Monday, January 20, 2014

Wordcraft -- Secret to a great story: it’s in the bowl

When my adopted hometown of Dallas, Texas, came to a stand still from a recent ice storm I spent some of my enforced indoor time cleaning out bookshelves, finding information from writing workshops too good to part with. I vowed to share it, in an occasional series.

I’ll add a warning at this point: I don’t cook. If the illustration for this post made you dig out your cooking post, pass on by. But if you’re looking for a way to create the characters of your story, to make them multidimensional, to give them someone to fight and someone to fight for, embrace the concept of the spaghetti bowl.

Paradoxically, if you’re searching for ways to whittle down your cast of thousands to manageable proportions, you’ll find the spaghetti bowl is your friend also. Because what looks overwhelming at first sight may involve relatively few strands.

I was introduced to the “spaghetti bowl” by J. Suzanne Frank, author and director of the Writer’s Path Program at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. The concept isn’t original to Frank, and I’ve heard it called other names. I like it because it helps me discover connections I hadn’t consciously known existed between characters. And besides, it’s fun.

To start cooking, draw a big circle and list the names of major and secondary characters around the rim of the bowl. Then simply draw lines between characters to indicate their relationships--parent/child, friends, doctor/patient, waitress/customer, and so on. Which characters have a lot of common bonds? Which have few?  Now try to find more connections between those characters to strengthen their relationships.

When I first dipped into the spaghetti bowl, I had a novel with a problem. The main character had overcome the obvious villain, the hulking, heavily armed, mean as sin character, by mid-book. But even with the villain out for the count, the good guy was still swatting a multitude of problems. In real life, these continuing crises might be coincidence. But coincidences are anathema to a fiction writer. (There’s a reason conspiracy theories always sound like fiction.) More likely, there was someone in the background, a bigger though still undiscovered antagonist behind my hero’s continuing problems.

Through the spaghetti bowl exercise, I found a significant character my protagonist had no, repeat no, relationship with. The two connected multiple times with other characters but not with each other. Why were they so intent on avoiding each other? The answer, to my surprise, was that the character the protagonist didn’t want to connect with was, although apparently a nice guy, the main character’s natural antagonist. At once, these previously unconnected characters had a relationship, a string of spaghetti I could exploit in so many ways to put them in conflict with each other.

(For more on why a story’s antagonist doesn’t always have to be a villain, see Pyr editor Lou Anders on “Bones of a novel, part 1” at this site, October 12, 2011.)

On the other side of the spaghetti bowl, what if you find yourself with more characters and character relationships than you (or your readers) can keep track of?    

Again, the answer may lie right in that bowl of tangled spaghetti. When faced with a multitude of characters who have similar relationships, consider combining the roles of those multiple characters. This automatically adds more thicker, stronger bonds between the remaining characters. Think of it as trading strands of angel hair pasta for fettuccine. J.R.R. Tolkien did so famously, condensing several secondary hobbits into Peregrin Took (Pippin) and Meriadoc Brandybuck (Merry).

I’ve found in my own work that a major character’s lawyer can also fill the roles of best friend and AA sponsor. An ex-girlfriend can become the best friend of a character’s new wife. Or the client of his worst enemy, forming a delightfully tangled platter of pasta. Try stirring that spaghetti for your own works and see what savory dishes emerge.

And for more about SMU writing classes, see

(Next Monday, I dish up more tasty writing tips from mystery writer Hallie Ephron’s upcoming workshop on romantic suspense.)


One of my personal resolutions for 2014 was to highlight Texas literary birthdays. This week: Patricia Highsmith, born January 19, 1921, in Fort Worth; and Robert E. Howard, born January 22, 1906, in Peaster, Texas.


  1. That's an excellent metaphor.

    I do thinking that writing lends itself so well to cooking as a metaphor. I always say that my story is finished when it's baked.

    I think writing's like cooking, mixing everything together is a craft and there's always that little bit of magic that produces the great dish. Especially when you're like me who cooks/writes without measuring.

    1. Thanks, Deborah. And I'm liking the way your own metaphor cooks! By the way, from your posts about publications, I found one I'd never thought of, Eternal Haunted Summer. Looks like a great place for the myth-based stories I love.