Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

Taboo book words: Readable and Plot?


Are “readable” and “plot-driven” now backhanded compliments for books?

At The Star, Bert Archer argues that there’s nothing wrong with “readable” books (via):

You could make snide comparisons to see-ability in art and hear-ability in music, but I think the best analogy might be livability and architecture. Can a house be excellent if it is not also livable? If you find yourself stumbling on the stairs because they’re not big enough for your feet, or if you get wet when it rains because there are cleverly carved holes in the roof, I would say you have a legitimate complaint against the architect. The lines may be lovely, the shapes and materials put together in heretofore unimagined combinations, but a house that you can’t properly live in is an architectural failure. Livability (and workability and whatever other abilities architects design for) is the highest form of architectural excellence. Designing a building that’s not fit for use is absurd.

And yet there’s a consortium of people, headed by literary agent Andrew Kidd and supported by a host of literary types, who last week announced they were putting together a prize, to be known as The Literature Prize, for “writers who aspire to something finer.” […]

One anonymous publisher was quoted in the Guardian saying, “We need icy indifference to public opinion from our Booker judges, and we expect at least a few impenetrable, dark, tricky novels on the shortlist. That way it’s all the more surprising when a Life of Pi emerges.”

Likewise, “plot-driven” tends to be thrown at novels somewhat disparagingly—as if having a plot makes the book somewhat less literary. Consider, for instance, this essay in The Guardian by John Lucas, wondering if “the market’s stress on keeping stories moving means we’re in danger of losing some truer fictions”:

I often wonder if relentless focus on plot is edging something of value out of our literary culture. Creative writing students are frequently told to “show not tell”, to “get into the scene early”, and make sure their characters are never without motivation. All great advice, except it doesn’t really reflect the way life is. Would-be novelists must submit three chapters and a synopsis of their manuscripts to the literary agents or publishers they approach: if these fail to “hook” early on they will almost certainly be rejected. So what would happen to Nausea, The Unnamable, In Search of Lost Time, or, God forbid, Finnegans Wake? I recently attended a talk where a leading London literary agent stated that, in his opinion, it is highly unlikely that Kafka would get published as a first-time writer today. Of course there’s no way this can be verified, but if true it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs.


Lucas is right about at least one thing: search writing websites and blogs, and you’ll find tons of advice, most of it indeed focused on plot, like “A simple four-item formula for turning story into fiction,” on the blog Making Light (via):

1. Move and keep moving. Tell the story you want to tell without shilly-shallying around. Move your characters out onto the board, get them into interesting situations, and have them do big, consequential things as early as you can. Then, continue making situations interesting, and keep the big, consequential actions coming.

Note: Strong characters who assess, decide, and react quickly are especially good for holding the reader’s attention. Our eyes are naturally drawn to objects in motion.

2. Make it consequential. To the greatest extent possible, have later events be caused or motivated or shaped by earlier ones. Every causal or consequential link you can build into the story is a steel cable holding your narrative together. When you can’t find any way to link an event via consequence, see whether you can link it thematically to what has gone before.

These two “rules”–and the two that follow–are good advice, advice I’ve doled out to my own students and to myself. At the same time, though, I see Lucas’s point. Take this post, “How to Write a Book in Three Days” (via):

  • [The formula is] The Maltese Falcon. Or the Holy Grail. You use the quest theme, basically. In The Maltese Falcon it’s a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Black Bird. In Mort D’Arthur it’s also a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Holy Grail. That’s the formula for Westerns too: everybody’s after the gold of El Dorado or whatever.
  • The formula depends on that sense of a human being up against superhuman forces, whether it’s Big Business, or politics, or supernatural Evil, or whatever. The hero is fallible in their terms, and doesn’t really want to be mixed up with them. He’s always just about to walk out when something else comes along that involves him on a personal level.
  • There is an event every four pages, for example […]

That kind of emphasis on plot makes me wince a little bit. And yet, Moorcock’s not wrong—the protagonist needs to want something. Something has to get in the protagonist’s way; something has to affect the protagonist personally. And something needs to happen to keep the reader turning pages.

