The Plot’s the Thing

I’ve been sending out short stories over the past several months to those literary magazines which I thought might be likely to publish one of my stories.  This has required that I read two things about each magazine: first, the description of the magazine written by the editors, especially the part where they discuss what kind of fiction they like to print, and second, some of the stories that have been published in recent issues of the magazine.  Now, with respect to the second point, I’ve noticed that most stories tend to fall into two groups: those that have beautiful, wonderful writing, and those which, while the narration is adequate, simply tell a good story.  I gravitate toward the second.

Yes, of course, there are stories that combine great writing with a great plot, and those are fascinating to read, but in all honesty my feeling is they seem to be in the minority.  The greatest proportion fall into one of the two categories above.  Now, I’m certainly not the most well-read person on the planet, but what I’ve read has convinced me that I much prefer the short story or novel that goes out of its way to provide a good plot.  Those draw me in much more easily than stories that use little but beautiful language.  I want a story that moves; a story where the characters are doing something; where the plot line moves inevitably forward.  I want to see what happens, not read how well it’s told.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: plot is everything and everything else is secondary.  Or even tertiary.

In my writing I’ve always tried to tell a good story.  I feel that’s more important to the reader than how beautifully the story is told, and I don’t worry too much about producing a fancy metaphor, or describing a person, place or thing in grandiose, flowery language.  I have to say I’ve read stories that, while they were beautifully written, had virtually no plot line.  Nothing went on in the story, nothing that the reader could “sink his hands into.”  Two people talking, or one person describing something, like his/her lover.  Some of these stories even get nominated for prestigious awards, as though the editors of the magazine aren’t aware that literature is for the dissemination of ideas, not just words.

Many people, including me, believe that “it’s not what you say that’s important, it’s what you do.”  Or, put more succinctly, actions speak louder than words.  That’s also true in literature; what a fictional character does is more important and significant than what he/she says, or how his life is described.  To use an Olympic metaphor, go for the action and go for the gold.

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