The most important part of a story… (An impossible question?)
The most important part of a story…
It’s something I’m constantly trying to figure out while I’m reading a book or writing one. Would this story work with a slower pace, or a more twist-filled plot? Would it benefit from deeper, funnier, more evil characters? What if this character was actually a villain, this other one a hero? What if there was more action and less focus on romance?
It’s hard to say what is the most important aspect of a story, but I’m going to try to figure it out anyway. I probably won’t, so if you’ve got any ideas, it’d be great to hear them—stick them in a comment at the end of the post.
Obviously every book needs a plot or some semblance of a plot at least. Characters need something to do, some goal to reach for. A plot is the structure, the bones of a story; it supports everything else and holds everything together. There are weak plots and there are strong plots. A weak plot is one that doesn’t seem to have any order and instead has characters wandering about, not doing much. A strong plot gives its characters something to do, and this helps in developing characters. Having a character face and handle a plot twist is a great way to develop a character. So without a plot, the characters don’t have a whole lot to do.
A plot also gives the reader something to do. Not all, but most readers appreciate a solid plot that they can follow and watch unfold. In crime a good plot is particularly important: a detective or an ordinary citizen uncovers clues to catch a killer or criminal. But the reader is also along for the ride, solving the plot turns along with a protagonist or set of characters.
A plot gives a book order, sense and purpose. Middle, beginning, end and twists.
An example of a well-plotted book is Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (one of my favourite books. Top ten of all time). Here, King weaves together several plots: a race to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy, falling in love with a girl, trying not to alter the course of the future. The plot is tight, despite the book’s sprawling length. Another writer, though not one of my favourites, who delivers tight plots is James Patterson. The plots are largely well-thought out, and have a clear, tight structure. True his characters and writing are not on a par with King or many other writers, but Patterson (and his many co-authors) know how to deliver solid plots. Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games trilogy is another fine example of a plot arc well-handled. Whilst book’s one and two are similar, there is definite movement towards the final take down of the capitol in the third and final book. The HG’s books are solid in structure, and I never got the impression Collin’s didn’t know where she was going.
Many people focus on characters above everything else. And that is understandable. The characters are the aspect of the story we have to identify with or sympathise with, or hate, or love. Without characters, a story wouldn’t work, there’s no doubt about it. Watching a character develop is a great part of reading a book, and is what some reader’s most enjoy. Character development didn’t used to bother me. I’ve read and enjoyed many books (mostly fast-paced thrillers) where there is little to no character development. The characters in these cases are just people to follow from one set piece or plot twist to the next. But over the past couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate solid, identifiable characters. I think I’ve got better at developing characters in my own writing too, by reading great characters in books. A real character is hard to pull off. A character who could be a friend or enemy or family member is a special thing.
Some of the best character’s I’ve read come from J K Rowling, Stephen King and Joe Abercrombie. Rowling created a vast cast of characters in the Potter books, and each one felt real, and unique. The main trio, Harry, Ron and Hermione came to be like mates, family even, and you live each book with them. King writes the most diverse and believable characters I’ve ever read. And that’s saying something, because most of his characters are bat-shit crazy. Annie Wilkes (Misery), Big Jim (Under the Dome), Jack Torrance (The Shining). Abercrombie writes rich, twisted characters that are as unrelenting as his plots and writing. Similarly, Mark Lawrence writes one of the best, if not the best, anti-hero I’ve ever read in his fantasy novel Prince of Thorns.
Pace is determined by plot, the two are linked, much like plot and characters are linked. Sometimes a slow pace works for a novel. In Stephen King’s most recent novel, Revival, the plot burns slowly up until the fast, furious ending. And it works, for me it did anyway. The slow pace through the beginning and middle allowed King to develop character and build a rich plot. A fast pace from the outset would not have worked for Revival. Similarly, in James Patterson novels, there is rarely anything but a fast pace, because his plots generally have some huge threat looming or some killer on the run who needs to be caught. The Hunger Games, too, have frantic plots, which reflect the desperation of the Games. If the Hunger Games had been slowly plotted, they would be very different books.
A story needs some sort of conflict to be interesting. If everything is nice and happy, a story generally doesn’t have meaning or pace. There needs to be some threat or argument, some rift between characters, to give the story a purpose, to give the reader something to invest in. Good vs Evil is the most common source of conflict, and J K Rowling and Suzanne Collins adopt it pretty well. We all want to know if Harry will defeat Voldemort or Katniss will take down President Snow. It’s the conflict that keeps us interested and invested. Without it, there wouldn’t be a meaning, or point to the story.
Action used to be what I looked for in a book, and it still is, but now along with other things. Action could be considered pace, but I think the two are different things. A fast pace does not mean there is one action sequence after another. Under the Dome by Stephen King is a fast paced novel, but there is little action; in Under the Dome’s case, the pace is generated through a sense of urgency and peril, and the desperation of the characters and the reader for an explanation for the dome.
When I’m talking about action, I’m not just talking about literal action. Chase sequences, scaling buildings, battles, fights etc. Many novels use the aforementioned action tropes, but action can come in many forms. A character solving a murder is action. The character is doing something that generates pace and movement. Action is an integral part of the story, where pace provides structure, action provides movement. Action and pace, again, are connected. The Jack Reacher novels are full of great action set pieces, and the stories are largely structured around Reacher moving from to another. This is no bad thing, the Reacher novels are some of my favourite books, and Lee Child one of my favourite authors.
Action is linked with all other parts of a story, it propels plot and characters forward, and determines pace.
A writer can write a book, but a reader makes it real. Up until the moment it gets into someone else’s hands, the writer is the only one to have imagined the world and characters. The only one to have made that world and those characters real. But then a reader gets a hold of a story, and it comes to life in their heads’. They fill in the blanks an author leaves for them to fill, they love or hate or laugh at characters, they get caught up in plot and pace and action. Without a reader, a story is just words on a page.
Like I predicted, I haven’t answered my question. I think it’s impossible to answer definitely. Because one aspect influences another or several others. Perhaps they all influence each other. Without one another or three or four other aspects wouldn’t work. What do you think? What is the most important part of a story?