Writing is a lot like cooking. Good writing is entertaining. Good food is delicious. Taste is subjective, but not that subjective.

People often ask a version of, “What’s more important, plot or character?” It’s an understandable question, but like all dichotomies , the answer is a little of both. Both plot and character are means to an overall end – one of entertainment. A script can be intricately plotted, a character can be psychologically real, but if it’s boring, who cares?

I like to ask this question: Okay, I get your premise, but what’s entertaining here? Why would someone pay 14 dollars to see this in the theater? How are you going to make people happy with this?

Sidenote – genre provides a clue to how an idea might be entertaining.

If people don’t have a good answer for that it’s a big red flag. Analogously:

CHEF: Which is more important? Prep or cooking? 
ME: How's the food taste?
CHEF: Oh, I don't care about that.

Actually, writing and cooking have a lot in common. They’re both highly technical art forms that work to a subjective effect. Writing works to make people entertained, cooking works to make people satiated.

Mediocre writing is better than nothing. Mediocre cooking staves off death. But great cooking and great writing transforms, transports, takes us to different places.

Both writing and cooking are more about technique than recipe. When a good chef finds a great piece of halibut, he’s not going to go to AllRecipe.com and look up the ten best fish recipes. He’s going to think about techniques he wants to use. He might braise, butter poach, steam or sous vide.

Writing is the same way way. People rag on screenwriting books but they miss the nuances. Most screenwriting books supply a recipe. Recipes are boring if slavishly followed. It’s incumbent upon writers to hack the recipe, to find their own techniques to adapt what works.

Writing and cooking are both subjective. There’s no clearcut “best.” That said, people have subjective tastes but it’s not completely random. There’s very little market for balut, haggis, or pickled eggs in American culture, but we do seem to like beef, pork and chicken. It’s the same with writing. We generally know what works, we can make departures from that, but if you’re making an insane departure, you’re cooking a meal that few will want to eat.

So writing is like cooking.  So what? I like this as a thought experiment because it reminds me of what we’re doing. We’re using techniques and skills to communicate an experience to people. Food should be delicious. Writing should be entertaining. If you can’t directly point to what’s entertaining about a sequence and why it belongs on your metaphorical menu, you’ve got more development to do.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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