htm) if you'd like to read it, but in recipe terms, the Seven Cs are the basic components of your storytelling casserole. All of these elements are part of telling a complete and satisfying story. But within each of these elements, the variety is almost limitless.

A casserole can start with a common staple, such as ground beef or canned tuna fish. Or it can feature something like wild truffles or freshly caught Maine lobster. Likewise, the change that propels a lead character into a journey of discovery can be as simple as getting fired from a job or as complex as waking up to discover you're being tortured by terrorists and a year of your life is missing.

The choices the characters make can be obvious, just as potatoes might be obvious in a casserole, or unexpected, like putting chopped bananas in your savory casserole. (Not that I've tried that—yet). The complications can come from the outside or from the inside. They can be frustrating or dangerous. The crisis can be external or internal. Focus on emotional dangers or physical ones. (Or both). As long as you understand the structure of the story casserole you're cooking, you can go for the tried and true or branch out and take bigger and bigger storytelling risks. It's up to your imagination.

Category romance authors, in particular, hear people say our books are written to formula. Well, you know what? They are. Just as almost every commercial fiction genre book is written to a formula. It's called the three-act structure, which I've further broken down to the Seven Cs of story structure. The formula isn't a bad thing. It's a freeing thing. Just as the basic components of a casserole recipe allow you to think outside the casserole dish, a good understanding of story structure and its basic components gives you a solid foundation from which you can build a story as big and amazing as your imagination can conceive.


  1. Interesting article. I always enjoy your literary casseroles.

  2. Thank you! They're probably better than my literal food casseroles. :)