Sunday, July 20, 2008

The power of story

I can't remember her exact words (sniff, memories are fading), but I believe Miss Snark had two sayings. One was 'Good writing trumps all'. The other was 'Plot trumps all'. Or something along those lines. Anyway, there was a contradiction between her much-vaunted belief that good writing was essential, and the draw of a darn good story - a contradiction that she herself freely admitted.

I've just run into this situation in a medical thriller. Not a genre I usually read, but it looked a bit more interesting than most. Here are a few of the issues I ran into within the first few chapters:

A monumental contradiction surrounding the murder weapon
Characters speaking like instruction manuals
Other characters perpetually in 'as you know Bob' mode
A tendency for the main character to forget the second half of a conversation she has just remembered, simply so she can remember it at a more suitable time later in the book
No Reason Not to Tell the Police what the main character has just unearthed
The mysterious ability of the main character and her boyfriend, supposedly madly in love, to have a shower together and not even think about having sex. In fact, as far as I can tell, they never have sex. Despite almost living together. With no good reason not to have sex. Without this being a plot point.

And more. In my eyes, the story was badly written and illogical. And yet...I read it to the end. Why? I think you know. Plot, people, plot. A good story, stuffed with twists and turns, gleamed through all the dross around it and positively forced me to read to the end. And (blush) I enjoyed it.

Discuss.

And/or hop on over to the Book Roast (link in the sidebar) where the chefs are stoking the ovens, ready to grill a few more writers starting Monday.

13 comments:

Sarah Laurenson said...

Logic errors really bug the crap out of me. And then I find some in my own WIPs. *sigh*

I know what you mean. I think novels are like people. None of them are perfect. Some are a better match for me than others. And there are redeeming values that overshadow those pesky neuroses.

And then there are those that I think are dreck, but others adore. Beauty and the eye of the beholder.

It's the reason it pays to shop around to many agents and/or editors.

Pewari Naan said...

Still hasn't trumped my personal "WTF?" read: a romance where about 2/3rds of the way through you find out the heroine is a mermaid. Yup. No warning previously that it was anything other than the real current world.

Is the only book I've ever physically flung against a wall in disgust. And no, the plot wasn't redeeming enough beyond that point.

fairyhedgehog said...

I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code (Gasp!) for similar reasons. I also loved Enid Blyton when I was a kid.

I wish it was a simple case that "good writing trumps all" all the time - it would be so much simpler.

Robin S. said...

Nice looking blog, lady!


I have to tell ya, though, that a good plot with crap writing doesn't do a thing for me, except make me toss the book into the trash can - or never buy it. I can't read one of those- even on a plane. I find myself bored. It's that my 'inner ear' (not the real ones - the rhythmic ones) can't stand to listen internally to the jangle of crappola coinage landing and landing with such dull thuds.

So I guess i'd err on the side of less plot-driven pieces, and more character-driven work - written well - not the overwrought pseudo-lit shit - but a real entry into someone else's mind and thoughts.

laughingwolf said...

i'd toss it, too... my preference is character driven tales, well wrought

Conduit said...

I don't think the issue is with 'Good writing trumps all', but rather with what constitutes 'good writing'. I've mentioned this in a few places lately, but the single biggest thing I've learned over the last six months or so is that the X-factor, that mysterious quality that connects a specific reader with a specific story, is everything. We drive ourselves crazy chipping away at our queries and opening pages, refining, refining, refining, when ultimately what matters is whether it hits the agent or editor in the gut.

We've all read books where we're constantly noticing bad habits we try to avoid ourselves - POV glitches, passive voice, adverbs, all the things we pull our hair out over in our own stuff. We forget that we, as writers, are always conscious of the technique, whereas most readers just care about the story. Really, if it works it works, regardless of whether or not it adheres to all those do-and-don't lists we've studied.

Chumplet said...

I felt the same way after reading Sahara. I liked the movie so much and was disappointed in the book. So much passive voice, technical explanations and clipped, formal dialogue. It took all the fun out of it.

Shona Snowden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
McKoala said...

The X Factor. True. I think that writing is like a song, where words and music must complement one another. So many songs with wonderful tunes drive me nuts with their inane lyrics. On the other hand, I can't listen to even the most dramatic lyrics combined with a rubbish tune.

If only we were all perfect, Sarah. Redeeming values make all the difference.

I love the mermaid surprise, Pewari, LOL! I agree, though, I would feel totally cheated at that point.

Couldn't get through the Da Vinci Code, sorry FH. That pushed me too far. I loved Enid Blyton, though!

Chumplet, can't watch Penelope Cruz. She reminds me too much of Ringo Starr and that makes me want to laugh all the time.

LW and Robin, I surprised myself by getting through this book, and I think it was the sheer speed of the plot - and an interesting setting. We don't always pay much attention to setting, but in this case it was a huge draw - a hospital, which just sucked in this ER fan.

I've just read another book - 'Underdogs' by Rob Ryan, set in the tunnels under Seattle. It was the location that attracted me, because, again, it wasn't really a genre that I read very often. I got tripped up by the constant acronyms and Hardy Males With Military Training, but I loved the exploration of the tunnels.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Take a good look at Harry Potter. She only stopped with the overuse of 'ly' words in book 5 or 6.

It's that connection that really counts, for sure.

pacatrue said...

I had a similar experience with Grisham's The Firm several years ago. I giggled at the silly chiches everywhere, but something made me turn the page as fast as I could. I keep planning to go back one day and study how the plot was constructed.

laughingwolf said...

ok, i don't watch 'medical' drama, so the book'd lose me, quickly

in cartooning, a good punchline can overcome poor rendering, but never the reverse....

McKoala said...

Harry Potter is great example of mundane writing trumped by plot and location; the sheer amount of imagination behind the world made the whole thing, ahem, magical.

Paca, what are you doing here? Get back to the books!

LW, so,so true.