Saturday, October 9, 2010

Patchett on The Primacy of Plot

In the September 25, 2010, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Ann Patchett (author of Bel Canto) discusses the primacy of plot. Excerpt:
Like everything else in life (governments, hem lengths), novels are subject to fashion. Plot, the very force that moved Odysseus from Troy back to Ithaca, can seem like nothing more than a tired device, especially among young writers who have yet to learn the hard lesson that there really is no reinventing the wheel. As for me, I'm a great fan of a story. A tale well told can sweep up a reader in a way that dazzling characters, piercing language and startling ideas can't manage on their own.

Every writer who likes a plot has a different opinion of when to put it into place. There are those who believe that if they knew where their story was headed, there would be no point in writing it; there are others who know where they're going but then believe the characters wrestle the story away from them and write it up themselves (I regard this as a medical condition); and then there are writers who draw up a set of architectural plans and more or less stick to them from basement to mansard.

I am in that last group. In fact, I am such a fan of plot that I inevitably run five or six of them through a novel at once.
Read the whole thing. Opinions about the importance of plot abound, with many pundits granting it only slightly higher standing than the type of lead you use in your mechanical pencil. (In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott concludes, "Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoeic: PLOT. I say don't worry about plot. Worry about characters.") However, Patchett's designation of plot as "a tale well told" strikes me as fundamentally sound, a description encompassing every sort of work from campfire tale to pulp bestseller to the Bard himself. First and foremost, stories are about fomenting delight, about passing that qualifying examination of being entertaining, and a solid plot provides a good foundation for writers to begin doing just that.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
paul goyette)


pattinase (abbott) said...

I like shorts without much plot, but in a novel I want one. I want to know where I've been, where I am heading to and why. I need things to happen. But beneath that, I still want a great character to travel with--not necessarily a good one, but an interesting one.

Loren Eaton said...

Do you there's a range, Patti? I mean, some stories can be slice-of-life vignettes and some can work as nearly strictly plot. Personally, I enjoy narratives that are middle of the road, with interesting characters caught up in interesting events.