There are many obvious differences. Plot delivers an idea; style delivers an aesthetic. Plot relies on a timeline; style relies on a feeling. Plot is based on objective facts; style is based on a subjective vision.
But I think the two are similar in at least one important way: Both plot and style are the signs of an author's intelligent design. They show that there's an interesting human perspective that created what we're reading. In that sense, both are bait: plot and style promise an author who knows us and can entertain.
When you read for plot, you want some pattern to emerge in the text: a sign that the author knows our world, but can also invent surprising twists. When we read for style, the experience is different, but I think we're still looking for the sign of a mind that knows our world and throws us twists. Style shows an author's thumbprint for thinking--or how she attaches to the world with specificity and purpose. We want both plot and style to align with our experience and then pose questions.
Maybe I'm trying to justify the art of plot. I'm usually drawn to style rather than plot as "art," but I'm obsessed with a certain plot-master this week, James Patterson. The bestselling author James Patterson is not just a man, but a brand and a sort of factory director who has a team of authors write the body of his books for him. He worked until his 40's in the advertising world. While he admits that he's just an average writer in terms of style, he knows just what plots will capture readers' interests, so credits his success to his "golden gut, an ability to sense what's going to appeal to a lot of people."
When Patterson "writes" a book, he writes about a 60-page plot summary and sends it off to one of his staff writers, who fleshes out the text for him. Staff writers mail him copy, and he edits it and sends it back. Patterson has modeled his factory process off of the Hollywood film system. Patterson's writers follow just a few stylistic rules: keep chapters short, use short sentences, and drive the plot forward with every word.
While investing in plot over style, Patterson has broken some famous trends in the publishing industry. For one, authors are usually told to limit their yearly output, because the simultaneous availability of their multiple titles will drive down individual titles' sales. But Patterson has followed a different model, increasing the number of Patterson titles each year, so that--as in television series or movies--consumers can look forward to a new "Patterson" book about once every two months. His sales have dwarfed the rest of the field.
For instance, in 2007 Patterson's name stood behind about one out of every fifteen hardcover novels sold. In 2006, he produced as many bestsellers as the fourth largest publishing company in the world, originating more bestsellers than HarperCollins. In any year, Patterson sells more books than Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz combined, and he's produced 39 The New York Times bestselling titles, with 19 consecutive The New York Times bestselling novels. He writes in multiple genres, from children's books to nonfiction, has sold more than 150 million books worldwide, and over the past few years has made more money than any novelist other than J. K. Rowling, grossing up to 50 million dollars a year.
For Patterson, good writing shows its muscle through idea. What we hunger for in a book, he'd say, is a pattern that reveals an intelligent thinker. Because Patterson writes thrillers, his job is to walk us down a somewhat-familiar, somewhat-surprising alley, and to throw us a new event. It's the twist that sucks us in, and we read to feel the familiarities and challenges of the plot shift.
But as I said, I think it's too easy to name a clean dividing line between plot and style. I want to think about their similarities. One similarity is that both plot and style show us a mind which is familiar to us but can surprise us, or offer new meaning. Plot and style both pose questions about life, in a way. Perhaps it's even possible to think of style as a sort of "thriller": James Joyce, for instance, writes books full of dense allusions. Almost every sentence in his masterpiece, Ulysses, is a riff off of some historic literary phrase. Joyce's style is an attempt to remind us of our common past but also recast that past as new--to show what we all know, and then recast it with surprise. When we read Joyce, we're sitting with a friend who knows us but tests us.
There's oodles more to say on this big topic. Do some of this brainstorm for me. I'd like to hear anything you think about the differences and similarities between the promises of plot and the promises of style.