What is the difference between a commercial and a literary plot?

Source for Cartoon: The Daily Snooze

There aren’t many authors (who actually sell books) who can get away without plotting. Best-selling authors, like Stephen King, who say they don’t plot, don’t realise that they actually do it without realising it. They have an innate plotting talent. They just need less help than the rest of us.

I have noticed that even talented literary authors, who obviously don’t plot, have a shorter shelf life, and fewer readers, than writers who do plot.  My greatest wish as a reader is that more literary writers would learn to plot. Can you imagine the incredible books we would have to read? There are some literary authors who do this. Kate Atkinson writes beautifully, and her books have plots.

Is there a difference between a commercial and a literary plot?

What is a literary plot?
Generally, literary plots are full of isolated characters without a clear goal. They are slow and full of ambiguities. The author concentrates on the inner journeys of the characters and their psychological setbacks. The endings are often inconclusive and they mostly don’t end happily. The bottom line? There are fewer book sales and the author makes less money, unless he or she wins a literary prize.

What is a commercial plot?
Generally, commercial plots are driven by characters with a well-defined story goal. There is lots of action and the author deals with the interior and exterior worlds of the characters. There are physical and emotional setbacks. The endings generally suit the genre of the story. The bottom line? More of these books are sold and the author makes more money. There is no chance of winning a literary prize.

I think the way forward for modern writers is to marry the two. 

  1. If you write literary fiction, spend some time on plotting and add some pace. 
  2. If you write commercial fiction, make your characters more complex and add small twists to the endings of your stories.

Happy writing.

© Amanda Patterson

 by Amanda Patterson

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If you enjoyed this, read these posts:

  1. Five Really Good Reasons To Outline Your Novel 
  2. Why Revenge is Such a Brilliant Plot for Beginner Writers
  3. Basic Plot Structure - The Five Plotting Moments That Matter 

~~~

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate

5 responses
Just recently, I came across the following Q & A, which, whether you agree with it or not — and her name, I know, is either toxic or life-affirming — you will almost certainly find as provocative and thought-provoking as I did. It’s an off-the-cuff answer which the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand gave at a live lecture, circa 1975, in response to an audience member’s question: Q: How do you distinguish between literature and popular writing? Ayn Rand: Today, whether what you write is literature is determined by membership in the right literary clique, and by being so inarticulate that each person can read what he wants into your book. But let’s omit the nonsense, and speak of serious literary distinctions. The difference between literature and popular writing is the seriousness of the approach. Literature has a serious, interesting theme, taking up philosophical, ethical, political, and psychological issues. Literature says something of a serious nature about human life. That’s the best definition. Popular literature is more superficial: no serious ideas or themes; at best, good plots. Plots are an important element of literature, but often even the plots in popular literature are not too original. Popular literature can offer you light entertainment without touching on serious themes. Today, however, popular literature is much better than “serious literature,” from every aspect I just mentioned. Popular literature, specifically detective stories [i.e. pulp (editor's note)] are much more serious and better written than what passes for serious literature. When I say “today’s popular literature,” however, I mean Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers — writers from the period between the two world wars. They made a high art out of popular literature. Incidentally, the detective story obviously needs the conviction of a rational universe, because it assumes that the detective must solve the case, and that justice will triumph. You couldn’t ask for a better or more serious base; and no serious writers today — present company excepted — hold these ideas. [End] Anent that same subject, fellow emigre writer Vladimir Nabokov — whose sister Elena, incidentally, was Ayn Rand’s childhood friend (Ayn Rand’s real name was Alissa Rosenbaum) — said: “A good book shouldn’t make you think. It should make you shiver.” And Herman Melville: “To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”
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