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.