A couple of years ago, I turned on PBS. Instead of the Downton Abbey episode I was expecting, I found a tent full of terrible but hilarious puns, KitchenAid mixers in shades of pastel, and bakers peering into ovens hoping their cakes weren’t about to burn.
Welcome to the Great British Bake Off, Bethany. Your new and lasting obsession.
Since seeing that first episode (biscuit week of series 5, in case you’re curious) I’ve managed to hunt down every single episode of the regular show plus a few spin-offs like Junior Bake-Off (kid version, charming and excellent); developed a museum tour centered around baked goods throughout the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art; and just this past summer started the #CakeAlphabet project (next one’s coming soon, promise!).
I love Bake Off because it’s about people trying to do well at something, and because it’s completely devoid of the catty infighting and drama manufactured between contestants on other reality shows. The bakers cheer each other on, help each other if time’s running short, and are just as excited to see their fellow bakers succeed as they are to do well with their own bake. There’s no villain (okay, judge Paul Hollywood tries, but he gets so excited at well-made bread that it’s hard to take his harsher moments seriously) and there’s not even a prize, save for a glass cake plate with “Bake Off” emblazoned across it.
For a show with so little of it, you might be surprised to learn it’s actually taught me a lot about story and conflict.
Conflict is at the heart of every good narrative. Without conflict, you might have a description, a character, a scene, but you don’t have the urgency and then the satisfaction of feeling the stakes ramp up as a problem looms larger and larger in your protagonist’s life only to be solved at the end. Conflict makes things happen. Conflict drives the plot forward. But conflict doesn’t always have to be HUGE. In Bake Off, the conflicts are small: will the bread dough rise more quickly in the microwave? Will the fruit pie have a soggy bottom? Will the Eiffel Tower made of gingerbread retain its structural integrity? Stories don’t always have to be that BIG to be gripping. Getting the proper layers in a flaky pastry doesn’t, in the grand scheme of things, matter all that much, but for the duration of the show, those layers are what’s important. The stakes aren’t all that high, but they feel as though they are.
Those stakes wouldn't feel so high if we didn't have characters we want to root for.
Bake Off is at its heart a show about passionate people. The bakers aren’t professionals, they’re architects and gardeners and moms and students and accountants who just really, really like to bake. It’s easy to put yourself in their shoes. And you know what they want: a good bake. In a story, the main character always wants something, and that want sets up the conflict or the challenge to be overcome. In Bake Off the bakers want to get through to the next week, or getting Star Baker, or even just getting through the technical without the top half of your cottage loaf sliding off.
Also, watching what the show highlights to make them charming reveals a lot about how to develop a good character. For example, one of the previous winners, Nadiya, had a habit of making quirky, over-the-top facial expressions when the bake didn’t quite go her way. Another baker from an earlier season, Richard, always kept a pencil tucked behind his ear, a habit gained from his career as a builder. Little details like this are what helps a character come to life.
The characters and the conflicts wouldn’t work half as well, though, without the Bake Off challenges to structure everything.
Bake Off is comfortingly consistent week to week: three challenges, the signature, the technical, and the showstopper, all sharing a common theme around a type of baked good. It’s a formula, sure, but it doesn’t feel formulaic. Within the larger structure of the show, the individual bakes provide enough variety to keep it feeling fresh each time, but you still know what to expect. In a story, knowing how to use narrative structure makes the tale work for the reader. It seems counterintuitive to think that a “formula” might make a story better, but the deeper I get into learning about craft, the more I realize how necessary it is. You need to set up what’s normal, then you need to break out of that normal; you need a conflict to overcome, a lesson to be learned, growth to happen. These and other structural elements might not be as telegraphed as the three challenges in Bake Off are, but without them, the reader is left to flounder like bakers following a particularly sparse technical recipe.
Finally, I think one of the most important things I’ve learned from Bake Off is that small conflicts, earnest characters, and comforting structure can still address big issues.
Bake Off doesn’t mention things like Brexit, or nationalism, or prejudice. But neither does it shy away from including bakers of minority or marginalized backgrounds. People of color, immigrants, gay/lesbian—none of these things are made into Issues of the Week, but they are not glossed over, either. The bakers’ backgrounds are part of the show and part of the bakes they make. No matter their backgrounds, they’re all British bakers.
As we try and make a better world, we need big discussions and movements and protest. But we need these smaller, quieter moments, too, where people are shown as just people no matter who they are.
As a creator, it’s my responsibility to remember this and bring it into my work. I’ll surely make mistakes along the way, of course. But like on Bake Off, if your dough doesn’t turn out right at first, make it again. It’ll be better the second time around.