Sunday, November 14, 2010

TSS: How important is PLOT to you?

Hello again, Sunday Salon!  I was in the mood to write a post, and what better way to come back (especially when I haven't actually read anything) than through the Sunday Salon?  I can't think of one :-)

First, I'd just like to share how depressed I was to get on my Google Reader yesterday and realize that I somehow completely missed an entire week of book blogging dedicated to NYRB Classics.  What?!  How did this happen?!  I am a complete evangelist for NYRB Classics.  And I had not even the slightest inkling that this week was taking place.  I know my reaction is probably an exaggerated one and I also know that there is no way I could physically participate in NYRB Classics week, but... really.  It depressed me that I didn't even know about it.

Anyway, moving on.

Oh, wait- shout out to anyone who participated this week and read Wish Her Safe at Home.  Good on you.  To all the myriads of others who read and reviewed The Post-Office Girl and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne- well, those moved up on my TBR list, too, and hopefully I can get to them over Christmas break.  My Thanksgiving break, I hope, will be dedicated to The Outward Room.  Which has been pretty brilliant so far, in the first 20 pages or so.

Anyway, moving on for real now.

I started this "How Important Is..." series some months ago and I have really enjoyed the discussion it fosters, albeit on a very irregular basis.  If you have ideas on other aspects of a novel that are important to your reading experience that you'd like me to explore at some point in the future, please let me know!

But for now... how important is the plot of a novel for you?  Most novels have a plot summary on their back covers.  Granted, these can be very misleading sometimes.  But usually they have some basis in fact.  How many people, though, come across a book on the shelf, pick it up, read the back cover, and then decide to purchase it?  I'll bet there aren't that many, unless you're at a pretty cheap used bookstore or a very crowded book fair.

But does that mean we don't purchase books for the plot?  I am not sure.  I think for me, I do so much research on a book before purchasing it that I don't need the back cover to convince me.  Usually, I go to bookstores armed with a list of books I am looking for.  Or I'll see a title on the shelf that I've seen reviewed positively by one of you fabulous bloggers and decide to give it a try.  So in that case, I guess, I have a general idea of the plot, and it interests me enough to purchase the book.

And really, plot is important for some stories.  A lot of people read mysteries and police procedurals and expect a very tightly-conceived plot.  Fantasy novels, many of which take place over a series of books, also require a well-planned storyline.  And it is generally very difficult to write a novel that has no plot.  But is that the main thing that you look for?

I think, for me, it's not.  I say this even though I am one of those people who must always read the end of a book very soon after starting the story, just to know how it ends.  Clearly, knowing the plot of a story is important to me.  But I will keep reading a story that doesn't have a great plot, if I feel invested in the characters, or if I think the writing is so good.  I also don't really pick books up based on plots.  This could be due to the fact that most people don't like discussing plot in great detail in reviews for fear of spoilers.  So really... if I get all my book recommendations from blogs and book-related news sources, it would be impossible for me to choose a book based on plot.  No, I think I pick more on historical era or general subject matter or intriguing characters.  That said, though, a good plot can keep me up reading way past my bedtime and thinking about the story long after I've finished reading it.

What about you?  How important is the plot of a novel to your level of reading enjoyment?


  1. Maybe I am strange but before I started blogging and becoming 'aware' of other ways to get recs I did buy books based on the plot summary. I could go in and find 10 books and buy them all just based by what is in the jacket cover or on the back.

  2. I missed the announcement of NYBR Classics Week myself, and only learned about it this week, when it was too late for me to try to find something to read for it. Boo :(

    As for plot, I care about it in the sense that I enjoy a good story, but it's the least of my deciding factors when picking a book. In fact, I AM one of those people who worry endlessly about spoilers and don't like to know too much about a story before going in :P When picking a book, I rely on premise, themes, historical period, what I know about the author, and samples of the writing.

