I just stumbled across this on Ruggles’ LJ. I did a direct response, but now I’m going to do my essay/rant on the underlying subject.

There are three elements that any story will have: Language (or cinematography for movies, or art & layout for comics), Character, and Plot. The literature majors I’ve encountered tend to look at them in that order, getting rhapsodic about the language used to tell the story, and then going on about the characters involved, and if they spend several years in love with one story, they might notice there’s a plot too.

I consider things in the opposite order. The most important thing to me about a story is its plot, and then the characters that are involved with it. My worries about language are confined to ‘do I understand what he is saying?’ Great prose is better, but it stops determining whether I’ll like the book.

This may be because I’ve always been a Science Fiction fan, and much of my tastes are determined thereby. It’s hardly a secret that SF is one of the few places where ‘characterless’ fiction can succeed. Likewise, SF is hardly known as a repository of deathless prose (along with any other genre of ‘popular fiction’ to be honest). Classic SF stories are largely exercises in demonstrating the consequences of trends, or showing what the effects of a new technology on people could be.

This is implicit in SF’s origin as an outgrowth of Hugo Gernsback’s ‘scientifiction’, which was meant to be no more than a vehicle to teach actual science wrapped in a pulp adventure wrapper. The better authors, who made the jump to John Campbell’s era, realized that the story had to demonstrate what they were talking about. Demonstrations are actions. Language describes actions, along with many other things. Characters take action, or not, as well as have emotions, needs, and desires, which may or may not produce action at any particular point. Plot is composed of actions. While there are plenty of SF books with thin plots, it is far easier to find books where the strongest element of the three is Plot in SF than in the more standard ‘fiction’ genre where you’re more likely to see the literature majors giving their respect.

In a way, the Language is the easiest thing in a story to analyze. All the words are right there, for you to look at and study at a moment’s notice. Characters are generally the most well-defined objects in a story. They are ‘real’ things with a list of attributes that are associated with them. Plot, put simplistically, is a collection of events. But so, in a general way, is the story itself, and not all of the events necessarily mean anything to the plot, and not all of those that do have the same amount of meaning.

Plot can be an evil little thing to track down and understand. I’d say it’s the toughest element of a story to really understand, and the other two aren’t exactly easy to begin with. I’m reminded very forcefully of one of the later sections of Understanding Comics where Scott McCloud talks about the journey to understanding what’s going on behind the surface details.

So, is academia really that entranced by language, or are they just having problems passing on a real appreciation for every element, and just managing to pass on to freshly-minted literature majors a good appreciation for the surface elements?