There are only 7 plots…

By skepticlawyer

… And all of ’em are in Homer.

Well, that’s the story, anyway. Sometimes the magic number is eleven. Sometimes the magic number is three. Sometimes it’s something else. Sometimes Virgil gets a look-in, but usually Homer gets the blame for the sum total of basic plotlines in Western Literature. I used to think this assertion was so much eyewash, but having spent a depressing few months reading a great deal of contemporary (and not so contemporary) fiction, I’m starting to agree that there aren’t that many different plots.

Similarly, I’m also starting to think that writers who stray outside those basic plots — unless they’re a genius — are apt to produce bad writing. Since I’m writing at the moment, this is something I’m keen to avoid. My view has always been that to write well, you need to read widely, especially in the areas that inspire your own writing. For the book I’m doing now, I’ve revisited Swift (A Modest Proposal is on the electronic equivalent of speed dial) and have been dining out on science fiction, speculative fiction and steampunk (I highly recommend Perdido Street Station, by the way). That said, I tend to read pretty omnivorously when writing, and this book has also required some time in the company of Adam Smith and David Hume as well as the New Testament, the Gnostic Gospels, Lucretius and Catullus.

Unfortunately, my usual plan to read lots of recent literary fiction has pretty much stalled. This is because every second work of literary fiction I pick up seems to be one of the following: 

(a) Bad magic realism

(b) Bad Jane Austen

(c) People working out their childhood shit

(d) People obsessed with the more boring aspects of women’s lives, as though writing about it obsessively will somehow make it less boring.

One of the above is coupled (almost inevitably) with excruciating dialogue and an utter failure to plot convincingly. It is dreadful and very unpleasant to wade through.

I was beginning to worry that a tendency to engage in (e) all of the above was spreading and so spent some time in the genre fiction sections. This is in Blackwell’s, by the way, the bookshop in Oxford with umpteen miles of shelving. I don’t want for reading material that is both (a) plentiful and (b) cheap.

To my delight, I found that crime writers can still — for the most part — create proper tension. Erotic writers can still do sex scenes. War and science fiction get their technology right (although the latter are still sometimes afflicted with excruciating dialogue) and often do interesting things with it. Writers of police procedurals and courtroom dramas can be very good, especially if they have taken the time to get the police procedure/law correct.

Sometimes a literary writer can take a genre (thriller, often) and really do something with it. The best book I’ve read in the last three years is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin: nothing (including the narrator) is quite what it seems, and the ending is overwhelming because so well concealed.

Most of the time, however, there is no attempt to engage with genre fiction and literary authors flounder about with boring stories derived largely from their own experience. Now this ‘only write what you know’ caper is the biggest bloody furphy in literature and I’m going to explode it right now.

Robert Heinlein never travelled to the moon. Harper Lee was never a lawyer. P.D James is not a copper. Lionel Shriver is not a school shooter. Bret Easton Ellis…

You get my point.

Writing well requires thought and insight, not deep knowledge of the inner workings of the Queensland Criminal Code (or whatever it is). If there is a rule, it is this: first tell your story, then worry about all the bells and whistles to make it ‘authentic’. If you strive for authenticity first, you will produce a pale imitation of literature, and your characters will never live.

This seems to be a lesson too many literary writers fail to learn, perhaps out of a misplaced sense of politeness to the groups they seek to represent in fiction. Feeling that they should not speak for those who are unlike themselves, they speak only about people like themselves. And because most writers are white, middle-class and female, the result is slightly less interesting than navel fluff collecting.

After my last run-in with people who take this sort of slipshod argument seriously, I swore off historical fiction. First time around, I went to some trouble to make my characters ‘true’ to their time: nasty, poor, brutish and — in their case, having been recruited into the Waffen-SS — tall. It seems, however, that authors would rather live with a lie when it comes to historical fiction. This produces ridiculous effects like Medieval nuns sounding like nineteenth century liberals (or, if the author is American, like 20th century American liberals). It is utterly nauseating and evidence of the worst sort of contempt for both history and literature.

As you all know, this time I’m doing spec-fic with roots in a historical period about which I know a great deal. Since I refuse to write historical fiction, I’ve been freed to ask some odder questions. Some of these have interesting answers, while some of these have boring (or at least pointless) answers. Often, I don’t know what I’ll get when I ask the question and start working my ideas through, but the exercise is a bunch of fun. And it produces characters that are fully, grubbily alive — which is all you can ask for, really.

And trust me on the seven plots. There ain’t no more.

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  1. […] moment is borne in large part of a failure to care about readers. I discussed some of the issues here, when I had written about a quarter of Bring Laws & Gods: My view has always been that to write […]

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