Maybe it isn’t that old. I don’t really know. All I know is that I constantly find myself attracted more to a writer’s ability to craft a sentence rather than their ability to create a complex, engaging plot.
Of course, the best is an author who is adept at both a beautiful story and great prose. Some of my favorite authors like John Fante, David Foster Wallace, and Neil Gaiman are able to craft a story and blow me away with their penchant for a perfect line, paragraph, or chapter. In fact, I still get chills when I read the first chapters in Ask the Dust.
Then there’s authors who are terrible writers, but have spectacularly complex plotting… The finest example is Harry Stephen Keeler. I can’t describe the madness with which he writes other than to give you a few titles: The Skull of the Waltzing Clown, The Man With Magic Eardrums, I Killed Lincoln At 10:13. Yeah. I’ve only read a couple, but they’re a lot of fun. But they’re also pretty terrible.
On the flipside of that, there’s authors who are consistently great plotters, but average (or below-average) writers. Oftentimes, these types of authors seem to crop up in fantasy. Some of my favorite examples are J.K. Rowling (check this outline!), George R.R. Martin, and Raymond Feist. Martin, for example, has an over-reliance on italics and clumsy internal monologues, but… he plots wonderfully. I only hope it all comes together in the end…
Then, of course, there’s the authors who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag and similarly couldn’t plot an episode of Sesame Street. Authors like James Patterson and Dan Brown fit this profile. NOBODY NEEDS THAT MANY CHAPTER BREAKS YOU SONS OF BITCHES!
I think what it basically comes down to, for me, is that good plots are entertaining and move the story right along. A good writer, however, could be a lot more memorable over time. I can quote passages from TS Eliot, John Fante, and Jeffrey Eugenides because their words have stuck in my head for years now.
Of course, I can tell you the plots of the books in the Harry Potter series, but outside of one or two passages, I couldn’t quote anything from the series… which doesn’t say a lot to me for more than three-thousand pages. I don’t think this diminishes the quality of the series itself, given the depth of the plot (and the subtle interactions of the characters), but the writing itself does sometimes leave something to be desired.
So is a solidly-written chapter a greater accomplishment than a well-plotted novel… or series? Naturally, the choice comes down to the individual reader. Millions of people who read all six-hundred James Patterson novels a year obviously don’t care about either.
For me, I prefer a well-written novel over a well-plotted one. I’ve read Ask the Dust and Post Office more times than I can count… but I can’t see myself returning to A Song of Ice and Fire as often. Where do you sit on the plot\writing debate?
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