Saturday, 12 May 2012

Is craft more important than structure?

Here's a question I've been musing on.

Is story craft more important than story structure?

I recently started reading the First Five pages by Noah Lukeman (thanks to Stacy for the recommendation) and it argues just that (well, kind of).  A plot can be as tight, well paced and original as you like but a book will fail if the writing is dull.  A slightly rubbish plot can be forgiven if the craftsmanship is kick ass.

No, not THAT kind of plotting

Frankly my friends, this is music to my ears.  As one whose outlining is scant at best and often involved scribbled diagrams, random notes and a vague sign post as the way to go it makes me happy to think that if I get the fun stuff right, I can Get Away With It.

Is it true though?

Hmm I'm not so sure.

But it got me thinking.  I love writing flash fiction.  I love working with prompts - the harder the better - because I'm at my most creative when I'm at my most constrained.

What if plotting was taken out of the occasion?

What if several writers were given the exact same plot and the exact same word count and asked to come up with a story?

What if... Damn.   Enough with the what ifs.  Let's just try it and find out.

A smell the sweet scent of a blog hop coming to some Fictionista blogs near you, *waves at Ruth, Stacy, Jenn and Kern*

Besides Christopher Booker says that everything ever written boils down to seven plots.  Is he right?  Shall we find out?

Just for fun - a random plot generator (really, I don't use this for my actual writing).


Melanie Conklin said...

I don't know. I've always thought that a great story idea trumps even bad writing. If the story is there, you can always improve the writing w/ great agents, editors . . . but how to stuff story into something beautifully written? Maybe those are two different things altogether.

Meg McNulty said...

It's an interesting one for sure. I suspect I'd feel more frustrated by a good plot with bad writing, like I wouldn't enjoy the reading process.

Andrea said...

I imagine most readers want both. A stupid plot will turn readers away even if the writing is beautiful. And no-one will trudge through awful writing for a gem of a plot. Sadly I think a good plot+good writing=good story
(and if you want to get published remember an editor will defintely be looking at both!)There are no short cuts.
It will be interesting to see how the stories differ. I imagine they will be hugely different as those plot generators are often very loose.

littleindian said...

So many times I have had books highly recommended for reading but I have given up halfway through.
I think one person's favourite is for another a very hard going.

I like to read whatever as I say flows easily down my neurones; I cannot explain it in any other way.

Whether its the plot or the style or both or neither, I do not know.

Meg McNulty said...

@littleindian - me too! I've got several half read bestsellers on my shelves that just didn't work for me.

@Andrea - wouldn't use a plot generator for that, I think. It would need to be a bit tighter to be interesting. Agree that best books have everything going for them, but what I'm wondering is what you can compromise on. Like in romance - if the hero is great, you can put up with a slightly idiotic heroine. If the writing is great, can you overlook a slightly mad plot?

Having said that, just watched the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus and despite great cast, good acting and gorgeous visuals, I felt the lack of a really good story. So hey ho.

Jo-Anne Teal (jtvancouver) said...

Craft encompasses both structure and language. I think it is critical for writers to ensure their (our) work is of the highest standard in use of the English language (or whichever language in which the work is written) and plot. I agree with Melanie that editors should be engaged before publication but they should be tightening and proofreading - they shouldn't be writing the actual book. Writing 101 should be 'how to create an outline'!

Unknown said...

For examples of good plots with bad (or at least mediocre) writing look no further than the bestseller lists.

Someone in a recent writer's group discussion mentioned that most Americans read at an eighth grade level. I have no idea how accurate that is, but let's just say it wouldn't surprise me.

I don't think even the best writing would save a book with a boring plot, however.

Any way for me to get in on this experiment vis-a-vis the shared plot, by the way? My forty-bajillion other projects are feeling lonely and this interests me a great deal.:)

Meg McNulty said...

@Jo-Anne I couldn't agree more. I suppose what really interests me is, if you give a bunch of writers a fairly detailed outline (preferably a good one!) how different would their stories be? I'd love to see what - all things being equal - people would create, all of us having very differently populated imaginations, styles and voices.

@Mike for sure! Been chatting to fictionista friends Ruth, Stacy and Jenn about how this could work. Thinking about some sort of June challenge with a 1500 word story. Ruth pointed me in the direction of a great article on writer unboxed that you might like too:

All about people writing the same story differently (in the tradition of mythic conversations).

Stacy Bennett said...

I think a lot of the writing and plot controversy has a different answer depending on your situation. If you read Sara Megibow's tweets about #10queriesin10min you will find that often she tosses the ones with "bad writing" No ifs, ands, or buts. Good concept, bad writing... TOSS! So if you're writing for an agent,I do think writing trumps plot in a way.

For a reader,however, I personally feel that they need both but IMHO readers are far more forgiving than the infrastructure of book publishing. It takes some really crappy writing for a reader to put a book down. Poor plots I will sometimes even finish, hoping that I've misread it and there is a great twist at the end. Sometimes there isn't, and then I feel really stupid LOL. Just my observations.

Bullish said...

For me, character + conflict = story.

Character is always my jumping off point.

Plot happens as character sets a goal to achieve or acquire something, fails, revises plan, fails, etc.

So: craft vs structure?

Craft is knowing the essential elements of storytelling: characterization, suspense, foreshadowing, etc.

Structure is knowing what should happen when - it's know where each element fits in the big picture of the story.

My bottom line: Proficient writers understand they must use one in conjunction with the other. :)

- - - - -
BTW: Lukeman's 'First Five Pages' is an excellent. I would also recommend his "The Plot Thickens."

Afsaneh said...

@Meg - "Like in romance - if the hero is great, you can put up with a slightly idiotic heroine. If the writing is great, can you overlook a slightly mad plot?"

Personally, because I'm a romance-lover/reader/writer etc etc, if the heroine is only slightly idiotic, I think it could be overlooked. It's hard to say because a female reader (I assume female) will want a hero to love and a heroine to identify with on some level. It depends on which desire trumps the other.

I do love this post! I've often wondered about which is more important.
Oh, and this June challenge sounds like a blast!

Meg McNulty said...

@Afsaneh - I hope you play!

@Rowanwolf - that's pretty much the argument Noah comes up with. I know when I pick up a book I check out blurb on back and the page 1. If I think page 1 looks crap, I don't buy it. That assessment is definitely based on craft (excluding structure) not structure.

@bullish - so true! You summed it up perfectly.

Let's get plotting (forgive the pun) on that June challenge!