05 August, 2010

Dana's Dojo: Is the Plot Really The Thing?

A long, long time ago in a website far, far away, I used to run a regular feature called "Dana's Dojo."  I filled it with my own articles on the art and craft of storytelling.  Some people even claimed they found those articles useful.  Ye Olde Website is sadly deceased now, but the nice thing about the intertoobz is that resurrection is always an option.  So on Wednesdays regularly, I'll be reposting some of that old content, and mebbe even coming up with a few new dojo articles.  Enjoy!

Lately, Dana Hunter has been one pissed-off writer.  It's that delicious, righteous rage that comes from being really angry over my favorite subject: fiction writing.  Why am I angry, you ask?  Because there's been so much drivel and tripe lately.  Crap books and arguments over good writing vs. plot.  Thankfully (or maybe not - after all, there's nothing I love more than a really good war over words), I have not been personally party to many of these discussions that so enraged my fellow writers that they in turn enraged me.  But I have certainly suffered from some awful writing, and I'm gods-damned angry over it.  Deliciously so.

The roaring sound you hear is Dana simultaneously pulling out her Weedwhacker of Doom and her Chainsaw of Truth and getting ready to clear the way and cut to the chase.

And the kind of gloopy sound before it was me putting my brush in the warpaint.  In case you were wondering.  But were I you, I'd focus on the instruments of mayhem rather than the paint.

Oh, yes, my darlings, I am on the warpath.  And if you can imagine a skinny-ass woman with a chainsaw in one hand and a weedeater in the other, face painted in a grotesque battle mask, running screaming at the people arguing about all the wrong things when it comes to this business of writing, by all means do so now.

It's not like fighting this battle, even winning it, will solve the age-old argument of plot vs. good writing, but I damned sure aim to clear it up for now.  Because I personally find it ridiculous.  There should be no question: both are absolutely essential if you want to tell a ripping good story.  All right?  That simple.  And I will tell you why I sweat and labor over each and every detail of my writing: because I want to tell the very best story I can, plot and prose all inclusive.

I decided this by reading the masters of my genre.  I've plodded through a lot of crap books to find the jewels among the dross.  Every book that has ever stayed with me has not sacrificed one for the other.  The authors I adore write like angels (or demons) and plot so tightly you can't measure the gaps in nanometers.  In point of fact, I don't even notice how gorgeous the writing is because I'm so swept up in the story, in what happens next.  It's only when I reread the book several times that I can tease out all of the fantastic devices they've used to make the words flow like swift streams.  Their writing may be gritty or it might be lyrical, but my friends, music is no less music for being heavy metal or opera.  It's not the tone they take, but the depth and richness of their prose, that matters.  They have all of the elements down: plot, theme, setting, dialogue, style....  And if they have weaknesses, they de-emphasize those weaknesses by really focusing on their strengths, so that you'd never notice there's a weak point there.

All right?  That's the only kind of writer to want to become, one who is so good all round that people have no choice but to bestow awards upon you and tell you how incredible you are.


You will have noticed that many, many books out there do not adhere to this rule.  This is because not all writers are destined to become great ones.  The best of them admit it, like Stephen King, who enjoys telling people he's the Big Mac of the literary world.  If this is what you want to become, what the crap are you wasting your time trying to disguise yourself as filet mignon for?  Admit you're a fast food hamburger and take pride in feeding people the junk food they crave.  Damn it.  It's not all about genius and style and such, it's about entertaining people. 

I've named my chainsaw Occam.  You'll see why in just a moment, after I've stopped your screaming.  I can hear it from here, even over the roar of these two landscaping implements: "But Dana, I don't want to be the Big Mac of the writing world!  I want to write really good stories.  Shouldn't the power and beauty of my prose count more than plot?"


Just that.  No.  It shouldn't. It doesn't.  And it never will, except in rarified circles.  In point of fact, only those people I'd dearly love to beat about the legs with the weedwhacker and menace with the chainsaw believe that the excellence of one's prose means more than the power of one's plot.

Enter Occam.  I've named him for Occam's Razor.  For those not versed in scientific terms, Occam's Razor is a theoretical tool developed, strangely enough, by a man named Occam, who proposed that when faced with two theories that explain all of the known facts equally well, one should choose the simplest one.  It's quite useful for lopping off pretentious crap and getting to the truth. 