But how do you balance readability and plot with the “complexity and experimentation” that Lucas wants to protect?

Join the Discussion

  • Pingback: Waiting for the Next Cultural Bus? « carsoncraig()

  • HA

    I don’t believe a book is bad if it is readable and has a plot. There’s a lot more to writing a fantastic story that’s “destined for greatness”, but these are actually two very necessary things in a good book. Here’s why:

    First of all, I don’t define “readable” the same way some of the people you quote seem to. “Readable” does not equate “simple”. It does not count out any depth or literary artistry. It simply means that I don’t have to pretend I understood the story by the time I finished it. It does not mean that it takes me three readings to figure out that Character A and Character D are actually two different personalities of the same person, Character B. There’s always something new to discover in subsequent readings of a book if it’s a good book, but I should at least understand what’s going on and what’s what in the first read. If I don’t know what’s going on or get at LEAST the same general image for the scene and overall work that the writer had…then the writer did not do his/her job.

    Next, we have the plot. Plot does not need to be this scary, rigid outline where we have to overtly hit all the points and explain them thoroughly. Plot means that the author knew where she/he was coming from, where she/he was going, and how she/he were getting from the start to the finish. Plots can be tangled and obscure things as well as very loose and barely there, but they can also be as rigid and structured as people imagine. As long as there is a plot of some kind and it’s followed to some extent, then it’s a good book. Why? Because without a plot, the characters just sort of wander around bumping into things, and the conclusion, if it exists, is rarely satisfying as it doesn’t always cover all the points and loose ends of the story.

    Now, it’s true that some books are simple and so exceptionally readable while some other books are insanely plot-driven and so become boring; however, readability and plot do not mean that a book is simple or overly structured. All it means is that I can get from start to finish without pretending to understand it or forgetting what the point was.

    For instance, look at the Twilight series. Yes, this was readable. It was also very simple as it reused ages-old ideas and situations. Unfortunately, this is the only reason it was really readable. The plot was spotty at best and non-existant at worst. Ms. Meyer tends to start setting up a plot at the very beginning of the book, but then loses it by the fifth chapter at the latest. She wanders around with her characters’ teenage angst becoming powerful enough to power California and all her characters bouncing off each other until about the last fifth or so of the book. At this point she seems to remember she had a plot and needs to end the book, so she returns to her former set up and closes out the book with a dramatic confrontation of some kind. This set up doesn’t seem to bother many teenagers (and is possibly the least of the series’ problems), but it does mean that by the time you really return to the plot, you’d actually forgotten there was a plot aside from Bella pining to be a vampire with Edward and Edward agonizing over whether or not he’s good enough for Bella.

    So can you get published without readability and/or plot? Yes, Twilight is only one example of recent publishing monstrosities that I can point out. Is the fact that a book is said to have either of these things a bad thing? Only in the minds of those who don’t know what readability and plot actually mean.

    Also, this article is all quote with very little input from you, the writer. You tie the quotes loosely together and have a question for the article, but have very few real insights or comments of your own and no true conclusion. Did you want us to make up our own minds on this matter? Do you have an opinion on this topic? Because I can’t tell the answer to either of these questions by what you have here. Both readability and plot are lacking for this article.

  • Hi HA, thanks for your comment. I’m glad this post sparked so much for you. As the blog editor, that’s exactly what I was trying to do with this post: raise questions for you and other readers. Think of it less as “article telling you what to think” and more “food for thought.” So thanks for your impassioned response; I only hope that other readers out there are inspired to give the topic as much thought as you clearly have.

  • This has always been a point of difficulty for me. My current work-in-progress is more character-driven than plot-driven and I always worry that I don’t have enough plot…and that it isn’t readable. It’s interesting to see it actually addressed and written out like this. It gives me something to think about.

Literary Partners