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.

————-

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

Three Unusual Things To Do If You Write Yourself Into A Corner

Well, at the time of preparing this article, I was also busy preparing last year’s Christmas stories. In particular, I’d just written the fourth one. This one was a bit more of a challenge than usual since, thanks to what I’d thought was a clever plot twist at the end of the third story, I had placed my main character in a seemingly unwinnable situation. I’d written myself into a corner.

If you take a slightly more laid-back approach to planning your stories, then this can allow you to surprise yourself in all sorts of cool ways whilst writing. But, it can also sometimes lead to situations like the one I mentioned earlier.

So, what can you do if you’ve written yourself into a corner?

1) Think it all through: As counterintuitive as it might sound, look closely at the “impossible” direction your story is going in. Think about it in as much depth as you can and look for any small flaws or gaps. Once you find one of these, exploit it for all you can!

For example, I’d ended the third story in my Christmas collection by showing the main character – a private detective – almost being put out of business by a trendy new start-up company (which was meant to be a parody of “disruptive” crowd-sourced companies). It seemed like a really clever modern twist on an old plot device.

But I suddenly realised that there was no way that, if I wanted to keep the story vaguely realistic, my main character could actually “win” against a company like that. My main character also didn’t seem like the kind of person who would want to join such a company either. But, of course, I’d planned to write six or seven more stories. What could I do?

Simply put, I thought about the idea in more depth. One of the problems with crowd-sourced companies is that the “staff” aren’t always as experienced or qualified as those in more traditional occupations. As such, with something like private detection, they might find themselves “out of their depth” fairly quickly. What does someone do when they find themselves in this situation? They find an expert.

As soon as I had this thought (from thinking about my “unwinnable” story situation in more depth), the blockage cleared. The direction seemed obvious. My main character could become a Sherlock Holmes-like consulting detective! A detective for other detectives.

So, if you want the solution to an “unwinnable” situation in your story to fit in with your story, then just think the situation through from every possible angle until you find a flaw that you can exploit ruthlessly.

2) Look back: Look at the earlier parts of your story and see if there’s anything there that you can use to solve your current problem. It could be some background element or a throwaway line of dialogue or something like that. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes a possible solution to your problem can actually be hiding in an earlier part of your story.

For example, when I started writing the troublesome fourth story in my collection, I’d started it with a cynical piece of narration about how Sherlock Holmes made everyone want to be a detective. This was a brilliantly cynical opening line.

It also, perhaps subconsciously, helped me come up with a solution to the writing dilemma I found myself in about two paragraphs later. After all, Sherlock Holmes is a “consulting detective”. But, surprisingly, I didn’t consciously realise this until I’d gone through the thought process I mentioned earlier in this article.

Again, this doesn’t always work with every story, but sometimes you can use something you’ve included earlier in your story to solve your problem.

3) There are no unwinnable situations: Simply put, the best attitude to take to these situations is simply to remember that there is always a solution. It just involves determination and a willingness to think outside the box.

If it helps, think of your story like a challenging computer game. A computer game may contain difficult situations, but no game is intentionally designed to be unwinnable – however it may appear to the player. In other words, there’s usually a solution. It may be hidden or it may involve the player having to do something that the designers hadn’t planned for (eg: exploiting a glitch in the game’s code in order to defeat a challenging level boss etc..), but it’s there.

If you take an attitude like this, then it will put you in a much better frame of mind for dealing with the times when you’ve written yourself into a corner.

————

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Great Stories Don’t Always Need Complex Plots – A Ramble

Although I’m busy making this month’s webcomic mini series at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk very briefly about writing and storytelling today. In particular, I thought that I’d talk about how great stories don’t always have to have complex plots.

The idea that great stories have to have ultra-complex, intricate plots can be something that can be off-putting to new writers. But, this is something of a misconception. In fact, great stories can have incredibly simple plots…. and still be great. But, how?

Simply put, it is more about the journey than the destination. Many great stories (in a range of mediums) are more about the characters, the atmosphere, the emotional tone, the style etc.. of the story rather than because of how detailed or complex the plot happens to be.

To use a cinematic example, take a look at the classic 1982 sci-fi masterpiece “Blade Runner“. On the most simple level, it is a film about a detective who is ordered to find and kill several human-like robots who have travelled to Earth illegally. There’s also a romantic sub-plot too.

But, of course, the film is much more than just this. Despite the relatively simple premise, this film is revered as a masterpiece for so many reasons.

First of all, this basic premise is used to explore a host of complex themes (eg: the meaning of life, corrupt authority, morality, capitalism, discrimination etc..). Likewise, the film’s characters are often intriguingly ambiguous and fairly distinctive. Finally, the general “look”, atmosphere and style of the film is a brilliant blend of science fiction and film noir that has been hugely influential on many things made afterwards.

So, a “simple” plot can be used as a skeleton to build a much greater story around. Because, as I mentioned earlier, great stories can often be more about the journey than the destination.

So, if you want to tell a really brilliant story, then it’s ok to use a fairly simple or obvious premise. The trick is to focus on everything else, like the characters, the dialogue, the style of the story, the atmosphere of the story etc…..

————–

Apologies for the ridiculously short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