This week’s exercise at the Telegraph SSC is to write the plot of a story you’re writing (or have written) in only three sentences. It’s harder than you might think, and the results can make what you thought was a good story sound flat and lifeless. Take for instance my story A Fate Not Shared: Naomi and her toy rabbit are taken to their new house by her parents. Naomi and Rabbit explore while the grown-ups talk, and they discover a forgotten old lady in a bedroom. Naomi expects her father to put things right but instead he leaves her with the old lady, taking her mother and Rabbit away with him. If you read the story you’ll see if it matches your expectations (it might or it might not, it depends what images my three sentences conjured up for you).
Two identical sounding plots can represent quite different stories. The language, subtext, subplots, and point of view can make a huge difference. One of them might be approached in a humorous way while the other plays it straight. If your writing is all about the feel of the language, the lyrical prose, then a bare bones plot outline might well sound like there’s not much to it.
Conversely, one single story can be summarised in a variety of three-sentence ways. What is being emphasised – the death of the heroine’s mother or the subsequent events that lead from that? Readers will sum up a story in different ways depending on what they took from it, which in part depends what they brought to it (what prism of life they viewed it through). An interesting exercise might be to have a group of people summarise the same story, and see what comes out.
In The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose (yes I’m still talking about that book. It’s a good book, and there’s a lot of it) there’s a mention of working men asking what was the difference between the cheap adventure stories they’d enjoyed as lads (the penny dreadfuls) and the books like Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans or Treasure Island that they read later. One of the answers to that might be that there is no fundamental difference, just the snobbery of high vs low culture. Certainly someone without the background knowledge to pick up allusions, or the cast of mind that reads a story on several levels at once, will get the same thing out of both types of book: an exciting adventure story. If there is some fundamental difference (which, having never read any of the penny dreadfuls I couldn’t say) then it’s another reason to think that plot is not all there is to a good book.