I shall now take dear Occam to the theories sitting on the table.  That plopping sound you hear is the idea that good writing should trump good plot falling gracelessly to the floor.

And there is a simple reason for this.

People like good stories.  They care not one whit for perfection in the telling as long as the story itself was interesting and entertained them.

How else do you explain the wild popularity of Star Wars, for fuck's sake?

Why Occam has shaved off the bit about good writing is this: if a person has to be highly educated to appreciate what the author was trying to do, that's not simple.  Plot trumps good writing because it's simple to understand and appreciate.  Good plot is good storytelling.  It sucks the reader in and forces them to continue, even in the face of more pressing real-world concerns such as fighting children and having to rest up for the day's work and dinner and video games and all that.

If you are writing for a wider audience than the navel-gazing literati, then you absolutely must - no compromise here, don't argue with me - you absolutely must learn how to plot your stories exceptionally well.  Then and only then will the average reader stay with you long enough to learn to appreciate the quality of your prose.

I have never once had the average Joe or Jane come up to me and say of a book they just read, "Wow.  You know, nothing happened in this book, but the style (or alliteration, or onomontopeia, or what have you) was so wonderful I didn't care!"

You wonder why books with horrible dialogue and stunted style and all sorts of other literary sins fly off the shelves?  Because the author had a compelling plot.  And that's why much better quality books stay on the shelves and eventually sell in the hundreds and get put in the bargain bins or shipped back to the publisher, there to sit gathering dust while the author looks at his or her award for sparkling prose and wonders why the hell no one outside of the judges thought it worth two shillings and a shrivelled apple.

Look at it this way: People want a tune they can dance to.  They don't want to have to take music appreciation courses in order to understand the brilliance of a piece.  That said, the bands that endure past the one-hit wonders offer something more than a good beat you can snap your fingers to.  And I guarantee you, these books that sell in the millions only because they tell a story people felt like reading today but offered nothing but a fast-paced plot will be forgotten.  Books that offered both a compelling plot and quality writing will survive.  But the scales are weighted in favor of plot, my darlings.  Very few books achieve immortality by a decent plot but really incredible execution of the other elements of fiction.

So what does that mean for us?

It means, first and foremost, do not fall under a literary spell and start believing that style is everything.

Jim must be quoted here.  He pointed up the major weakness of colleges: "At the end of the day, creative writing classes, professors, etc. are looking for the new style monster, not the new content monster.  They want the new Joyce, Salinger, Hemmingway, etc. to redefine writing."  Looking for the new "style monster" sounds fine and admirable, but loses sight of the fact that this is not what the audience is looking for.  The audience is after content, not style.  The moment we forget that, we fail them.

And we risk running into Jane, editor of a literary magazine, who requires all submitters to the magazine to discuss what they think the new style of the now will be - and then rejects anyone who can make a guess.

Do you know what she's saying here, folks?  Even in a literary magazine, do not sacrifice content for style.

There's too much talk of style.  It muddies the waters, makes us believe it's more important than it really is.  Some authors are masters of style, they create something truly new and unique, and yet the ones who have done that did not sit down with that intent.  They sat down to tell a story in the way they would like to see a story told.

Style is something that happens, is my belief.  It happens in the course of writing.  We are all unique human beings, and as we write, that uniqueness comes through and becomes our style.  We shouldn't worry overmuch if it's a style that will take the world by storm or not.  As long as the readers enjoy it, who cares?  Outside of the literati, of course.

So with style out of the way, because it will take care of itself, let's move on to what we really need to be concerned with.  What do the readers really want and need?

Characterization.  No one will ever like a story if they don't like the story's people.  And you know what I mean by like.  It means either admire or hate so much they love them.  You've got to create interesting people and make people care about them.

Dialogue.  Let us not get into a discussion about George Lucas's tin ear, except to say that if he could write dialogue better, the Star Wars movies would be far, far better than they are.  If you have a tin ear, limit your dialogue.  That simple.  Thank you, Occam.

Setting.  Readers like to experience the world the characters are in.  Truly great writers create settings so vivid you're right there with the characters, and they make that setting work almost as a character in its own right.

