There’s a common misconception (unfortunately growing), popular among so-called commercial-fiction coaches predominantly, though not exclusively, that stories and novels have one and only one real purpose: storytelling. Which is to say, plot. Which is to say, conflict. Anything, therefore, that slows the pace of the plot — or anything that disrupts the plot — should be “ruthlessly cut,” as it’s so often phrased.
This notion is flatly false.
The fundamental error in this mentality is the belief that the art of literature has only one real function, and that plot, which is merely a vehicle, is the essence of that function.
But literature, like every legitimate art, consists fundamentally of two components: subject and style.
Subject is what the writer presents.
Style is how she presents it.
For many of us, style is just as fulfilling as subject-matter, and many of us read for the sheer pleasure we get in the use of language alone. “The most interesting story is always the story of the writer’s style,” said Nabokov.
Many people derive no such pleasure from style, and that’s just fine. These are the people for whom Top Gun and The Da Vinci Code are models of storytelling. These are the the ones who admonish us to “ruthlessly cut” and “slay your darlings,” and who may very well slay you if, for instance, you end a chapter with a character falling asleep.
Yet there’s plenty of room for different tastes in literature. I may love Jean Valjean and the plot of Les Miserables. You may find Les Miserables too discursive and loosely plotted, and Jean Valjean too shadowy. There’s still a market for you, and there’s still a market for me.
The alternative is not tightly plotted commercial fiction, or nothing.
There are, moreover, plenty of books and stories that have excellent and complicated plots and possess sophisticated beautiful styles, all at the same time.
Here’s what I want you to understand: there is a formula (of sorts) to storytelling, but it’s not as rigid as many would have you believe. And, furthermore, books can be loosely plotted — even poorly plotted, or even flawed — and still be beautiful, and contain beautiful, convincing characters.
Thus if, like me, you don’t particularly care for formulaic fiction, or if you don’t want to write or read commercial fiction and yet you still want to be a writer so that you might capture something beautiful, you can.
I’ll end with a passage — many adjectives of which could no doubt be “ruthlessly cut” — that a commercial fiction coach once told me he found “horribly purple” but which happens to be one of my all-time favorite passages in all of literature:
[T]he kid wandered on through the raw mud streets and out past the houses of hide in the rows and across the gravel strand to the beach.
Loose strands of ambercolored kelp lay in a rubbery wrack at the tideline. A dead seal. Beyond the inner bay part of a reef in a thin line like something foundered there on which the sea was teething. He squatted in the sand and watched the sun on the hammered face of the water. Out there island clouds emplaned upon a salmoncolored othersea. Seafowl in silhouette. Downshore the dull surf boomed. There was a horse standing there starting out upon the darkening waters, and a young colt that cavorted and trotted off and came back.
He sat watching while the sun dipped hissing in the swells. The horse stood darkly against the sky. The surf boomed in the dark and the sea’s black hide heaved in the cobbled starlight and the long pale combers loped out of the night and broke along the beach.
He rose and turned toward the lights of town. The tidepools bright as smelterpots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.
One man’s nightmare is another man’s dream, I guess.