Kate Christensen is the author of six previous novels, most recently The Astral. Her fourth novel, The Great Man, won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. She is also the author of two food-centric memoirs, Blue Plate Special and How to Cook a Moose, which won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir. She has published many essays and reviews, most recently in Vogue, Elle, Bookforum, O, the Oprah Magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Food and Wine. She lives with her husband in Portland, Maine.
You will need:
A setting with a closed social system.
Think of this as your stovetop burner and pot, both the source of heat and the container for your novel. It could be an army battalion stationed in a war zone, an ethnically or racially segregated neighborhood in a gentrifying city, a group of old college friends with secrets and ancient rivalries in a Fire Island summer house, a boarding school on an island in Maine, a family farm in Pennsylvania… or an old cruise ship on the Pacific Ocean. The best systems are the ones that seem hardy at first, but over the course of the story, as they are exposed to friction, heat, and tension, they soften and break down, revealing themselves to be fragile and corruptible.
One or more protagonists.
These are your primary ingredients. They should be characters who possess universal qualities, desires, and fears, who struggle to do the right thing and sometimes fail, but nonetheless rise to meet challenges much as we all would, neither heroically nor cynically, but with an instinctive effort to hold on to the things and people they love. In other words—solid, complex, interesting human beings.
A number of minor characters.
These act like spices to make things exciting: they create conflicts and intrigues, add dimension to the story by eliciting, challenging, and complementing our protagonists’ fears and desires. They might include, but are not limited to, fawning opportunists, vindictive ex-spouses, predatory teachers, sociopathic schemers, alcoholic best friends, and autocratic executive chefs.
An inciting incident.
This is the yeast, the leavening, the element that causes the chemical reaction to set the storytelling alchemy in motion. As the energy and reaction it generates propels the story forward, it will also cause the cracks in the social system to show and widen as the story goes on. Examples of inciting incidents: the enemy attacks the barracks, a shady outsider moves in across the street, a teacher is accused of sexually abusing a student, a gas company offers a lot of money to frack on the dairy farm, or the old and creaky ship sets sail from Long Beach to Hawaii.
A series of upheavals or calamities.
These actions — comparable to braising, flash-frying, and/or shocking in an ice bath—can gradually build on each other to amp up the drama by intensifying and complicating the characters’ collective and individual struggles, ideally in a way that pits them against one another and forces all of them to grapple with their consciences and the limitations of their integrity and courage—such as, in the case of the old and creaky ship: an engine room fire, a crew walkout, a norovirus epidemic, and, finally, a cataclysmic gale-force storm.
A point of view.
This is the heart and soul of your dish, your own personal imprint on the recipe. What do you most deeply believe? What do you think about what’s happening to your characters, how do you feel about it? Let your ingredients/characters speak for your own deepest convictions.
A dramatic finish is the literary equivalent of setting a Baked Alaska on fire. This should make the reader say “wow!” or “what?” or just exhale because they realize they’ve been holding their breath for the last ten pages.
1. One by one, add the protagonists and minor characters into the closed social system in its setting, stirring steadily.
2. Throw in the inciting incident all at once.
3. As the story reacts and bubbles and begins to foment, keep your focus solid and consistency smooth by making sure all the characters’ reactions and points of view stay clear and evenly distributed. Stir your narrative lightly but confidently, pushing and pulling with your narrative spoon to give it a proportional, organic shape as it achieves its own swirling momentum.
4. Working quickly but deftly, throw in the first calamity and keep all the characters’ reactions front and center.
5. Before the novel can subside back into calm, add your second piece of trouble. Stand back in case of minor explosion, but don’t lose your grip on your characters.
6. As things heat up, toss in a third calamity. Then, if you have it and the story can withstand it, a fourth. If the novel threatens to come apart or fall out of its framework, don’t lose heart, stick to your point of view, and don’t be afraid to shake the bowl with it. As Julia Child said, “When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions…” If it falls on the floor, pick it up and put it back.
7. And now it’s time for the surprise finish, like a flambé or a hit of a blowtorch that sears the top. This can and should surprise or shock your reader, but ideally in a way that makes the rest of the novel suddenly appear to be something other than what they thought it was all along. This could cause them to be initially angry or dismayed, but, the more they think about it, the more sense it should make.
8. Serve hot.