I believe I was in high-school when I first stumbled across a modernistic book devoid of plot. I wasn’t attempting to read modern literature at the time. What I wanted was science fiction and this book was classified as such. After sixty pages I closed the book and wondered – when is the story going to start?
After I reached the hundred page mark I was tempted to give up, but I was unable to conceive of a book going from beginning to end without a plot of some sort. When I closed it after reading the last page I decided I’d learned my lesson and swore never to read that author again. I may have broken that promise in later years, but if so it was purely by accident – a result of not checking the author’s name before making a selection. I won’t say who he was but his first name was the same as a former Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Mulroney and he is highly regarded in the science fiction community.
Plot is important. There are some who reject that statement as being utterly old fashioned. They’re welcome to their views and can read what they want. For me it’s critical. I can live with very sparse settings. I can live without character development providing the characters are interesting. I cannot live with what used to be referred to as a storybook if it lacks a story.
Telling a story is what we writers do. If by doing so our reader is educated, great. If he or she is enlightened, all the better. If lives are transformed through our work that’s amazing, but none of that is our primary purpose. Our task is to tell an interesting story to hook a reader’s interest and hold it to the last page. Preferably, when the book is put down for the last time, the reader will be left wanting more. What we are not here to do is frustrate or annoy our reader sufficiently to see our book tossed across the room or more likely into the blue box for recycling.
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Conflict is a good literary device. Create an objective for your protagonist and then throw any number of impediments in the way. Add any number of twists and turns. A sudden surprise is welcome. You can even wind up with your main character chasing his or her tail and make it work. If push comes to shove, you can write an unhappy ending, although personally I don’t care for them. What you cannot do, in my opinion, is write an essay and call it a story. There are plenty of places for essays. Fiction isn’t one of them. That goes double for sermonizing. If you must write a stream of consciousness, take it to your psychiatrist. Don’t expect me to read it.
Having said all that, I have to concede in certain circles, plotless, avant-garde literature is de rigueur. For example, there was a book on the shortlist for one of the big prizes – Giller or Booker – I don’t remember which. For all I know, it may have won. I’ve stopped paying attention to literary awards because, after reading a sample of over twenty-five, I came to the conclusion they’re not for me. This particular one is over a thousand pages long and consists of one sentence in the form of a stream of consciousness. I won’t be reading it. Such books may win prestigious awards. What they will never win is the hearts and minds of the vast majority of readers.
This guest post was contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published ten books on Smashwords.com.