The Trifecta

Trifecta: A run of three wins or grand events

What is it you hope to achieve in writing?

Most writers would like to publish something  that is loved by critics and devoured by readers, a critical and commercial success. To pull that off, there are three crucial areas to master: plot, prose, and characterization.

How often do these come together in one novel in the current day?

Lonesome Dove always comes to mind when I think about this, a masterpiece of storytelling with characters who are going to outlive all of us, pitch perfect prose and dialogue. It won the Pulitzer Prize; the critics adored it, the public did too. It rode the top of the best seller lists for a good while, and made a lot of money.

But many — some would claim most — novels  fail in one or more of the three key areas, and that often happens because the author neglects one or the other of them. A writer who aligns herself with the literary elite might say that plot is unimportant, and character is everything.  This is an approach that may succeed in gaining critical praise, but not much more than that because story is what makes the reader turn the page. Plot is not, as some would claim, a four letter word.

Strong supporting evidence for this can be found on almost any day’s best seller list. There are books out there which have made fortunes for their authors, which are (bluntly stated) poorly written at every level. Off the top of my head, two titles: The DaVinci Code, and Fifty Shades of Grey (and yes, I’ve read them both). What these novels have going for them are their stories, and some of the wildcard elements (marketing in particular can do a lot for sales). They are both built on shockingly engaging ideas: In the first case, Jesus of Nazareth had children; in the second case,  a well-raised young woman can be sexually curious and open to the possibilities of kink,  if the guy in question is gorgeous, has a ton of money and a secretive tragic background.

Both of these novels are pretty awful in terms of prose and dialogue and characterization. I’m not going to quote anything here because the idea isn’t to point out what’s wrong with them, but what’s right. The truth is that either of them could be a fantastic whole-pie, trifecta novel if their authors had taken a different approach.

And still: none of that matters; they were successful because the stories work.

People who write and enjoy the genre generally called literature consider their work or taste  superior to all other genres, and they’ve convinced almost everybody else of this too — the emperor’s new clothes, on a grand scale. But even the most respected writers of literary fiction rarely get near the top of the best seller lists, because they undervalue plot and story.

I read widely in all genres. Some I like more than others, but I’ve read good novels and bad novels in all of them.