Photo by Joel Robison
I'm risking here to alienate many of you, and I truly apologize if I do, because what's about to follow is purely a speculation based on a very strong feeling of an epiphany that struck me today while reading the 7th book of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I swear, I didn't plan it, I didn't think nothing, I was making myself tea, holding the book in one hand and the cup in another, when I nearly dropped both. Because in the book something absolutely random happened, which didn't make much sense, and which I proceeded to believe and ignore and gloss over for the sake of the story. It was like one of those random things that happen that we shrug off, like a crow flying into your window, and then, as soon as it appears, flying out. You stand there, your life flow interrupted, you muse about it for a minute or two, and then move on with your life. Same phenomenon happened to me while reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, where a character would suddenly appear, keep developing, and then, BAM, disappear and be never mentioned again. Yet it didn't bother me and I continued reading! So, here is the deal, I haven't read enough, nor have I written enough to claim any kind of knowledge on the matter, but I have a very very strong feeling, a feeling that all stories are character driven, period. And stories that are plot driven are interesting, but ultimately never touch us in the same way.
People care for people, not for ideas. This is as simple as it gets. We can talk to death about ideas, but we don't really care about them, we care about other people and their opinions about our idea, precisely because the idea doesn't matter as much as somebody's validation of it does. (Case in point, me blogging about my idea here.) And why do we read books? To identify with characters, to have our own lives and ambitions and dreams and fantasies validated, through the eyes of... *drumroll* ...a character! Again, a person, not the idea. I mean, tell me, is it easier to read a novel or a textbook? Yeah, I knew you'd think the same. But what is interesting is that when a book is being written, ultimately first stuff happens to characters, then a plot develops, then perhaps it gets so strong, that it becomes a very interesting story, a very interesting pitch to put on the back of the book, so it might LOOK like it's plot driven, where in fact it isn't. So then when the book becomes successful, we, naturally, try to dissect it, to understand how this author wrote it, to learn from it, and in dissecting we try to find patterns, try to find some rule that we can apply to our own writing. I think perhaps this is where the whole idea of a plot came from. Did Homer think about a plot when writing The Odyssey? I don't think so. Yet here we are, trying to be smart about everything, cutting it apart and learning. It seems like this is what produces books that are plot driven, it's writers learning how to write, reading books about how to write, reading about plots, and ultimately writing with plots in mind. Right? Again, I'm not stating a fact here, only wondering.
We're happiest when we feel, not plan. This is one of those simple truths, you know, on how to be happy. Think back to when you were three and you did stuff because you felt like it, not because you had it on your to-do list. And now think about your job, about those endless notes and tasks and e-mails and meetings, and then more of those tomorrow, and more the day after, and think about how much stress it adds to your life, and how ultimately you feel burned out and are dying to go on vacation to decompress. Why? Because. Because it's not how we're designed to function, that's why we do art for therapy, or go to yoga resorts, or do mediation, or... . All because the planning doesn't make us happy, being spontaneous does. Back to the plot. When a book is character driven, stuff happens in it, but it feels spontaneous, and it feels good, it gives us the same high as if we were spontaneous with the character. And when a book is carefully plotted out, it just doesn't feel as good, because we don't really perceive it through the character's eyes, through emotions, we get it with our mind, the one that likes to organize everything and the one that makes us feel overwhelmed when there is too much shit going on and our to-do list seems never-ending. Again, this is simply a hypothesis, so bear with me, please.
We can't predict life, no matter how much we try. All of us at one point or another have tried horoscopes or other more obscure methods to predict future, because we're scared of death and bad stuff that might happento us and we want to know how to avoid it, or at least prepare for it. But we can't, not really, I mean, we predict weather and stuff, and that's about it. Same with books. We think we can predict the ending, we want to predict the ending, we're dying to know what happens next, because we're living through the character and we're afraid for the character, afraid the character might die or some other bad stuff might happen, we want good stuff to happen, right? Right. And here lies the problem with purely plot driven books. Again, I'm only thinking out loud here, not claiming that I know this, simply having a very strong feeling. And that feeling is, carefully plotted books are predictable, hence, boring. Now, chances are you might fail to see a pattern in a very cleverly plotted book, and it will keep you hooked till the very end. The benefit of a character driven book is, it's unpredictable, surprising us the same way life surprises us, throwing the character into a chaos that they have to solve, the same way life throws us into chaos. Hence, this explains to me why I didn't care much for Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (I was very upset about this fact, because it's on a best-seller list, and I thought something must be wrong with me.) On page 66 I knew where the story was going, plot-wise, and ONLY on page 220 the actual twist I suspected happened. By then I was so fed up with patiently plowing through pages, that I dropped the book, I simply couldn't read it anymore, I was that upset. Again, don't listen to me here as if I'm saying some ultimate truth. I'm not, I'm simply musing, trying to understand how to be a better writer and learning as I go, so please don't think that Gone Girl is not worth reading your time, check it out for yourself. There is a reason it sells well. What I'm stating here is purely my own understanding of why I didn't like it.
Whew. I'm scared now. I'm terrified of being honest here and spilling this publicly, because there are so many big and important people who would tear my head off if they only saw that I dared to contradict years and years of their research. So, please know, I wanted to share this burning epiphany of mine, to hopefully start a discussion and see if anything comes out of it, as a learning experience, to learn how to write better. And, hopefully, help you in the process too. It takes a village, right?