Tuesday, October 09, 2007

plot or style?

This discussion came up on TheBookBook and I'm poaching it here.

The ideal book is amazingly written and has a great plot. But say you can only have one or the other--which would you have? Are you more likely to give up on a book if the writing sucks or if the the plot isn't interesting?

An informal poll.

23 comments:

angelle said...

Okay, this is going to seem weird, coming from me, because I hold books with wonderful style to high esteem (and Remains of the Day is also among one of my favorites) but for me if I had to choose, I'd choose plot over style. I mean someone may write incredibly beautifully, make profound statements about, say, a toenail. But I'm sorry, that toenail may not be as interesting as something with a plot. Of course style, poetics, rhythm, lyricism to me are the most important elements of what elevates ho-hum writing to awesome writing. And quite honestly, if someone told me such-and-such book was awesome and a must-read bc of the style, then I'd probably pick it up because I'm a crazy book person like that. But I zipped through Da Vinci Code like everyone else, and it was written with a good enough grasp of the English language that it didn't jar me. I flew through it anyway and enjoyed myself. It was no masterpiece, but I didn't leave the book thinking I'd wasted my time.

I'm also a lazy reader. I think this is important in factoring into what I look for. I think I've told you this before, but I read for plot the first time around. I tend to skip lengthy passages of description because I just want to know what happens (ironic because I have been complimented by teachers for my attention to detail and descriptions in my own writing, not so much on dialogue). If I liked a book enough, I'll go back for a slow, careful reread. But it's just that I'm a little bit of a skimmer, a fast-reader. If there isn't enough plot to keep me boring, the only reason I end up working through the book is because of my own persistence and "reading-ethic" I suppose. It pays off usually - and I usually don't regret having pushed myself (this is what Melanie doesn't understand), but the fact remains that it was a much more tedious effort than if it had contained a better plot to begin with.

Woo lengthy.

angelle said...

"enough plot to keep me from being bored" is what i met. god, "plot to keep me boring"..... i mean that too. i stay in and read so often that maybe my friends don't find my company entertaining anymore.

David L. McAfee said...

Clarification request:

In this instance, does "poor" writing mean anything that isn't literary?

Church Lady said...

I know this isn't fair, but I can't separate the two. Miss Snark said once that there are basically six plots. Total. So how you craft one of these six plots is your style. But how can you separate the two, without sounding like a stream of consciousness (is that spelled correctly?)

Anyway, sorry I can't choose! :-(

moonrat said...

david--no. there are extremely well-written commercial books. it just means that the writer is talented and that there is some artistry about the prose (as opposed to workmanlike or bad prose). i'm not a literary reader; in fact, my taste tends toward slightly lighter fare.

church lady--fair enough!

David L. McAfee said...

Ok, moonrat. Just for the record, I hope that question didn't come across as sarcastic. It truly wasn't. I just wanted to make sure we weren't talking about the diff between literary and commercial.

That said, it's very, very hard to get through a book that has a great plot and poor writing. A good example (for me) is Natural Selection by Dave Freeman. Excellent plot, but I felt I had to drag myself from page to page to get to the good parts.

BUT, as angelle noted, you can wax poetic about a tonail for 200 pages and the writing could be brilliant and flow magically from one sentence to the next...but you are still reading about a toenail.

If I absolutely HAD to pick, I would choose plot. But even the greatest plots are ruined by poor writing.

angelle said...

david - totally. i mean quite honestly, a writer could have the most BRILLIANT PLOT EVER but if he's writing with the eptitude of a 5 year old for whom english is a second language, nothing will save it. i'd just be kind of mad that such a great plot was wasted. and then probably try to steal it (muahahaha).

but as long as the writing is you know, readable, mediocre, even if it is riddled with adverbs, i think a brilliant plot will save it.

Anonymous said...

The writing...each and every time. Bad writing does nothing for me. I don't care how cool the plot seems. If the writing sucks, I won't get past page one to find out how good the plot is.

Good writing does not necessarily mean literary writing, by the way. I've read books that don't have the most original plots in the world, but they are elevated by dialogue, character, description.

"The DaVinci Code" drove me nuts because the writing was so lackluster...and, personally, I did not think the plot was all that fabulous. And part of that reason was *because* there was hardly any character development.

Sadly, it seems that majority of readers prefer plot over writing...

Live@theGrouchoClub said...

