Rank Your Reading: Plot, Style and Character

PSC

 

In a recent episode of The Bookrageous Podcast, the group attempted to rank the importance of plot, style and character in the books they read. Obviously, each element plays a critical role in fiction, but most of us do tend to favor one over the others in our reading. The discussion (which begins at roughly 25:30) is quite interesting and definitely worth listening to.

It took about two seconds to pinpoint style as my most important element. I will happily sacrifice plot and characters in order to read well-crafted sentences. I can fall into a great, character-focused or well-plotted novel, but writing will always be my first love. The podcast also had me thinking about recent books that won me over with a specific element, as well as those written with a fantastic combination of all three.

Style

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offil

Character

Want Not by Jonathan Miles

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Plot

The Fever by Megan Abbott

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

A Delicate Balance

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

 

What’s most important to you in a book? Do you favor stand-out passages, memorable characters or page-turning plots?

 

  • Nice one, I totally did a post about this awhile ago but I didn’t think of adding book recommendations for each.

  • I’m not sure I could pick between character and style, but as long as both of those are spot on I couldn’t care if there was much of a plot or not.

    • Those are the two that really matter to me, too. I can pretty much follow a person around a house or city as long as the writing is good and the person is interesting.

  • AstheCroweFlies

    Totally depends on what I’m in the mood for, of course. And naturally it’s a wonderful,wonderful thing when we get all in one book. I used to say that style was most important to me, but then I read books where it was almost nothing BUT style, and while the language was beautiful, the books bored me to tears. (I’m looking at you, Tinkers and Flame Alphabet!) So now perhaps I’m more drawn to character development than style, but I do require a modicum of plot to keep up my interest.

    • You’re SO right that there can definitely be a fine line with books that are all style and no substance (I haven’t read either of those, but I did like Paul Harding’s Enon) and I think they give a few good examples in the podcast that I really agree with.

  • Amanda @ On a Book Bender

    A lot of writing advice says that characters drive plot, and to me (as a writer, anyway), they’re not something you can separate. Who the character is affects what they do. And what they do affects the plot. If I can’t care about the characters or want to know more (in the case of unlikable characters), nothing can overcome that for me. Style really only matters to me if I don’t like it — if it’s verbose or flowery, and I’m given to skimming.

    • That really makes sense when it’s put that way and that they would be more closely linked than style would to the others.

  • Character, character, character! That’s always been my number one priority. It’s not so much that they have to be memorable but they do have to be REAL. I want to believe in them. I want to feel that this person could be my next door neighbor or the woman checking me out at the grocery store. I want them to say things that are really said, I want them to think things that are really thought. I need to believe in them…and when I do? Oooh that’s a gooooood book :D

    • Saying things that would really be said is so, so important. Sometimes dialogue can be such a character killer for me.

  • David

    This is a great discussion and I am looking forward to listening to this when I am not at work. In the end, we all probably agree: There has to be something in a story or a novel to keep us reading. Maybe we care about a character. Maybe we want to know what happens next. Maybe we just enjoy the aesthetic beauty of a sentence. But, in a way, these three elements are just different faces of the same beast: that secret thing in great books that makes a stranger feel something.

    Plot (what happens to a character) means nothing if we don’t care about the character. We aren’t going to be interested in a character if there isn’t some chance that something bad (or good) happens to them. A character is just the summation of all possible plots for one person, everything that happened and didn’t happen, everything that might happen and might not.

    Style is a magical third thing, that which allows a story to move from being merely a summary of events to something larger. There is no part of telling a story that is not style. Style is how a character is created. Style is how the plot proceeds. Style the beauty and horror of a story. If plot and character are the X and Y axis of a story, style is the Z–the dimension that moves the story closer to, or farther from, the reader. Style is the hand that come out of a story and that leads or pulls or drags a reader in. Or pushes the reader away, depending on taste.

    And I don’t just mean flowery or overly verbose styles. A story and a character and a plot are nothing more than the careful selection of words in a row. Style is which words are used and what order they are in. It is the central thing that makes a novel something special.

    But, in the end, whatever keeps you reading: That is the most important thing.

    • That’s such a fantastic description of style and why it’s such an important thing for me. I love the thought of it being a separate dimension, because it really can feel so central in moving everything else along.

