Friday, 9 March 2012

Aristotle and Puddings

"A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end... A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles." 
(Aristotle, 350 BC)

Beginning, middle, end. Exposition, climax, resolution. It's a pretty obvious formula, but when it's lacking, a story tends to feel vague and strangely frustrating. 
The other day, I found two great illustrations of this: The Moro cookbook and Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbook, Plenty. I actually prefer Ottolenghi's recipes and use his book a lot more (and no, he's not sponsoring this post). But there's something that always frustrates me about his cookbook, and I've found out what it is: he doesn't do puddings.
Puddings are to cookbooks what endings are to novels. One must have puddings. Beginning, middle, end. Starters, main courses, puddings. 
It's the most satisfying structure: you flick to the final section, and there they are, sweet and fatty, the ideal way to end a meal, or a cookbook.
The Moro cookbook respects this fact in a positively Aristotelian fashion, with a nod to the more modern five-act structure. "Soups" (= exposition); "Fish/meat starters" (= rising action); "Fish/meat main courses" (= climax/turning point); "Vegetables" (= falling action); PUDDINGS (= resolution, happy ending).
Ottolenghi's cookbook, on the other hand, is like an anthology, or a post-modern arrangement of scattered vignettes. "Funny Onions" reads one category, "Mushrooms" the next, "Green Things" another. The recipes themselves are original and tempting, but they might as well be written on a deck of cards. As my friend the scriptwriter would say: where's the journey? Where's the quest?
Right at the end, Ottolenghi seems to realise that something is missing. So he shoves in a final category: "Fruit with Cheese.
That's like a romantic novel that ends with: "And then they became good friends." 
Here's a word of advice to all writers, including myself: respect your starters, respect your main courses. And never, ever cheat your readers out of their puddings.*

*Unless they don't like puddings. This option just occurred to me and completely destroys my menu-based structure. Any suggestions for alternatives?
** PPS: the photo shows a giant block of tofu. Whatever you do, don't structure your story like a giant block of tofu.


  1. I often (like twice last week) talk to my students about conventions of essay or short story structure, and say, "This will seem restrictive, but it's like a musical scale; nobody hears a piece of music and says, 'Oh no, not that predictable major scale again!'" This resonates deeply with some but not all of the students, so...

    Thanks for the new metaphor! "Nobody says, 'Oh, you're starting with a salad and ending with dessert; how boring.'"

    1. Ha! So did you ever get a smartiepants student saying "but I want my essay to be more like punk rock played on roof tiles with a chorus of five cats on speed"?

      Btw, as soon as I wrote this post I thought of all sorts of counter-examples... like the Japanese bento box where everything is served at once... or a picnic...

    2. If one of my students said that, I'd hug her and give her a trophy!