This may make me sound like a post-modernist loser, but I find the concept of plot kind of silly. It's all about the voice for me...and the characters. I like to be oblvious to the fact that there is some kind of plot, and then, to sort of be awakened to it when the climax hits.

angelle said...

you know the funny thing is, as a writer, i'm def more character focused than plot focused. i have a hard time with plot, but i find i really enjoy characters and diving deep with them.

although, if i think about it, character focus doesn't necessarily mean lack of plot.. it just means the plot is inwardly focused as opposed to externally i guess.

i don't know where i'm going with this. i just wanted to speak on character development and the fact that even though i suck at huge plot driven writing (and will never pull of a thriller or mystery, alas), somehow i appreciate plot as a reader, even id like to become more of a stylist as a writer.

hrm. okay.

Conduit said...

I spent some time trying to think of a book I really like that's one or the other, and I'm coming up short. When I think I've got one, and I think a bit harder, I realise I'm wrong. I'll give an example...

One of my favourite novels ever is Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis, a gangster story set in the north of England written in the late sixties. It was filmed as Get Carter, now considered a British classic, and not to be confused with the dreadful Sly Stallone remake.

Anyway, as you first start reading it, the first person narrative seems poorly written, with blunt, artless sentences and little in the way of imagery or metaphor. As the plot sucks you in, something becomes clear about the writing, and its apparent lack of grace. The first person prose is firmly in the voice of an uneducated but street-smart thug who sees every person he meets as someone to be bullied and coerced into giving him what he wants. He thinks and speaks with his fists. The author does an incredible job of portraying the inner world of a violent criminal that the brutal, uncompromising language starts to take on a kind of poetry. As bizarre as it seems, as the novel progresses, mindless acts of thuggery become strangley beautiful expressions of a violent man's own torments.

To get to the point, sometimes good writing isn't obvious. It doesn't draw attention to itself. Well constructed prose is wasted if it doesn't serve story (and I use the word story, rather than plot, deliberately as a nod to Robert McKee). Too often in critique circles we see story lost behind over-cooked prose, which I personally think is a greater evil than vanilla writing.

But, ultimately, I feel writing and plot go hand-in-hand to serve story, and one side of the arch can't stand without the other.

Maprilynne said...

Plot.

I adore a well-written book. But what I read most often are plot-driven books. I mostly read for entertainment and plot is more entertaining.

Ello said...

I'm very superficial I guess but give me plot over beautiful words any day. I'll read See Spot run again before some high falutin' literary high brow treatise that uses words banned for being archaic.

Nubia said...

I would have to say plot--if the plot isn't original, interesting, or engaging, then it doesn't matter if you're a good writer or not--at least, if you are basing your success on book sales...

moonrat said...

it's true about the book sales--from an editorial point of view, a good plot is absolutely indispensable (to quote Mrs. Austen).

Froog said...

I am the kind of super-idealist who tries to insist on both.

I don't generally even start to read a book unless I think the quality of the writing is good (I'm a great believer in skimming one or two random pages before deciding to start a book).

If the plot is lousy, or non-existent, or the writing isn't as good as I thought, I will sometimes abandon a book part-way through.

Between the two, though, plot is relatively less important. A really well-written book can carry you along with the beauty of its language and its ideas, even if it is almost completely uneventful.

The Anti-Wife said...

Both offenses have caused me to put a book into my pile of those that lost me halfway through. They are quickly donated.

pacatrue said...

I guess I have to jump on the plot bandwagon. To decide, I was recalling reading Toni Morrison's Beloved several years ago. I distinctly remember in just the first few pages of that book thinking, "this is the most amazing, beautiful prose I've ever read in my life," and yet I never finished it. Apparently, something just didn't hook me despite the great writing. (I very much liked Sula though....) And yet I've finished several silly adventure thrillers with pedestrian writing at best. So, I have to answer plot.

What's hard about the question is that a plot can only be a good one if it is written well.

Demon Hunter said...

The writing has to be on point, or I stop reading. I'd prefer both, but if that writing is horrid---er, no.

Amy said...

The general populus seems to go for plot. An example: Harry Potter. I adore the series, but when you get past the plot and actually focus on the quality of the writing, it's not beautiful or lyrical or even always grammatical. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands of fans who devoured each and every volume and clamored for more. Including me.

moonrat said...

and me.

x@y said...

Plot if I have to choose. Often an idea beautifully observed or a place/person described up off the page will be what I will remember about a book, make me smile, transport me.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

I'm more likely to leave a book over poor writing. Plot may save itself by the end but if I can't stand looking at the page because the writing is terrible, I chuck the book.

That has only happened once in the last year or so, and I read about 2 books a week. I tend to be a forgiving reader, but that one just bugged me from page one.