Saturday, 19 September 2009

What's That Smell?

‘Plot-driven’ is a damning phrase to use about a book. Plot is looked down on like an uncouth acquaintance who walks into a restaurant when you’re having a meal with someone you want to impress. It’s no good looking in the other direction, because here comes embarrassing old Plot, marching up to your table, talking too loudly, completely failing to understand that you’re in literary company now, you’re focusing on the telling details of human relationships, you’re busily crafting exquisite sentences. Plot wouldn’t know an exquisitely crafted sentence if the head waiter brought it to his table on a silver platter.

But the truth is that Plot is the one who keeps the restaurant in business. Plot pays the bills. Plot comes up trumps. And you and I both need Plot because there is nothing worse than a manuscript without a plot. I’ve read a few in my time, as it happens. And written some.

All too often a writer gets a good idea for a book and they’re off writing like a dog after a rabbit. They don’t wait to think the whole thing through because they’re so keen to explore the story; to discover the characters; to let the structure develop; to see how the characters interact with the structure; to have fun with the language; to tell their friends that they’re working on something; to hint that they think this one might be good; to add, given any encouragement, that it might even be the one.

Of course they don’t know how it’s going to end yet but they have a kind of inkling and they’re really enjoying the writing; and that, after all, is what it’s all about. Isn’t it?

Then at last, after months of toil, they get to the end and, reading through the whole thing again, they do have to admit that the plot might be a bit thin in places. But, hey, it’s only a first draft, after all.

You know what? It’s much easier to improve the language, the characterisation, the setting (almost anything actually, other than the plot) in the second draft. Those are all things that can be relatively easily tweaked but try sorting out a manuscript when you’ve committed yourself to a plot full of holes.

There’s only one real way to do it and that’s to start all over again. And that is soooooo painful, especially after you’ve told all your friends that this might be the one; soooooo hard to even contemplate after all those months of work, that it’s easier to ignore those nagging doubts and just work on the manuscript you’ve got, polishing the language, honing the characterisation, adding depth and lustre to the setting until it’s really a very good piece of writing indeed.

Except for one thing - the plot stinks like a dead donkey.


Anonymous said...

I loved this post! I'm an amateur writer and I thought that this latest series I started was The One that I would finish and publish. I finished the first book and was 106 pages into the sequel.....when I realized that I needed to start over on Book One page one...because I hadn't thought the plot through!! Two years of writing laid aside, but I haven't given up. I've wrestled with Plot more than I thought possible and I think I may finally have him under control. One can only hope!

I love your works and you have been one of my greatest inspirations as a writer! I hope you don't think I'm being forward by commenting on your blog.

Thank you,
A Fan

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks for your comment Wanderer. I'm very pleased to hear from you. And believe me, we've all reached that same point, where you realise that you've spent the last year or more building a house on quicksand.

easilydistractedwriter said...

I thought plot was, like, so 19th century...


Brian Keaney said...

Don't believe all you hear, easilydistractedwriter.

Jarucia said...


I empathize with your frustration. Although I admit I feel it more often toward other writers, in particular screenwriters.

You know when you watch those horribly plotted movies? Why don't they get that 'oh s**t this stinks' feeling?


Brian Keaney said...

Let's not even start on movies, Jarucia. I went to see District Nine the other day and while it's an interesting film in many ways, the plot had more holes than a colander. Directors get away with that kind of thing because you're so distracted by all the guns and cars and music and because it all happens so quickly. But books can be read slowly, and they can be re-read, so plot holes can't be so easily disguised.

Jarucia said...

Excellent point...but now I'll have to watch District 9 again so as to spot those holes.

I was far too distracted by the guns n' stuff to have noticed, but I know I will the next time :)