  • I always thought of myself as a plot reader, but more and more I’m discovering books that I can’t care about what happens because I’m not connected to the character. But at the same time, even if I like a character, I can’t read a novel where nothing interesting happens. So I honestly don’t know which I’d rank first between these two.

    But style is definitely #3, though that’s not to say it’s unimportant. If I don’t like the style, it can ruin an otherwise good book (or, more likely, I won’t get far enough to find out if the book is good or not). And it’s rare that I like a style enough to overlook lapses in the other two areas (though not completely unheard of). But really I guess I prefer a “neutral” style, where I’m so wrapped up in the story that I don’t even notice the writing.

    • As I read the comments it seems like there’s a very close connection between plot and character that I hadn’t really made before (maybe because I’m usually so attuned to style with character as a close second).

  • Style, character, plot. I just finished up Kindred, which has received all kinds of praise from book bloggers and critics alike. It was a great story but the style and the character development lacked for me and it left me feeling a bit cold. I wish that I could look past the lack of those two things but it’s hard for me. On the other hand, if a story is well-crafted then it doesn’t need any kind of plot for me to stay interested. Such a fascinating topic! I love hearing what others think.

    • The same thing has happened to me quite often with books that others tend to love, I think I just get held up by the writing sometimes.

  • Style comes first for me, too. If the writing blows me away, I don’t even care what it’s about. (That’s slight hyperbole.) This makes me think of Mrs. Dalloway, a book about a woman preparing for a party. On it’s own, not the most gripping plot. But I could have LIVED in those pages, they were so beautiful. And I think the style helped bring the characters to life.

  • I think style comes first for me… though character is a very, very close second!

  • I agree with Jen. I want characters I can relate to, respect, abhor and even fall in love with in a story. Coming a close second would be a compelling plot that keeps me turning page.

  • I think it’s mostly about plot and style for me lately. Plots that grab me keep me from slumping, and great style makes me feel quenched. If that makes sense.

    • It totally does. Seems like they’re sometimes hard to find in the same book, but if you can you totally have a winner (An Untamed State, for real).

  • This one is tough! I know the least is plot so guess that would make style the most important because unless it’s working the characters won’t matter. Yup, that’s my answer.

  • Silver’s Reviews

    It is about the characters and plot for me. Love the Podcast and this post.

    THANKS.

  • Jennine G.

    I think it’s plot and characters for me. I like nice writing, but bad writing doesn’t bother me at all if the story is good! My students just finished reading Of Mice and Men hand they were crazy passionate about the ending…because of the characters. The majority look to characters or plot as well from what I can.

    • I think when I was in school I definitely focused more on plot and characters, too. I’m not sure when my style switch happened, but sometimes I wish I could overlook bad writing a bit more ;)

  • Kelly Massry

    Style hands-down for me. But I think you knew that already ;)

  • Wouldn’t it be fun to try and guess what a bunch of your favorite bloggers would choose from this list? I would have guessed “style” for you! For me, it goes plot and character first and second (but those two are close), with style a fair way behind. There are a few authors I love primarily for style reasons, but they aren’t the majority.

  • Words for Worms

    I am a plot girl through and through. Characters are second place, though occasionally can run neck and neck with plot. Style I appreciate, but it’s low on my priority list.

    • I’m a plot girl, too. :)

  • I was just thinking of this very topic! You and Bookrageous get out of my head! lol

    I am definitely a plot-driven person. I get bored easily and any book I tear through, you can bet it is a plot-driven story. I like style and character studies as well, but plot is my favorite. I am reading one of each right now, actually.

    Out by Natsuo Kirino is a character-study.
    A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is both character-driven and stylistic. The sentences in this book, though!

    A Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien is plot-driven. It is all about wth is going on and going to happen next and what is UP with everyone, anyway?

    I like my variety I guess. :)

  • I was just thinking how this would make an interesting reading challenge.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    I do love a great plot but most plots aren’t great without good characters.

  • I think I can go for books in which any of these elements is prioritized as the expense of the others, depending on what mood I’m in. I think I’m most likely to DNF a book for bad prose, but I think that’s partly because it’s easiest to spot bad prose early.

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