What's more important, plot or great prose?

What makes a great book?

My Best Beloved was recently at an insurance industry conference, from where he sent me an email saying he was in the midst of a discussion with an associate about literature.

I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to think of business folk taking a break from discussions of annuities and risk prevention to query the finer points of fiction.

In the course of the conversation the associate apparently asked My Best Beloved to ask me which I thought was more important–a great plot or fabulous word craft.

Here’s my answer:

This is a complicated question.  Allow me to refer to a story a fellow writer once told me.  One of her students handed in her manuscript.  The first 40 pages were a vivid, precise, elegant description of rocks in a desert.  On page 41, a figure walked across the desert into the 'frame' of the narrative.  "Ah," my friend said to her student, crossing out the first 40 pages, "your story begins here, on p. 41, when something happens."

By that measure, plot trumps beautiful writing, since all the mouth-feel in the world will not keep a reader reading if they are not engaged.  But notice that what happened was not a wind storm, or an earthquake, or the change of seasons, or the approach of night.  What happened involved a person; a character.  Robert Olen Butler says, "Fiction is the art form of human yearning."  HUMAN.  Which means someone must want something (something that is worth yearning for).  You must have the human heart first, and then something must happen to that human and his or her heart. The character must be thwarted in his or her desire in one way or another.  That is story.

But what separates story from plot?  Well, a story is a series of events, told in chronological order.  First one thing happens, and then another. The king died, and then the queen died.  But a plot is (as E.M. Forster said):  The king died and the queen then died of grief.  In story, you ask, "What happened next?" With plot, you ask, "Why?"

And the truth of the matter is you cannot write a fascinating character, fully human in all the  complications, strengths and frailties that implies; and you certainly cannot plot the journey of their yearning, with bad writing.  It simply cannot be done.  But that doesn't necessarily mean flowery, poetic, lyrical prose; it means precise, accurate, elegant prose.  Prose which effectively communicates a character's world and his or her experience in that world.  Anything less confuses the reader, leaves them unsatisfied, frustrated, unmoved (the greatest sin of all) and unlikely to finish the book.

Character, plot and prose are three strands of the same braid.

Did I answer My Best Beloved’s question? Well not, exactly, but then again, I’m not sure it was one that could, or should be answered, as phrased.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the issue.

Copyright 2011 Lauren B. Davis For permissions: laurenbdavis.iCopyright.com


  1. dawn on May 11, 2011 at 7:11 am

    Clearly character, plot and prose are three strands of the same braid.

    However, as Ron has discovered, in this conversation, every reader
    has preferences for one or the other of these. And every writer has
    their own preferences or strengths for one of the other of these. A
    piece completely lacking in one or the other will fail to satisfy, but
    most of us will tolerate weaknesses in one area if the strengths
    match our own tastes.

    I, for example, tend not to mind prose weakness if the characters
    intrigue me, and get very agitated by implausible characters in the
    face of lovely prose. As a matter of fact (I am ashamed to say it) I
    tend not to notice prose quality, at all, unless I am explicitly
    looking for it (as in the case of reviewing pieces for the workshop)
    or unless it is particularly good or spectacularly bad. Characters,
    on the other hand, are what hit me in any piece, and my favorite
    pieces and authors are those who can make me look at the world
    differently through another person’s eyes (even if that person is
    “bad”). And I absolutely detest some very, very, very popular classics,
    (the Odyssey comes to mind) mainly because I don’t find the
    characters compelling. But that’s me.

    • Lauren B. Davis on May 11, 2011 at 7:50 am

      Dawn, as you know, I’m a character-driven writer myself, so I understand completely what you’re saying. Plot flows out of character, and language should be at the service of character.

  2. Lucky8 on May 11, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Lauren and Dawn, when considering writing that fully engages me, it tends to be when characters are fully formed and interesting. Great prose writing by itself does nothing for me. Thanks so much for this inpsiring essay and the opportunity to share views on the subject.

  3. Linda C. Wisniewski on May 11, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    On the other hand, Vivian Gornick says, in “The Situation and the Story,” that ‘every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context of circumstance, sometimes the plot’ the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” In memoir, the transformation of the narrator is the story. The situation/circumstances/setting in which this happens is the plot. I think. Whew. A bit confusing. Maybe it’s the terminology that has me in a twist.

    • Lauren B. Davis on May 11, 2011 at 3:01 pm

      Linda — yes, and of course, what’s Gornick is saying is that whatever happens must happen to someONE and how the events contained within the memoir’s scope transform the narrator is the plot’s arc.

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