Sweet, Sour, Hot, Salty

The four elements of Asian cooking, without a bit of each you are missing something. We know instinctively that they go together, but sometimes we don’t know it consciously. Sweet and Sour Pork? Everybody’s heard of it. Sour and salty? Why do we use salt and lemon on fried fish? The Mexicans even pair them up to drink. Hot and sweet? Chilli and chocolate, the perfect match. But the world of Asian cookery knows that a full menu requires the complete set.

It’s the same with writing. Something sweet, something sour, something hot, and a good dash of salt. Here’s my take on it.

Sweet and sour refer to characters. Mostly both are present in the one character. A well rounded character needs some inner conflict, otherwise the conflict has to come from outside, from another character with the other quality. We see the two extremes in Hamlet and Macbeth. But we already know that the whole of human experience is somehow wrapped up in the works of Shakespeare.

Hamlet is the sweet one. He’s so sweet he is useless. He knows he has to avenge his father’s murder, but he is taken up with Ophelia and walks into the mountains. He pussyfoots around trying to make his uncle feel guilty with a play by some traveling players instead of taking out his sword and running the evil man through. He needs a reality check. Actually, he needs a dose of sour to balance him up. His task of life, the killing of his uncle, only happens in the closing moments of the play because he watches his mother die from poison meant for him. In the end he avenges his mother instead of his father. Then he dies from the poison tipped sword and in his last breath he hands over his kingship to the enemy king in the next valley. That’s what you get from being sweet.

Macbeth, on the other hand is all sour. He is evil to the core and as the play progresses we see deeper levels of depravity in him. He shares with Hamlet the goal to take the crown. But Macbeth has no royal claim and is intent on taking it by sword and murder, even the murder of his once friend’s wife and children. He takes his sense of purpose from the three witches who have no right to call him to any duty, as does the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the other play. He involves his wife in his depravity, once again quite the opposite of Hamlet who fantasises about Ophelia but tells her nothing of the message of the ghost. Macbeth becomes, in the end, the victim of his own consuming purpose as his sourness destroys all around him.

If either of these two characters were to be a little more rounded it would take the inclusion of some of the other ingredient. But Hamlet with some sour in him might just avenge his father and the final tragedy of his weakness would be averted. And Macbeth with some sweetness in him would he a lame menace indeed and we would not be drawn relentlessly into this depleted man with anywhere near the force that Shakespeare accomplishes. Most characters in most novels live somewhere between these two men. So we need some degree of both sweet and sour in most of the characters who populate our stories.

The hot stuff, the chilli of our stories lies in the action. It’s a plot thing. We might call it ‘the exploding helicopter’ view of life. Not so many books have exploding helicopters, but current movies are filled with them. I have sat in the cafeteria of our local hospital where the big TV was tuned to a lunch time hospital drama. “Not the best thing for that environment”, I thought. Suddenly, into the drama of the TV operating theatre came the swordfight blades of a helicopter flying too close to the building. It was all shattering glass and whirling metal and the helicopter fell to the ground, blocking the entrance to the emergency room. All around me were hospital patients and their visitors. We were all somehow in the middle of our own exploding helicopter moment anyway, that’s what brought us to the hospital. But the TV script writer wanted to make it a bit more literal. That’s what it’s like when you add chilli to chocolate.

And the salt? That comes about from the quality of the writing. We know salt when we taste it. We can’t describe it in any other way but ‘salty’. There are lots of types of salt, sea salt, lake salt, crystal salt, pink salt, rock salt, many others. I have a Pepper and Salt Cookbook that list a dozen or so different types. But guess what, they all taste salty. If you don’t write quality, you don’t have salt. We might describe that quality in different ways, but in the end we somehow recognise quality.

Two authors I admire greatly are Brian Doyle and William Golding. They are alike in that they write of people who are confronting inner strife and are searching for some personal strength to get them through. I admire them because these are the themes in much of my own writing. But they are very different. Doyle can string together words that flow like old port or liquid gold. There is something musical in reading his work. He deals with love and dying, suicide and misfortune, peace and glory, youthfulness and aging. His words are like honey without being syrupy and I wonder how he manages such sentiment without sentimentality.

Golding is characterised by his ability to write in such spare prose that the story seems to write itself in my head. In one of his works a child is murdered and he says nothing of it at all. It is only many pages later that the reader notices her absence. I had to backtrack until I found the most recent reference to her, and continue reading to find where she went. I found the narrative of a murder that happened in my own mind, Golding wrote in such a way that I missed it on the first read. But once I found it I was stamped with it and that moment lives in my head still. That ability to write a story in the reader’s mind without using a single word of the event is a rare skill.

Both Doyle and Golding are writers of quality. They have salt and there is no other word to use but ‘salty’. It does not come from character or plot, it comes from wherever salt comes from. Now there’s a metaphor worth exploring.

So there you have it. Sweet, sour, hot, salty. A good story needs them all.

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