Robin Sloan’s delicious stewing of magical realism and food writing, Sour Dough, serves up the perfect blend of action, pathos, and exposition in its mouth-watering first chapter. Here’s the recipe and ingredients.

Robin Sloan & Sourdough

I’ve broken the first chapter into five sections which form a kind of parallel structure. Warning, there are minor spoilers for the first chapter ahead (I’ve tried to avoid specifics as much as possible).

1. In the first section, a young woman named Louis, living in San Francisco, arrives home from work and discovers a strange menu flyer taped to her door. The menu is half written in something resembling Cyrillic. She orders something. Will it be good? Oh, such tension.

Scene break!

2. In the second section, the author unloads our narrator’s back story. How did she come to live in San Francisco and end up desperate enough to order food off of a random flyer? Here’s how.

Noteworthy is the fact that the first section grounds the reader in a single location, with a single person. Here, things open up, and the narration starts to jump around between locations and time frames. We get exposition from different points in her life and we meet different people. The section ends when she accepts a new job and moves to San Francisco.

Scene break!

3. The food she ordered in the first scene arrives. She loves it. Robin Sloan slips in some of those delicious superlatives that characterize the food writing of magazines like Bon Appétit. There is no more jumping around to different time frames. Readers are grounded again.

Scene break!

4. Back to the time warp. We get descriptions of her new job: the good days, the bad days. We get an explanation of how she uses the food from the restaurant in the first scene to cope with the stress of her work.

Scene break!

5. In the final section of the chapter, tragedy strikes when the delivery man tells her the delivery service will likely close. Again, readers are grounded in a drawn-out moment of pathos. What will our poor narrator do without her double spicy soup and slice of sourdough she always orders?

So the pattern here is simple. The first scene is grounded in a single moment and location, followed by exposition, then another more focused scene, then a scene that jumps around again, then a final grounded scene.

If F is for focused, and E is for exposition, then we can call this technique FEFEF (pronounced Fay-fef). Or maybe not.

The types of writing which tire readers – exposition and rapid-fire time skips – are nested between the focused and the personal. In some ways, this resembles the way Pixar tends to dish out exposition at the start of their films.

Anyway, read this book. It has sentient sourdough.

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