Thursday, September 01, 2011

How Do You Feel About Plot?

After a terrific session at the Writers' Festival on plotting in the crime novel (see previous post), I was a bit astonished to see a report of another session in which Kate Grenville apparently said plot is the last resort of the mediocre writer (and cited Stephen King's On Writing to back up this statement). How intriguing, I thought. My first thought was: surely Stephen King didn't actually say this. So I went looking along my shelves and found that what he did say was this -
Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.

He actually talks about stories in that chapter, and says he believes that they are like fossils that you dig carefully out of the ground with a variety of tools. He likened plot to a jackhammer. For someone who was criticised for many years as being a hack genre writer, he obviously doesn't equate genre with plotting. And yet this is the literary writer's first attack weapon - genre writers rely too much on plot.

It all seems to me like another writing furphy. Tack it up there along with "writing courses are a waste of time" and "the only decent poetry is rhyming poetry" and "literary novels don't have plots". Really, it's just opinion, isn't it? Everyone writes differently. Some writers, like Jeffrey Deaver, are known for creating 150 page outlines for their novels. Other writers, both genre and literary, start with an idea or situation and fly by the seat of their pants.

I guess I would just like people like Kate Grenville to acknowledge that their way is only one way. Theirs is an opinion, that's all. So having said that, what do you think about plot?


Mike said...

Sheryl, that's a nice piece of research. Nothing like going to the source. I mean, all novels *have* a plot, a story you can trace, name, describe. Is it a question of how much plot leads character/language/mood? James Ellroy at his best has plot by the truckload, but you geta certain kind of literary style besides. Dickens, there's a writer who wasn't shy of plot.

I do agree though that plot for plot sake can be quite tedious.

But otherwise, file this one under 'furphy'.

Sherryl said...

Sometimes I wonder if things come out of people's mouths that they didn't mean to say, or that they should qualify with "this is how I do it"!
I heard Felix Palma speak today and he said he plots his novels quite meticulously because they involve time travel and he needs to get it to work properly/logically.

Toni said...

Hi, I agree with you that writers - even very successful ones - need to acknowledge that they are giving opinions not absolute truths. Just as different writers work in different ways, readers have different expectations and preferences.

Some readers prefer page turners with rollicking complicated plots. Some enjoy character-driven explorations of time and place. What makes one preference more valid than the other?

Sherryl said...

Yes, everyone does it differently! You only have to read some of the Paris Review interviews to see that, don't you?

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