Thursday, January 15, 2009

Plot, Not Prose

The first time I heard the phrase "plot, not prose" was when I was trying to sell my first novel (unsuccessfully ... and for good reason). It was the first "Aha!" moment for me in my thinking about plots.

The next "Aha!" moment came when I was reading The DaVinci Code. I know a lot of people trash the book, and I get it: the characterization wasn't great, the motives were unbelievable, some of the key developments were predictable, and the writing was uninspired. But I will go to my grave defending the plotting of that book. It was a beautifully constructed thriller, where one piece clicked into the next, into the next, into the next. And lest anyone thinks the book was all hook, Dan Brown got sued (although he won) by another author who had basically proposed his EXACT hook 30 years before. It wasn't original at all. 

Personally, I don't really want to write the next DaVinci Code. It's just not in my genes to write a book like that. But that book did affect me. It turned me into an outliner. It made me believe that good plots don't happen by accident, that you can't stumble your way into a complex story. It can only happen on purpose. And furthermore, it showed me that people LOVE well-plotted books. The fact that so many millions were able to forgive the DaVinci Code its flaws and still buy it said something.

So this is why, when I'm editing my own work, I'm always asking, "How does this relate to my story? Will this matter later?" 

If the answers are "It doesn't" and "No," then buh-buy, it's getting cut. 


Jude Hardin said...

I'm not quite sure what you mean by Plot, Not Prose.

Does it mean any verbiage that doesn't move the story forward should get the axe?

LurkerMonkey said...

In the context I heard it, the editor (a diff. one than the theme editor) meant that a good plot is more important than good prose. The message was to concentrate less on the words themselves, less on pretty constructions, and more on the plot.

Jude Hardin said...

...a good plot is more important than good prose.

Hmm. From a marketing standpoint, that's probably true.

From an artistic standpoint, well...

As a reader, I appreciate both equally. In fact, if I open a book and determine the prose to be crappy, I won't buy it, no matter how great the plot is supposed to be. But that's just me. I realize most readers probably aren't that discriminating.

As a writer, I treat both with equal respect, I think. Yes, we write stories (i.e. plots), but language is our mode of expression as artists, and I think it deserves an equal amount of attention.

I think I know what that editor was getting at, though: a great plot written poorly will sell faster than a poor plot written...greatly.

LurkerMonkey said...

A great plot written poorly will sell faster than a poor plot written...greatly.


Personally, I'm a writer's reader. I like the writerly types, and I'm passionate about good prose. Pretty much all of my favorite books and writers are widely praised for the quality of their prose rather than their plot structures. But then again, most of my favorite books were written decades or even centuries ago.

But I understand the world has changed. As Mark Terry frequently says, we're competing with all kinds of entertainment. So I think, like you say, it's a marketing thing. They need books that are easy, quick and engaging. If we want to sell, we will write those books.

But this doesn't really bother me. The whole "art" thing is fine, except when it's not. I have no problem working within existing market parameters -- it only sharpens the challenge of writing a good book if you can't really color outside the lines.

Jude Hardin said...

My point though, Jon, is that I think it's possible to work within existing marketing parameters and write stellar prose at the same time.

An even sharper challenge, if you will.

LurkerMonkey said...

Um, no offense, but ...

It's also possible to write incredible characterizations, sweeping and lyrical settings, and historically resonant themes. Combined with multilayered, technically perfect plots and the prose of a poet. I mean, Tolstoy did it, right? In Russian (and French), no less! No biggie.

The point in this case is that the market is looking for plotted books over purpled books. It has nothing to do with what it theoretically possible, but what the market is looking for at the moment and what to look out for and work on as a writer.

Jude Hardin said...

Purple prose is the worst. I'm pretty sure we can agree on that.

I'm talking about writers like James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane and a handful of other contemporaries who manage to do some very interesting things with language and produce page-turning plots at the same time.

Not saying I even come close, but those are the writers I would like to emulate.

Mark Terry said...

I was going to ask for examples, but Jude gave JLB and DL. I haven't noticed DL's prose much, but JLB swept me away for a long time until I started to get the feeling he was writing the same book over and over again.

As for Da Vinci Code, not just plot, but pacing. And by pacing, I mean the DVC is a prime example of great fast pacing, where incident after incident occurs and the timing and intensity of each of those incidents works perfectly. That's a real art and involves more than just dumping in tons of incidents. It means that Dan Brown probably has a terrific gut feeling about when the story lags and just how to make it pick up the pace again.

Two other notes about DVC, both of which come from my brother. One is he actually had read the NF book DB was supposed to have plagiarized and he noted that the primary difference was Brown's book was entertaining the nonfiction book was boring.

He also noted when he spent time in Europe that he visited several Templar fortresses and suggested that based on their size and the sheer number of them between Europe and Jerusalem, the Templars were probably way too busy building castles to both with secret brotherhoods trying to hide holy grails.

LurkerMonkey said...


Totally. That was the other thing I got out of DVC ... that sense of pacing is impeccable. I wish I could pace like that.

But you mean to say it's not true? WTF?! Damn that Dan Brown and his trickery! (j/k)

I don't know that there's actually any disagreement, Jude. I think the deal is that every person has a different learning curve to come up. This is mine. I'm sure yours involves different questions, different issues -- an entirely different set of neuroses.

The reason I started blogging, and the reason I started following blogs, is because I realized there was a massive conversation going on all the time about writing. And I think there's a tremendous amount to be learned about craft from the experience of other writers.

Jude Hardin said...


Dan Brown was sued for plagiarizing a novel, too, The Da Vinci Legacy by Lewis Perdue, published in the 80s I think.

Brown's book became a publishing phenomenon for a lot of reasons, most of which Brown himself had nothing to do with. I never read the book, but I fell asleep during the movie. That's how engaging the plot was to me.

Jude Hardin said...


I wouldn't be surprized if we shared some of the same neuroses.


Erica Orloff said...

Don't you think it's kind of ridiculous to say you fell asleep in the movie so therefore you can even comment on the plot of the book. Most people who were fans of the book weren't fans of the movie.


Jude Hardin said...

I thought about that after I wrote it, Erica. You're absolutely right, apples and oranges...

In an earlier comment, I wrote, ...if I open a book and determine the prose to be crappy, I won't buy it, no matter how great the plot is supposed to be.

The Da Vinci Code was one of those books. I gave it one chapter and had to put it down. Then again, I might have been prejudiced from all the hype and the negative feedback from other writers. Maybe I should give it another try for a lesson in plotting and pacing. At any rate, I was wrong to comment about the book based on the movie.

spyscribbler said...

I hated the way The DaVinci Code was written. The flashbacks irked me to no end, because I'd be in one room, and suddenly Mary and Joseph would be there, and I'd be confused, and then have to go back and figure out where the flashback started. They were terribly awkward.

That said, the plotting was brilliant. The book was unputdownable, for me.

A great story told badly is still a great story. A boring story told beautifully is still a boring story. And it's all about the story; these two things are not equal elements.

Plot has suspense; beautiful words do not. Plot inspires us to read faster so we can find out what happens; beautiful prose does not. The purpose of story is to tell a story, not to have tell someone a collection of beautiful words.

Jude Hardin said...

As a reader, I need both. Life's too short to spend much time on clunky, cliche-ridden prose, no matter how exciting the plot is, just as it's too short for boring stories no matter how beautiful the language.

I want a compelling story that's also well-written. It's what I demand as a consumer and what I strive for as an artist.