Whenever I’m struggling with some writing, I like to read how great writers really struggled with writing. And one of my favourite examples is P G Wodehouse. Because, if you read Wodehouse’s immortal books, it all seems so effortless and blithe, so seamless and easy, and yet that wasn’t the case. Wodehouse sometimes struggled with his craft, and he always struggled with creating plot.
Incredibly, Wodehouse would often take two years to get a plot right; once he had had it nailed down, he would do the actual writing, which took mere months. But he laboured on those plots, because he knew that plot is everything. Get the story right, and the world will beat a path to your door.
This is not, however, what we are taught as students; it’s not what I learned when I was growing up. In lecture halls and schoolrooms – and when it comes to esteemed literary prizes – the emphasis is on fine writing and polished prose, on elegance and experiment. If anything, plot is actively looked down upon, as a gimmick and a trick, suitable for thrillers and kids’ books.
Why is this? I think it might be something to do with literary Modernism. In the past, great novelists were unashamed to use the most rip-roaring plots. If you take apart Pride and Prejudice, say, there is a brilliantly devious plot, whirring away beneath the exquisite prose. Pride and Prejudice is almost a thriller in its pacing, as the true personality of Darcy is teasingly revealed to the reader. Every sentence advances the delicious narrative. This is surely why it is one of the most beloved books of all time.
And it’s not just Jane Austen. From Dickens to Tolstoy to Hardy – they all had stirring plots to match their memorable characters or imperious perspectives. But then, around 1920, Joyce and Proust came along, and suddenly telling a tale became infra dig. Almost indecent.
Of course, if you are a genius modernist like James Joyce, not having a plot doesn’t really matter. Ulysses is a great novel, despite its lack of story. But vanishingly few people can write like James Joyce, and, moreover, readers still like plots, and still want them. There is a universal human craving for story, which plotless fiction cannot satisfy. This dislocation between readerly desires and literary delusions bedevils us to this day.
Nor am I excepting myself from this delusion. For many years, I also looked down on plot, like an idiot. And then the doubts crept up. I began to wonder why I wasn’t enjoying much-lauded novels. Why I preferred to watch TV drama series.
It was around this time that I read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Everyone with a Phd was telling me how awful this book was, how the prose was laughable, and the dialogue lamentable. But its success piqued my curiosity, so I picked it up, and – cliche of cliches – I couldn’t put it down.
Sure, the prose was a little wooden, and the love interest unconvincing, but what the hell: the plot just sang. It was superbly constructed, and splendidly accomplished. In terms of story-telling, it was, and is, a masterpiece. Better than lots of acclaimed novels I had abandoned, in a state of irritated mystification.
So that was my epiphany. That’s when I realised I wanted to tell stories, not write sentences. But that was also the beginning of my troubles. Because it is quite easy to write nice sentences, and yet, as Wodehouse knew all-too-well, it is bloody difficult to construct a decent plot.