This is a topic which almost always ends with me up on my high horse, so it’s going to take all of my self-restraint to keep myself from going off on a rant here. At university, I was lucky enough to study a course in creative writing. It’s not the best degree for crowbarring your way into employment, I’ll admit (although somehow I managed it anyway), but the subject was a real passion of mine. I couldn’t wait to start creating breath-taking plots with ingenious twists that would leave readers turning the pages until the small hours of the morning. I was in for a shock. One of the first things I was told when I started was “Forget about plot. All that matters is the quality of your prose.” This was the world of literary fiction that I spent several years struggling to resist.
But after leaving university, I moved back to commercial fiction, where my mentors told me “Plot is what matters. If you have an interesting story, your prose barely need to be adequate.” What?? I was torn – who was right? It turns out, neither of them. I’ve read some truly awful stories on both extremes; a renowned literary short where the only plot was a kid walking from one end of a swimming pool to the other, and a blockbuster novel where the author describes the protagonist’s schedule without noticing that it totals a 36 hour day. You need a mix of engaging plot and quality prose to make a truly great piece. One without the other will leave you with glaring holes.
My first love in writing has always been in the story itself. A story without a plot is like modern art, shutter shades or those little glass sweets that old ladies always keep in a bowl on their mantelpiece. Sure, it looks nice, but what’s the point? I know there will be fans of literary fiction out there grinding their teeth in anger at this, but I’m absolutely adamant; if you have no plot, why would your audience be compelled to read any further?
A blog post isn’t nearly long enough to list all the benefits of an imaginative plot, but there are a few things they provide which you won’t be able to conjure up in any other way. For a start, it gives your manuscript a direction. Without a story, your work may as well be abstract poetry – a collection of aimless paragraphs without a purpose. And plots almost always provide the premise; the unique angle that defines your work.
As much as I’m sick of prose after university, I have to admit, they’re pretty darn essential. You could have the makings of a classic, but if you write it like a five year old who’s just drunk 10 cans of cola, no one’s going to be interested. Your plot is the skeleton of your manuscript, but you need to flesh it out with well-written prose that will help your reader to visualise and engage with the world of your novel. Good prose turn your characters from stick figures into real people and your setting from a cardboard cut-out to a vibrant reality. And, what’s more, if you fail to give this element the attention it needs, you could have the opposite impact on your readers. I’ve read books in the past where I’ve grown to hate the protagonist just on the basis of how poorly written they were.
No one is going to be able to write the perfect plot in impeccable prose, but your best course of action is to split your efforts fairly evenly between the two. Readers will always notice your mistakes first and your successes second, so don’t let either of these elements slip in quality or all the hard work you’ve done may go unnoticed.
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Cover Image by Evan Bench