5 Reasons GBBS Is a Secret Masterclass in Writing
Image courtesy of: RadioTimes & Channel 4
***Warning: this post contains spoilers for various seasons of The Great British Baking Show. (But honestly, you haven’t watched it yet?)
I’ll say it up front: there are very, very few thoughts I have while watching The Great British Baking Show that aren’t some variation on, “I wish there were some way to have that cake/choux bun/custard slice/biscuit/tart in my mouth LITERALLY THIS VERY MINUTE.” But, over a half-dozen seasons of self-soothing pandemic watching, I’ve come to realize that GBBS is actually a very sneaky masterclass in writing. Are Zadie Smith and Joyce Carol Oates secretly executive producers? Who can say?! All I know is, I was taking notes.
With half my brain. The other half was figuring out how to procure cake.
But without further ado, here are five key takeaways for you to incorporate into your next bake…er, book.
1) There is a sweet spot for originality. (Hahahaha!!!!! No pun intended!!!!!) But seriously, this reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s line in Big Magic: “The older I get, the less impressed I become with originality. These days, I’m far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has a quiet resonance that never fails to stir me.” Case in baking point: remember when Flo made a mulled-wine flavored holiday cake with a *checks notes* a Stilton-Roquefort frosting?
Make no mistake, the bakers who whip up a same-old Victoria sponge for the showstopper are not going to impress the judges, or stand out. But when it comes to your writing (to paraphrase infamous arbiter of taste, Regina George), stop trying to make Stilton-Roquefort icing happen. It’s not going to happen. But Rav’s chocolate hazelnut cardamom babka? Kate’s pistachio cake with blackcurrant ganache? Familiar recipe + personal twist = something new and tasty.
2) There’s a quirky, diverse cast – and no one is a stereotype. Sure, you get a couple of the expected adorable, pink-cheeked nans in every season, but there are far more contestants who don’t fit the mold (Hahaha –!!! Okay, sorry) of the avid/prolific baker archetype. There’s Yan, a research scientist who approaches her bakes with the same meticulousness she does molecular biology. (Anyone inclined to chime in to argue baking is always a science has clearly never seen me eyeball “about two cups of flour.”) Mark is a carpenter who carries around a tool box full of edible glitter. Jordan looks like he came straight off the set of The I.T. Crowd and plays Dungeons and Dragons when he isn’t baking. Selasi works in finance and also belongs to a “Sunday Motorbike Club.” You get it. Diversity and depth are what make for compelling characters readers will want to spend time with. Just remember to do the appropriate research, hire sensitivity readers when necessary, and most importantly, be mindful of what stories belong to you.
3) All of these characters have a relationship with one another. Prue and Paul are the judges (the recurring characters, if you will), but the show is not just about them interacting with the contestants. Some of the most emotional moments – whether touching, funny, or horrifying – come from the contestants’ relationship to one another. Remember when Sura accidentally knocked over Dave’s pineapple upside down cakes? REMEMBER BINGATE??? I’m getting secondhand sweaty just remembering it.
On the other hand, while we all cheer for a Hollywood handshake, nothing makes you tear up quite like Baker A rushing to assist Baker B when there’s one minute left and Baker B still hasn’t managed to plate his biscuits. They’re helping each other! Even though they’re competitors! Look how much they care for each other! I’m crying, and Prue and Paul are nowhere to be seen. True, GBBS is arguably an ensemble show, but the point is, even in a first-person or third-person limited POV, the secondary characters should have distinct relationships with one another, not just the MC. It makes the story that much more real, authentic, and compelling.
4) Anything can be high-stakes if you craft it the right way! My sister is a pretty hardened TV watcher who regularly binges Law and Order, Criminal UK, and other series I have to avoid in order to sleep at night. She will not blink at gruesome crime scenes or psychotic acts. But when Terry’s Chrysler building gingerbread house almost fell? She literally shouted “I can’t watch!” at the television. Similarly, I think I gasped less during A Quiet Place than whenever I watch someone forced to re-do their sponge with the clock running down.
Might I add, this could all be inherently high-stakes anyway if there was a cash prize on the line, the way there is in most American cooking shows. Watching paint dry could become a high-octane endeavor if it has a chance of netting you a million dollars. But these people are competing for a cake plate and, in my British friend Steph’s words, “the PRIDE of being the best British baker!” The point? Your story doesn’t need to be life-or-death for the stakes to be high. If it matters viscerally to your characters, it will matter to your readers.
5) It all needs to happen, but we don’t need to see all of it. The hosts call out the time at the beginning of every challenge: “You have one-and-a-half hours!” “You have three hours!” “You have four hours!” There are three challenges every show, and yet every episode is 50 minutes. The bakers need to do all two/three/four hours of work for every bake if they’re going to make something truly wonderful, but if we as an audience had to watch every step, GBBS would be boring as hell instead of the delightful flour-sifting, fondant-folding, biscuit-a-minute thrill ride it is. (Patisser-whee, amiright? OKAY OKAY OKAY.)
Similarly, your readers don’t need to witness every childhood event that led to your MC’s current psychological make-up or follow them out of the apartment, down the street, around the corner, and over the bridge to the store to get the supplies for their master plan (unless something goes terribly wrong along the way), but you need to know it happened and why it’s important. And then you choose which parts to show us. We want to see some of the struggle (it wouldn’t be any fun if it was just a 20-minute show featuring the finished products of each challenge), but we definitely don’t want to see you fiddling with your stand mixer or watching the oven.
There you have it. Five GBBS-inspired writing tips humbly presented at the proverbial Gingham Altar. One last one? Be kind to yourself. The same blood, sweat, tears, sugar (yes, sugar) and self-doubt goes into writing as it does baking. We’re all Rahul. But you’ve got this.
I’d bet a glass cake stand on it.