Does Writing Style Matter More Than Plot?

Well, for today, I thought that I’d look at whether a good writing style can compensate for a slow, understated, uneventful etc… plot. This was a topic that I started thinking about when I found myself reading a really interesting novel from the early 1990s called “Seventh Heaven” by Alice Hoffman.

The plot of this novel is a rather understated and small-scale one that is set in late 1950s America. But, one of the main reasons that I chose to buy and read this book was because of the author’s writing style.

If you’ve ever read an Alice Hoffman novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Hoffman’s writing style is this flowing, vivid thing that crackles with magic and wonder and glows with warmth and humanity. It is an absolute joy to behold.

It is the kind of astonishingly good writing style that can turn a small-scale story into something much more atmospheric, enriching, memorable and fascinating. So, does all of this mean that a good writing style can compensate for a slow, understated and/or uneventful plot?

Yes and no.

Although a good writing style can grab a reader and hold their interest, you need more than this if you’re telling a story where the plot isn’t the main emphasis of your story. For example, one of the other great things about Hoffman’s “Seventh Heaven” is the characters. This is a novel where all of the characters really feel like realistically imperfect, interesting people with dreams, thoughts, feelings etc… Likewise, the novel’s setting is described in all sorts of imaginative, poetic and atmospheric ways too.

In other words, if the plot isn’t the main focus of your story, then you need to focus on more than just your writing style. You need to use your writing style to illuminate fascinating places and people. You need to give the reader somewhere and someone to hang out with that are interesting enough that they won’t care that your story doesn’t feature lots of fast-paced, large-scale, intricately-planned thrilling plot. So, writing style alone isn’t enough to compensate for not having a “blockbuster” plot.

You need to tell the kind of story where the reader just wants to spend more time reading the wonderful narration, spending time with the characters and drinking in the atmosphere of the places you are describing. Or, to put it another way, a good writing style is only one part of what makes a novel that focuses less on plot still worth reading.

Interestingly, the opposite to all of this is a lot simpler. If your story’s plot is compelling enough then things like the writing style don’t matter as much as you might think. The classic example of this is probably a thriller novel I read more than a decade ago called “Seven Ancient Wonders” by Matthew Reilly. The characters in this novel are highly stylised and the writing style is so “badly-written” that it even uses cheap tricks like inserting random line breaks in order to create…

…suspense. It is a cheesy novel that will make you roll your eyes at the writing style, only to suddenly notice that you’re already a hundred pages into it and you can’t put the book down. The plot is so thrilling, spectacular and just generally gripping that you won’t want to stop reading it despite all of the many flaws.

So, yes, whilst you should try to focus on making your story’s plot, writing style, characters and settings as good as possible, it is possible to place lots of emphasis on the plot and less on the rest (and still have a story people will want to read). But, if you aren’t going to focus on the plot, then you also need to focus on characters and settings as well as a good writing style.

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Sorrry for the short article, but I hope that this was useful 🙂

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