  3. The plot IS important to me in that I think some sort of framework needs to exist for a novel to be one which draws me in, but not at the expense of having a narrator or a character who I can identify with. But I'd never read the end before I'd got there- yikes!!!!! The prospect of doing so fills me with horror! I think my favourite books are those which combine plot with a hefty dose of psychological insight, with the latter being far far far more crucial for my enjoyment of the book. And language. Language is incredibly important to me, some of the more plot-driven books read more like newspaper articles to me! He said, she said, the next day... blahblahblah.

    I'm currently reading Dr Zhivago and whilst I'm loving in 90% of the time, the points where I am not loving it are the times when I feel it is just telling a story, without giving me any insight into what it was like for anybody who actually *lived* the story. I guess that's just it - I want to be able to live the story in a novel, and it doesn't really matter how short or long the tale is. I am highly unlikely to buy a book just because the plot sounds interesting - I cannot imagine what plot there could be that would on its own merit inspire me to pick up a book and start reading it.

    Very interestingly, I've just read and reviewed Wish her Safe at Home and in the introduction i'm sure you'll remember that John Carey tells us (well, it was news to me anyway!) that theorists feel there to be only a dozen or so fictional plots before you're retelling one that's already been told. And many of my favourite novels do undoubtedly retell an age-old story, it is not usually the story itself which I love about the book. It's the person who told it. Unrequited love is the oldest tale in the book, but Francoise Sagan does heartbreak like noone else, for instance. So no, plot is definitely not the main thing I look for.

  4. I buy books for the plot, but sometimes I do read books, not for the plot, instead cos I feel the might have something.

    Anyway, my latest review, plot awesome, and it didn't work out and I got sad :(

  5. I choose books for a wide variety of reasons. Yes, the plot is important - I've abandoned a book halfway through because it didn't seem to be going anywhere (Armadillo by William Boyd) and if the plot isn't sustainable/is completely implausible I lose interest. But equally, completely plot-driven genres (crime, thriller) aren't usually my absolute favourites because they tend to promote plot above characterisation and good writing, they're the kind of books I read when I want something light, quick and distracting to read - with all novels it's the journey that's really important.

    I do sometimes choose books based on the blurb on the back, but I always read the first page as well, and if I like it, I buy it. Usually I choose books because I've read a review/a friend has recommended it/it's by an author I like or am curious about (curiosity kills this cat evey time :)) And no, I never read the ending first!

  6. I certainly pick books up based on the plot summary on the back - I have certain tropes that have me dragging armfuls of books to the checkout counter (I can't resist a girl dressed up as a boy story, and anything about artists is a pretty safe bet as well).

    That initial decision of mine is almost always based on plot - but, of course, the books that really stay with me are the ones with characters I fall in love with.

  7. Glad to see your post today :)

    Once upon a time I would have said plot is very important to me, but since then I have read several books and book series where I enjoy the characters so much that the plot pales in comparison to the character interactions or details about them.
    I posted right along these lines today on my own blog--about how I bought a book solely for the next one in the series because I enjoy the characters and missed them!

  8. Hey, welcome back!!!

    Plot isn't that important to me - how many new stories are there to tell, after all? In fact, I would vote it to be the least important element in the book!

  9. For me, when I read the back of the book, I'm looking for an interesting setup and often something that will make me think. If there isn't an element of thinking involved in the description - in other words, if it's pure plot - I'll generally put the book back. Plot is important to me, but not as important as some other elements of the book such as character. I'm more likely to buy a book because it sounds like a character is going to be in an interesting place, and less because of the plot. I do think plot is important, though. I've read books where there is no plot and I don't like them. I think some plot - even if it's a calm, mild plot - is needed to really tell a story so that all the rest of the stuff can go on around it.

  10. I always read the back or inside cover of a book, so yes plot is very important. However, I'll also purchase books by favorite authors or books that others have raved about. I recall reading a book once that indicated it was a thriller and it was anything but...ore romance.

  11. Pam- Before blogging, I did much the same, but maybe as that was before I had a job, I did more browsing and trying things out using a library than by purchasing! Now, though, I usually go in and know what I want.

