I recently gave a short presentation on tea.
That’s pretty much a joke, if you know tea at all. From one plant comes hundreds, if not thousands, of variations of flavors and aromas. Even when you’re just dealing with the pure leaf – no added flavors or other plants or herbs – there are many, MANY ways to create tea.
Which isn’t so different from creating stories. We all start from the same place. You have a protagonist. Whether girl, boy, animal, robot or alien, there has to be a “hero” for there to be a story. But once you have your hero figure, there’s no end to the directions you could take them.
And at the same time, there are certain limitations.
You can’t just pick tea, let it dry, and then boil it to get a good-tasting brew. You need a bit of knowledge (and also, a tea plant – camellia sinensis) for the end result to be something palatable.
You can’t just let your character go off the rails1 without bringing them back into line – pronto. You can’t have a story without a proper ending – not without leaving a bad taste in your readers’ mouths.
You will probably need to research.
You will probably need to “taste test” a lot of stories to see what your particular flavor is going to be like.
You will need to share it with your friends – preferably those you already know like that brand of story.
You will need to let idea steep to get all the nuances out of it. Most stories have something to teach you, if you’re willing to pay attention.
There are a lot of experts out there, but YOU get to choose whose advice to take. (This is true with tea and stories).
There’s nothing wrong with disliking certain “flavors” of story. There are many more to choose from. Going with what you know you like is good. Trying something new might be great.
Venture into your personal unknowns. Maybe you’ve always stuck with historical fiction. Maybe the shelf-full of Star Wars fiction has always been intimidating (or baffling). Never read a Western? They can be charming.
Perhaps romance is what you live and breathe for. Try out a mystery.
There can also be different styles and rules when it comes to what country and culture you are writing for. Are you aiming to a readership beyond your own homeland? It’s something to take into consideration as you are shaping your story.
During my presentation, I tried to explain the basics of what a Japanese tea ceremony entails while doing it2 – but to fully enjoy it, you would need to know about it before going into the traditional ceremony. Having to explain each step as we went through it took the serenity, simplicity and beauty out of it.
If you need to explain each step of your story to your readers as you go, you’re either underestimating their intelligence, or you’re writing a how-to book (which is not a story). It’s the elusive and yet essential “show, don’t tell” that you’ve probably heard again and again.
But despite all the difficulty inherent in producing something worthwhile, at the end of the day, our aim, just like tea-makers, is to create something enjoyable that will linger in the mind for days, weeks, or even years to come.
So go out and start drinking! Or, uh, drinking and writing!
1 – or you can, sometimes, but… there are lots of rules for that, too.
2 – with the disclaimer that I am an amateur with no formal training.
Katie, signing off for a cup of tea.