Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, October 13, 2008

Writing, Plot, or Character?

I’m still in the process of putting together a post detailing the events of my recent book tour. Here’s a link to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune. And here’s a fun picture of the Elementary school I graduated from.

But in the meantime, I thought I’d talk a little about what, in my opinion, makes a novel bad, good, or great. What I want to discuss are three of the key elements of any novel: plot, character, and writing. (Quality of writing, not, you know, writing itself—as opposed to say ballads, campfire stories, interactive hula dancing, etc.)

For some reason, lately I’ve been rereading several books. I’m reading A Wrinkle in Time to my kids, I’m rereading the Thomas Covenant trilogy, and I’m rereading Asimov’s Foundation series. Interestingly enough, the only story I’m enjoying as much as I remembered is Foundation.

Why? Well first of all, Wrinkle in Time is much slower reading than I remembered. The writing is beautiful, the characters are a little one dimensional, but the pacing is so slow, my kids’ eyes glaze over. We just finished the part where one of the women (Mrs. Who?) turns into the flying horse and flies to the top of the mountain to show the children the shadow of evil. Literally, the story reads like, “They flew higher and higher, until they were past the clouds. And higher still. But the top of the mountain still seemed far away. Meg marveled at how high they were and how thin the air was. Still the horse’s wings strained against the thin air.” Right, I get it. They are flying high. Get back to the story!

So why do I remember enjoying the book so much? Was it because of how unique it was at the time? Did that make me overlook the flaws that put my boys to sleep? Or is life just faster now? Are our expectations different because of computers, video games, etc? I don’t think it can be the pace of life because other books are still as interesting. Maybe it’s that in memory I overlook the flaws because the overall story was so good. Or maybe I just hadn’t read a lot of fantasy back then, so everything seemed more magical?

The last time I read the Thomas Covenant series was back in high school. I remembered it was darker than most fantasy. What I didn’t remember was what an incredibly annoying protagonist Thomas Covenant was. I’ve reread the first two books, and I want to grab him by the hair, and shout, “People don’t hate you because you are a leper. They hate you because you are a big selfish crybaby! Get over yourself and think about someone else for once. Come on man, you’ve spent two entire books offending people and refusing to even try to help. Man up!”

Again, why did I like the series so much back in the day? I had read Terry Brooks by then; and of course Lord of the Rings. So fantasy series weren’t brand new. But it was still pretty unique. There are parts of the story that are powerful, the writing is strong, and the world-building is amazing. But, at least to this point, I’ve had to force myself to finish each book, and it’s been a slog.

How about Foundation? I’ve heard people say how stark Asimov’s writing is. I honestly didn’t remember that. But as I go back and read his work, they are absolutely right. I don’t think there is any mention of smells, sounds, or other senses. The characters have no personality at all to speak of—except that nearly anyone of any importance smokes cigars. The pace is extremely quick. No character stays around for long. It shouldn’t be a good book. But it is. The story is just so compelling, to me at least, that I have to read more.

So what makes a good book? First of all, I have to say that greatness in any of the three above mentioned categories can override weaknesses in the other two. Asimov’s plot is so strong that the reader can forgive the fact that his writing is stark and his characters are merely placeholders. In the same way though, one major weak point can pull down the other two. Stephen R. Donaldson is a poet of a writer. His descriptions and world-building are incredible. And the overall story is powerful. But the main character is so annoying, he nearly ruins the whole thing.

Obviously, we’d love a book with great writing, memorable characters, and an incredible plot. When all the pieces are clicking, we have a book that can achieve lasting greatness. But which of the three is the most important—whether for the good or the bad?

Let’s start with quality of writing. In my experience, books that are extremely popular, with a lot of readers tend to have only adequate writing. Books that are popular with the critics tend to have incredible writing. Why? Because really beautiful prose can actually overpower a story. The average reader wants to see the hero hurl a bolt of fiery blue steel at the rushing horde of gnolls or the heroine find her true love. She doesn’t want flowery prose and vivid descriptions to get in the way of the action. Of course there is a time for flowery prose, but if the focus turns from the story to the writing, the author has intruded on the reader.

Don’t get me wrong. I love great writing. In fact, one of the best compliments I received on my tour was from a librarian who said I should thank my English teachers. She said that she reads so many children’s books that have a great story but lousy writing. But she loved my writing and my story. (Yes, I misted up a little.) J

A great plot beats great writing in my book. Imagine this crusty old miner sitting around a campfire and telling you about the time he and Bessie were trapped for three days in a collapsed gold mine with a dozen hungry rattlers. He may not use the most beautiful language. He may jump back and forth a little and overuse the word fearsome. But you are still on the edge of your seat. A Wrinkle in Time may not have had the fastest paced writing. But it was a cool story. I mean she invented IT before Stephen King did. A Camazotz is just dang spooky.

But, personally, I have to put character at the top of the list. The biggest complaint I have about many of the books I don’t like, is that I just don’t care enough about the characters. Put Julie T. Protagonist in the middle of a raging fire, with bad guys everywhere, and the love of her life in the clutches of I. M. Antagonist, and I’m just going to yawn if I don’t care about the characters. Ideally I should love your protagonist. I should definitely empathize with her. But if I don’t even care about her, your story is destined to fail.

I think characters are what made the Harry Potter series so incredibly successful. JK Rowling has a way of making you care about even the most minor character. Think about Colin Creevey. He is a thrown in. A minor walk-on character. But anyone who has read the series remembers the cute little kid with the camera. I also think that’s a huge part of the success of Twilight. People loved Edward and Bella. Of course this is also why many people were less happy with some of the later books. But the very fact that they cared enough to get that upset, shows the emotional investment the author built up in her readers.