    Nymeth- Yes, very sad :-( I know you do worry about spoilers, but it's so interesting to me that you couple that worry with clear admittance of the fact that plot isn't actually super-important to you. Or, at least, isn't a huge factor in you deciding whether you want to read a book or not.

    Jane- I don't know why people are so against reading the last page or so of a book earlier on! I don't read it first, no- but I usually get there by the time I read the middle of the book. And doing so has never once changed my enjoyment of a book. I would agree that I like stories that you can live in- not ones that just tell you the plot. So I'm with you there!

    Blodeuedd- Yes, when I MISS something, I generally assume I skimmed something plot-related ;-)

    Tracy- I choose books the same way now. I think probably a lot of bloggers do so!

    Lana- Haha, my weakness (in terms of not needing anything to go on except plot summary) is anything that takes place in Georgian or Regency England...

    Windows Wide Open- I think series may be a little different in terms of choosing to read a book or not. At least for me, not at all about plot in some ways (more about characters), but in other ways, ALL about plot because I want to know what happens to the characters.

    rhapsodyinbooks- Thank you! I would agree with you.

    Amanda- Yes, I think if you don't have plot, you end up with more of that stream-of-consciousness, somewhat pretentious narrator and THOSE are not fun.

    Diane- Wow, that's a big difference! I have read books like that, too. One made it seem like it was all about one particular character, who is also a historical figure. But really... it's all about a different one.

  12. I'd put plot on the bottom of my priority list too. Sure, I like a good one, but there are so many more factors involved for me that it's really not that important. Some of my favorite books are the quiet ones in which not much happens but character development and slow revelations. I never choose books based on back cover copy, either.

    Saying that, I can't stand spoilers and can't imagine looked at the back to see what happened when still in the beginning of the book, so obviously it does matter to me somewhat!

    Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

  13. Anonymous11/14/2010

    I don't buy books based on the plot synopsis, but then I hardly ever buy books new at all. The thing is that you really can't tell from a plot synopsis if the book is going to be well-written or engaging.

    But I think plot is pretty important to me. I love a twisty, complicated plot well-executed, and I am not one of those people that gets on well with books short on plot. Books should make me want to know what happens next and how it happens.

  14. Like Jennysbooks, I think I read fiction primarily for the plot, to see what happens. This is one reason I read science fiction and YA novels, because they do have some new things going on in terms of ideas about what can happen.
    But I don't fear spoilers and often page ahead and/or read the ending first, because the other thing I'm looking for is that thing that's so hard to define--good writing.
    Good characterization comes in a very close third for me, because if I don't like any of the characters, I can't get interested in the plot.

  15. It depends! There are some novels I love for their twisty plots and others I love for their characterization and writing. If I complain that a book has no plot it's probably because I am bored with the other elements of the story.

  16. Meghan- I love a well-written quiet story, too. I of course can't think of one at the moment, but I am sure there are several just at the tip of my tongue.

    I think I am being judged for my reading the end of a book before getting there by a lot of people ;-) I swear, I'm still a good reader!

    Jenny- Your point is spot on! You really can NOT tell whether a book will be well-written by its plot synopsis. And often, books about really mundane things can be so well-written that the plot can be completely misleading. One example of that would be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. "Boy investigates neighbor's dog's death" would be a very uninformative plot summary.

    Jeanne- I am glad you read the ending earlier, too! I knew I wasn't the only one! I am completely with you on characters, too. They are very key for me.

    Lenore- It depends is an answer I use often, to ;-) I think you're right that I only really complain about dull plots if I don't like anything else in the story.

  17. The Post Office Girl is A mazing, hope you have a good time reading it when you can fit it in.

    Last month I read a book called Anila's Journey and while I was reading it I didn't give the sensibleness of the plot that much thought, then I saw a review mentioning one plot hole and all of a sudden the whole thing unravelled for me. But while I was reading I really enjoyed it. So I guess I don't focus very much on the plot specifics of novels.

