Good Stories, Unoriginal Plots, Timeless Themes
  • There are 32 ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there’s only one plot: things are not what they seem.

    Jim Thompson.

    Anthony Burgess was slightly less stringent on possible plots: he put the number at about five.

    What distinguishes one plot from another? Or, to put that question more specifically, if two writers write the same plot, how if at all will those stories differ?

    In fact, no two stories can be written exactly alike, and the primary reason for this is the writer’s style. (“The most interesting story is always the story of the writer’s style,” said Vladimir Nabokov.)

    Styles are more diverse than fingerprints, and how the writer tells her story discloses exactly how that writer thinks.

    Stories consist of several elements, the most fundamental of which is plot — plot being the skeleton upon which the meat of the story (characters, theme, descriptions) all hang — and ultimately what determines the differences in stories, even those with similar plots, is the depth of style, the depth of theme, depth of character development.

    Literature, for example, is primarily distinguished from popular fiction by the seriousness of its themes and by how well the writer not only grasps but also conveys those themes. This latter thing is an issue of style and stylistic clarity.

    Theme is the core meaning that the events of a story add up to — e.g., the theme of the movie Quiz Show is honesty.

    In essence, literature conveys the importance of human life.

    Plot is the means by which this is done.

    There can be good plots with shallow themes (certain soap operas, for instance), and there can be good themes with poor plots (like the novel Light Years, by James Salter). But in either case, a theme cannot be clearly or convincingly conveyed without a good plot and a strong writing style.

    July 14th, 2011 | journalpulp | 4 Comments | Tags: , , , , , , ,

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

4 Responses and Counting...

  • Greg 07.14.2011

    What are the five possible plot lines?

  • Hi Greg. It’s Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame) who said that, not I. But Burgess didn’t elaborate. Actually, he has his main character Kenneth Toomey — in a massive novel Earthly Powers — say it.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • This is perhaps the most inspirational post on this blog. I always get to thinking too much about what I want to write and how it’s probably been done before and I just haven’t read it yet. This makes me think that my style will set any story I write apart from what’s already been written.

    Thank you. Your writing is always inspiring to me and I love that you are teaching what you know so well in this medium.

  • So much of the story is in the style.

    It’s very good to see you, Becca.

    Thank you for dropping by.

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