Next week, I’ll take a stab at what makes strong characters. But for now, I’ll open the question to you. What is most important to you when reading a book? Writing, plot, or character?


At 10/13/2008 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



At 10/13/2008 3:16 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I'm currently reading a book by an LDS author. I really enjoyed the other book of his that I read, but I find myself looking for reasons to put this new one down, rather than the other way around. It is well-written, certainly, but it just doesn't have that page-turner quality that other books I've been reading lately have.

In the end, I guess it's not right for me to criticize this book because it's a mystery, but not gripping, like say, James Patterson or Harlan Coben. Perhaps I should just relax and enjoy the story. =)

At 10/13/2008 4:18 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

I agree totally that for me, it's character. As much as bad writing can drive me up a wall, I'll still forgive it if I'm engaged in the character. An example for me is The Kiterunner. Beautiful writing, but I so despised the main character that I didn't walk away from that story with the same experience that 99% of other people did. I just hated him so much.

I love a good plot, but there are only so many new ways to spin them. I think it's the characters that make plots really pop. Or not.

At 10/13/2008 6:26 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Hmm. This is a hard question! I love a good plot. And I really need a character to root for. If I start a book and get bounced from character to character and I can't figure out who I'm supposed to root for, I get bugged and bored, wondering, wait, who's my ball team?

At 10/13/2008 6:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't the whole point in writing a good book, a story where people want to read and reread it time and again, is finding that perfect balance of great writing, intriguing plot and fascinating, well developed characters? Isn’t that what every novice writer is trying to achieve. I lose interest in a story if it isn't well written. If the plot is stupid, I set the book aside and wait until I have absolutely nothing else to do. (I always have something else to do.) And if the characters are flat ... forget it. I won't even waste shelf space storing it.
P.S. Farworld rocks

At 10/13/2008 8:18 PM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

First, congrats and continued success with your new book. Are you doing any signings in Idaho?

In response to the comments in your beginning paragraphs about how a book reads differently the second time around. Perhaps its something as simple as mindset. Most people, authors included, when they pick up a book to read it is because they want to be entertained, nothing else. Most don't read critically the first time. They're either hooked and engrossed early or they're not. I think it's that second reading, especially by someone (such an author) who understands the nuts and bolts of good writing, that brings out the "that's a slow story, I didn't see it the first time" comments. Not saying this is what you've experienced, just that it's a viable explanation.

I like both character and plot. I think a great story needs to be balanced. I want description (but not too much), I want the characters developed (but don't spend page after page on them), I want a plot that's involved and holds my interest (it needs to make me think), but not be so bogged down in doing this that the story becomes stagnant. A good book for me has these characteristics.


At 10/13/2008 9:00 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Jeff, you made some great points and so have all those who have commented on your blog. There are a few other factors that come into play in determining whether or not we enjoy the book. One is the fact that the story a reader reads is not ever quite the same story that the writer wrote. You brought a different point of view to Wrinkle in Time when you were a child than you do now as an adult, same for the other books you mentioned.I get letters from people all the time who approach books differently from the way I do. Just today I received one where the writer complained about a certain author because "something is always happening and there's no time to just enjoy the book." But I like books where something is always happening. Many people are bored with books where all the action takes place in the characters' heads, or there are pages and pages of soul-searching and discussions of mundane daily chores, where the plot is minimal and the characters are practically psychoanalyzed and their relationships autopsied. Others consider those books literary perfection. Some people, especially those who enjoy suspense, mystery, or action-oriented books generally lean toward strong plots. Those more interested in hearts or minds may prefer character development. Some people just want a good cry.
Whether we're talking about the so-called literary classics, LDS Fiction, or the New York Times Bestseller list there is no magic formula of perfection.

At 10/13/2008 9:56 PM, Blogger Tamra Norton said...

Compelling characters that make me laugh and cry--that's what I want. Oh, and a happy ending.

At 10/13/2008 10:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And to all the other comments, yup, yup and very yup.


At 10/14/2008 9:14 AM, Blogger Josi said...

When I pick up a book I have certain expectations. If those expectations are met, I like it, if those expectations are not met, I probably didn't get past page 30. I expected something different from Twilight then I expected from the Kiterunner and I liked them both because they met those expectations. I expected different things from Farworld than I expected from Bound on Earth and I liked them both because they also met those expectations. I've picked up a few books lately where I expected something I didn't get, therefore I lost interest. Like jennie said, the mind set going into the story makes all the difference. However, the author needs to know what the reader expects and then give it. for me, I love characters, but the best character in the world gets boring without a plot and the best plot and character in the world are cut off at the knees if the writing is poor. I agree that a stronger ONE can make up for a weaker TWO, but all three elements have to be dressed for the occasion or I'll move on to another party.

At 10/14/2008 9:56 AM, Blogger Melanie Goldmund said...

I've read a lot of fanfic in my time, where the writing is generally poor, or at least not up to publishable standard, but I've found that a good plot can make up for it, at least enough to keep me reading most of the time. (Why do I read fanfic, by the way? It's cheap, okay? I don't have to spend money to find something to read!) A very close second, however, is character. If the characters aren't good, then I start to chafe and look for something else to read. Oh happy day when I discover one of those rare gems in fanfic, where everything works; the writing is good, the characters are well-defined, and the plot keeps me on the edge of my seat! When it comes to published books, I find that I judge by the same criterion. On the whole, however, I think that plot wins the "Most Important" competition over character, but only by a hair.


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