Thursday, March 1, 2012

Plot and Character more Important than Prose?

I'm the type of writer, who I'm sure is like most, that frets over using the right word, right sentence structure, right exact perfect mechanics of prose to get across what I want to communicate in my stories. But does that really matter? Does prose actually have that much of a bearing on how it comes off to the reader as we think it does?

The other night as I was driving along the highways for work late at night, I popped in the audio book of "Epic of Gilgamesh" which is considered by a lot of people to be the oldest story in history. (Written around the 18th century BC. on the clay tablets pictured above.) Suffice to say, the word choice and sentence structure is not very advanced. There are many parts that repeat itself verbatim many many times to the point where I was chanting along with the narrator by the middle of the book in some parts. Overall, the work is very basic and has about the same sophistication I would expect out of a 10 year old.

But still, this story drew me in and kept me awake so I didn't crash my car. (yay!) And I began to wonder why that was, since it was so basic. And the reason is that the plot and characters are well developed. In reality, this is all that The Epic of Gilgamesh has going for it, and it has survived for almost 4000 years!

This brought me to another train of thought then. A lot of the classics that we know and love are indeed translations from the original work. And the format they were originally written in is usually not how we experience them in present day. For instance, just about everybody knows and likes the Iliad and Odyssey, however I don't know many people who have read it in the epic poem format. It's usually the modern spin offs that they have seen. But the power of the characters and plot has allowed this story to survive and still impact people after many years.

Shakespeare wrote plays, but still, people pick up those plays and read them as if they were a book, still getting enjoyment out of them. There is virtually no description, and all we have is dialogue that many of us struggle to comprehend without putting on our thinking caps. And still, he's widely read by people far and wide, even after they graduate. What keeps drawing people to these works, again, is the power of the characters and plot.

Even more modern works that end up getting translated loose a lot of the feel of the author, no matter how good the translation. But still, there are great pieces of literature that survive this process to still touch our hearts. Because the only thing that really can be translated across language and time barriers is in my opinion, character and plot.

I'm not saying that you should be writing your work at that 10 year old level, but perhaps a lot of the agony we spend trying to come up with the perfect word could be better spent on making sure we have an overall story that connects with the reader.


Ciara Ballintyne March 1, 2012 at 4:12 PM  

Both are important to me. It drives me batty when I read a book if the prose is sloppy. I'm LESS likely to notice if the plot andcharacters are well-developed, but I'm MORE likely to reread the book AND buy your next one if you have good prose as well.

Call me cynical but sometimes I think people read (some) old stories because we have fostered the belief that they are good to the point where it has taken on a life of its own. No one admits they 'don't get it' or 'didn't like it' because then they might look stupid or uncultured. Well, I did say I was cynical. I have absolutely no empirical evidence for this, just a theory based on how people still flock to the crappy Sydney beaches instead of the good ones LOL

Alessa Hinlo March 1, 2012 at 8:52 PM  

Character and plot are more important to me than prose BUT I will be thrown out of a book if the prose is sloppy. That said, I can always appreciate a lovely sentence. In moderation, of course. Sometimes I feel that people go overboard.

Michael Tate March 2, 2012 at 11:48 AM  

You both make excellent points, and I think perhaps I was a bit 'sloppy.' I didn't mean that the prose can be sloppy, but rather in my opinion correct, non-distracting, and pedestrian prose can be very easily hidden by good plot & character. But the reverse is not necessarily true at least for me.

Sure, there are people who do claim they enjoy Proust...but then again I think a lot of them are those who want to say the liked it to look cultured :)

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