Story time!

The person who taught me to drive was a philosophy teacher of mine who specialized in Aristotle and the various Aristotelians of the Islamic Golden Age.  Needless to say, it was a unique experience.  I learned how to drive, but I felt I learned so much more about life.  His holistic perspective enabled me to see the craft of driving and the traffic system as just a microcosm of human nature and how the world worked as a whole.

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What I took away from my time with this teacher was the idea that every area of life is connected, and the lessons learned in one craft will likely apply to all others.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one of my favorite documentaries of all time, in part due due to how spectacularly it showcases the above mentioned theme.  The last time I watched it, there was one particular quote from Jiro that resonated heavily with what I think is the difference between good writers and great writers:

“If it doesn’t taste good, you cannot serve it.”

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Sounds like an innocuous statement.  Almost obvious.  Why would you serve something if it doesn’t taste good?

But take a moment and think about your experiences eating at restaurants.  Not many establishments actually follow this rule.  How often have you ordered something that just doesn’t taste that great?  “Oh, Place X?  They have good burgers, but their onion rings aren’t so good.”  “Place Y’s fries are usually great, but last night they were a bit soggy.”  “Place Z undercooked my steak again…”

Why does this happen?  Why do people who work in restaurants think it’s okay to serve soggy fries?

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The truth is, most of the time it is okay.  Most of the time, those kinds of small imperfections don’t actually matter.  If the burger is good, the side dish doesn’t need to be off the wall incredible.  As long as this is the only time the food was undercooked and they fix it promptly and promise never to let it happen again, most of us are willing to give them another chance.

We’re not usually looking to be wowed, we just want to be satisfied.

We are naturally in this mindset, and for good reason.  Efficiency always means identifying where quality is essential and where it’s expendable.  It’s often more important that we eat anything at all than eat food that’s particularly outstanding.

When writing fiction, however, our goal should definitely be to wow our audience.

One of my biggest pet peeves when reading stories from beginner writers is that the majority of scenes feel like they’re just trying to get to the next scene.  The characters need to go from point A to point B, so it’s okay to go on autopilot until we get to the next scene we actually want to write.  The big scene in Chapter X is coming up, and we’ll be sure to give that scene my all–but for now, it’s just a matter of getting there.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

If the food isn’t good, you should not serve it.

If the scene isn’t good, you should not write it.

Our audience has no reason whatsoever to read scenes that are written with the express purpose of getting to the good stuff.  All we should be giving our audience is the good stuff itself.  Every scene should be interesting and compelling.  Every character should be well designed and well expressed in every scene in which he or she appears.  Every piece of seemingly insignificant setup for the big scenes should be fresh and emotionally rich in its own right.  Only through this kind of attention to quality in details will our vision of the big picture shine as brightly in real life as it does in our heads.

To quote the Youtuber Ze Frank:

“Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else.  And if it is, let me become fascinating with the shape of the stone.”

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When we leave a movie theater or close a book, we often aren’t aware of all that went into creating what was memorable to us.  We tend to only remember the big moments that move or excite us, because they often overshadow everything they were built on.  But that doesn’t mean the foundations aren’t important.  On the contrary, a great scene needs a great story in order to truly make an impact.  Otherwise, the audience or readership be very conscious of the fact that they’re bored throughout all the mindless, sloppy, poorly written filler between the exciting parts.

Craftsmen of all kinds should take Jiro’s advice to heart.  Instead of trying to improve by broad strokes, focus on making sure every detail of what you do is given the attention it deserves.  If the food isn’t good, be firm with yourself that you cannot serve it–ie do not allow yourself to be at all lax in the parts of your craft you perceive as unimportant.  All of it contributes to a greater whole.

Raising the standard of quality in the small picture will make the quality soar in the big picture.

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That’s all for this week!

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Thanks for reading!

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