I made tuna salad today. On the surface, that has no importance at all and certainly no relevance to the topic of my blog: creative writing. Somehow, though, making tuna salad got me thinking about writing: about all that goes into a good piece of fiction.
My tuna salad is pretty standard: canned tuna. Mayo. A mix of diced onions, celery, green and red peppers. Black pepper. Sometimes I’ll throw in a boiled egg. Nothing fancy. Nothing that really requires time or effort. I do like to add:
- SOMETHING SWEET: I like to throw either diced apple or raisins in my tuna salad. You don’t need a lot to make the flavor and texture stand out and really contribute. This is a good analogy for the sweet, tender, and really human moments good fiction holds. Maybe they’re romantic; maybe they’re not at all. But they aren’t overdone and they aren’t overpowering. They aren’t too many, because a few go a long way. Subtlety is a big part of their poignancy. Now, for the more standard ingredients:
- MAYO: You know. Fat. One thing a lot of dieters get wrong is that the body NEEDS some fat. It cushions organs. It helps us absorb and use fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. Description is an apt analogy here. Like fat, it is important and has a bit of a bad reputation it doesn’t deserve. Description CAN be overdone, and what constitutes “overdone” is largely a matter of opinion. But description matters in fiction. It should definitely not be ignored.
- TUNA: The protein. The meat. The bulk of the dish. No matter what else goes in tuna salad, the tuna should always be in “focus.” EVERYTHING you add has to taste good with tuna, or the whole dish is ruined. Celery? Sure. It’ll add crunch and texture. Peanut butter? Not so much. This is a great analogy for your major plot and the subplots that intersect with and contribute to it. Everything in fiction should mesh with and advance your major storyline. If it doesn’t, ask yourself why it’s there.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE COMBINATION
Tuna salad isn’t really all that exciting a dish, I admit. It’s pretty humdrum. Pretty plain. In fact, it’s generally one of my Lenten standards because of that.
If to any degree, though, it’s way more fun than just plain old tuna from a can, it’s because of all the ingredients working together, contributing something to balance out and to enhance the whole. Fiction works that way too.
Character, plot, symbol, style, tone, action and backstory…. All these things influence and affect the “taste” of the whole work.
Another thing about tuna salad: it’s a mixture. It’s not entirely consistent throughout. Yes, the ingredients as a whole are consistent in that in the batch you have A, B, C, and D. If peanut butter is not on the ingredient list (and I sincerely hope it isn’t!), you know you aren’t going to get a mouthful of peanut butter eating tuna salad.
Each bite, however, is different. One bite of my tuna salad sandwich might have two raisins and celery. The next might have a piece of boiled egg, and one raisin, but no celery at all. It’s a bit different. It complements the previous bite, but it’s not of the same exact make-up.
Fiction is like that too. Some scenes are heavier in action. Some are wind-down scenes. Some are faster paced, or more heavy-handed with description, or feature a character to a greater or lesser extent than other other scenes. That’s how it should be.
Remember, variety is the spice of life. You want enough variety to keep things interesting and flowing, but enough stability so that your reader keeps a hold of what is going on and what this story is actually about.
RANDOM FUN STORY
In Spanish, tuna is “atún.” I was a grad student in Spanish literature and in my very last course EVER in grad school, my professor told this story about the non-canonical sequel written to the first picaresque novel, Lazarillo de Tormes. He was SOOO animated, y’all.
He started telling us–in Spanish–about how the main character in the novel is on a boat and the boat sinks, and he prays to be saved, so God turns him into a fish. And my professor is sitting there, shouting like a kid might shout “It’s a cake! Mom, It’s a cake!”….
“Es un atún! Es un atún!” (He’s a TUNA!)
I mean, arms flying, child-like enthusiasm. I will never forget that. It was awesome. I cannot think of tuna now without remembering that story.
So, those are my thoughts for today. This was a very different kind of post. Do you guys like tuna salad??? It’s a good summer staple I feel, nice and chilled. Also, I mentioned above, good for Lent. Do you eat tuna?
- On chili, groceries, and “winging it” while you write
- Creative writing is like a box of chocolates: “git” what you want
- The lost art of description in fiction
- Connecting your subplots to each other…. and the main story arc
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”
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