    If I haven't seen any other attractive aspects of a book mentioned (language, characters) then it's important that a book sounds like it's going to have a good plot, or why would I even pick it up? Once I get into a book the plot might not be so important to me and I've been known to forgive insane plots because I really liked other aspects. On the other hand if a book is tanking for me in other areas I tend to focus on the plot more and can get so nitpicky about the plot.

    There are those books that just draw you on and on because the plot is so complicated that you want to know what happens next. And I guess in some ways I'm always searching for that fantastic experience, just as I'm always hoping this next book will have bang on characters or beautiful writing. I'm happy to take each element in seperate books though, although I love it when you find them all together.

  18. So happy you're posting! :) For me, it depends. I think my non-negotiable is writing style: if it's driving me crazy, a great plot or lovable characters or fascinating themes still won't save the book for me. But other than that, I've happily read and loved books that have no plot whatsoever and ones that have super intricate plots and ones like Christie in which the plot is the focus on the novel. :)

  19. I like a well balanced book. So plot is important to me. It has to be interesting or I will get bored and might quit reading it. :)

  20. Aarti, I am much like you. I do like well thought out and involving plots, but if a book doesn't have that, I can still be perfectly content with it. I love character studies, where nothing much happens except for the deepening of personas, and I also love quiet books where nothing much seems to happen. You bring up a great point about being a frequenter of blogs, because many reviews are stingy with the plot details to avoid spoilers, and I base a lot of my purchases on these reviews and word of mouth. I don't usually get hooked in by the plot of a particular book, more so the reactions to it and the promise of an intriguing read. That is not to say that I don't find a particularly thrilling plot engrossing, just that I am not usually buying and reading books solely for a good plot. I am LOVING these questions, and getting to add my two cents in!

  21. Jodie- Oh, I'm so looking forward to that book now! I know what you mean about plots/books sometimes unraveling when you finish them. I think sometimes the opposite can happen, too, though, so I guess it balances out :-)
    I like your entire last paragraph and agree with it unreservedly.

    Eva- I think for me, writing is the deal-breaker as well. But maybe I evolve with that, too. Before, I used to hate books written in present tense but as that's become more popular (WHY?!), I tend not to notice it quite so much any more.

    Brittanie- Yes, that's true. It's no good if you're BORED and reading!

    Zibilee- Yes, that's a good point. That plot can be very engrossing, but usually isn't the reason TO read a book. Perhaps it helps me to make a final decision between two books but generally, I think I can tell pretty quickly by writing style whether I'm in the right mood for a certain book or not.

  22. Sadly, I DID sign up for the NYRC readalong and I just couldn't get to it -- it's been a bad week. Grrr. And I have at least six on my TBR shelf! So annoyed. I'll just have to read all the great reviews and add them to the to-read pile.

    Plot's pretty important to me, but sometimes I read books with such great characters, the plot ultimately doesn't matter so much. That probably doesn't make much sense but it's the best way I can describe it.

  23. As long as the book has strong characters and an engaging style, I don't much care about plot. I'm perfectly happy to read, say, a collection of sketches about the characters' everyday lives. It's nice if there's a common thread running throughout the book, but it's not necessary. I don't read for plot. I read for character.

    That's with shorter books, mind; things in the 250-600 page range. At the end of October, I read a 1500-page chunkster with almost no plot, and I did find it rather trying.

  24. Karen- Oh, no! If it's any consolation, having 6 NYRB titles on your shelf means you've probably got six great and thought-provoking reads ahead of you :-)
    I think your description makes perfect sense!

    Memory- I started laughing at your definition of "shorter" books extending up to 600 pages! My goodness! I don't think I'll try that 1500-page clunker you mention at all!

  25. I would say that plot factors little in my decision to read or not read a book. I'm much more likely to focus on the characters or the writing style as my basis for choice or the subject matter.

  26. What! I missed NYRB week too! I didn't know of it til I just read this post! How is this possible?


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