Description.  Again, putting the reader there is important.  Some writers get away with a little, some with a lot.  It doesn't matter if you're a sketcher or a painter, as long as the reader gets enough to experience the story.

Mood and Atmosphere.  "The Fall of the House of Usher", anyone?  This is a nebulous thing, but essential to the experience.  Think of it as the HD of the literary world.  The mood and atmosphere, whether dark or light, tragic or absurd, act like amplifiers on the plot and characters and settings.

Theme.  Good vs. Evil.  Love vs. Hate.  War vs. Peace.  What are you trying to say within those things?  Figure out the theme and let it guide you, but for gods' sake, do not belabor it.  It's just there to underscore the plot, really.  And it's something people adore as much as plot and characters.  Half the time, it's what they mean when they think they're discussing plot.

These are the jewels in your crown.  Yes, of course, you want to use all of the other tricks in the grabbag, where appropriate: similie and metaphor, alliteration, onomontopeia, all that rot.  I fully believe in storytelling as a craft, which means the right words in the right place at the right pace and exactly the right time.  And if you think nobody cares about language anymore, just listen to a group of rabid Tolkien fans swooning over how epic and graceful his language is.  Even the average Jane or Joe can tell the difference between a hack and a master.  It's just that the master's going to get short shrift if s/he can't keep them entertained with more than pretty words.

So, does plot matter more than good writing?  You bet it does.  But that's no damned reason to sacrifice good writing.  Good writing does matter.  It's as essential to prose as proper costuming and set-dressing are to movies.  Don't let the bestseller lists fool you: Joe and Jane would love more quality books out there.  I've heard them complaining about wooden prose, but what can they do? 

Turn to us, is what, because we are simply going to blow them away with incredible plot and prose.  We will start a whole new movement in writing, because we're going to stubbornly answer "both" whenever somebody asks us whether plot or prose are more important.

And now, my arms are tired, Occam's almost out of fuel, the little plastic wire thingy on the whacker is frayed from beating against literati legs, and my warpaint's running, so I'm going to leave it at that for now. 


Cujo359 said...

I think you're selling good writing short, at least to this extent - if the writing is unclear or, worse yet, too wordy and bogged down in unnecessary detail, folks won't be inclined to read. Stephen King, while not all that good at characters IMHO, is able to do that. The prose gets you through the plot with minimal drag.

Having read any number of articles and papers that deal with potentially fascinating subjects that weren't written worth a shit, perhaps mine is an odd perspective, but I've given up on a lot of them just because they were so badly written that I couldn't figure out what the authors meant. Maybe that's not what you mean by "writing", but it's important, because usually only the author knows exactly what he means.

So, to me, it's not a dichotomy.

Anonymous said...

Agree on the clear writing comment, Cujo - if you are reading technical material or nonfiction. I tried to read Stephen King novels. Could not. I don't need the emotional stimulation that comes from invoking terror through horror storytelling.

Your singular duty in writing is to identify the reason for putting pen to paper. What is your point, the object message you seek to convey and convince your audience that it's worth their time, effort and money to explore? Theme is a more general classification of the type of point you are attempting to deliver in your writing.

Next, identify your audience type. Will it be narrow focus, or are you attempting to address a wide swath of reader types? This is where you snare your audience, in that they identify (empathize or sympathize) with your take-home message, hopefully in sync with cultural values conveyed, and through the experiential learning (the lesson derived from your message or point) of your central character(s).

From there, you can map out a bare bones plot that *stays true* to your intended point, with respect to the targeted audience.

The rest falls into the window-dressing continuum of writing experience and storytelling skills - if you are writing fiction or historical nonfiction, where filling in fact gaps requires weaving clever conjecture to make for whole-cloth presentation of an important event or set of characters for a set time and place. The better writers are economical in their descriptions.

If you are writing fiction that teaches and informs by virtual experience, then you have to be a bit more careful in the construction of characters and voice, settings that define atmosphere, as it can make or break your book.

People read print material for an variety of reasons. That helps you refine your point/message to fit the intentions of your audience.

I couldn't read SK because his writing was 'popular', eg, having relatively simple and (for me) gratuitous objective. Since I didn't readily identify his objective with my needs, I couldn't find much value in his books, despite their enormous popularity.