Balancing Plot, Relatability, and Message
The three major components of the quality of any novel are plot, relatability, and message. Unfortunately, there is no optimum formula for weighing and mixing them, which is why so many books fall flat. Here is what each means:
- Plot = The events happening in the world of the story. Ex: a crook preparing to rob a bank.
- Relatability = The ability for the reader to emotionally connect with the characters involved in the book’s events, and thus, care about the plot. Ex: we find out the crook is robbing the bank because he needs the money to pay for his son’s college education.
- Message = The implied commentary on the “world” that the author makes at the end of the story, based on how things have settled plot-wise. Ex: the crook gets killed during the robbery, which stresses the universal message: Crime doesn’t pay, even if your intentions are good. On the other hand, if the robber were to get away clean, pay the tuition bills, and then safely retire from his criminal past, the message would be quite different: Crime may be worthwhile if the ends justify the means.
Clearly, all three of the components are intertwined. The success of the “message” depends directly on the end state of the “plot,” and the only way people care about the plot – and finish the story – is if “relatability” is built into the characters. Many books do a great job with one of the components, maybe two, however, unless all three are working in harmony, the net effect is always underwhelming.
For instance, we’ve all read a mystery where we’re dying to turn each page and can’t wait to find out what happens next. However, once we get to that final page, and we find out “whodunnit,” the book immediately leaves our minds; we can’t even remember the name of the protagonist the next morning. Stories like these do a good job with plot, but fail with relatability and message.
Moreover, we’ve all been recommended a book with funny and quirky contemporary characters we fall in love with. However, though their jokes may be great and they remind us of people we know in real life – maybe even ourselves – it doesn’t seem like they’re actually doing much but sitting around and talking, even if what they’re saying is interesting. These books are high on relatability, but low and plot and message.
Finally, we’ve all had an experience with a well-intentioned book aimed at tackling some major social issue. It makes big, sweeping claims for a moral revolution, however, by the end, we’re just not that motivated to get behind the cause. We got the feeling we weren’t experiencing characters in their own world, but rather, listening to the author talk to us directly in his or her own words. Though these books may be putting forward a great message, it doesn’t have any bite because we haven’t been convinced of it by the actions of characters we care about – hence, a lot of message, but no plot or relatability.
Yes, certain genres of novels lend themselves more toward certain components, and it may be difficult for authors to blend each. However, truly great books – from any category – are able to find a distinct harmony among the three.
When a story is able to succeed with the right balance, the results are extraordinary. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut does a terrific job achieving equilibrium between the three with his classic, Slaughterhouse-Five. Not only does the plot move fast and through various interesting, unique settings, but we care deeply for our innocent/crazy/regretful/hopeful hero, Billy Pilgrim, throughout all the action. By the time the story ends, Vonnegut’s message about war is crystal clear and powerful. And that message – and the book itself – has had a lasting effect on generations.
Ted Galdi is the author of the novel Elixir, to be released in Summer 2014. Learn more at http://www.elixirthebook.com.