On Reading: Happy Endings & Plot vs Prose

a night with my other love... on 365 Project

Since finally finishing my last book club pick, The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall, I knew that before picking up the next heavy tome we’ve selected (Cutting for Stone) that I’d need to do a bit of light reading to clear my head. Under the pretense of calling it a Classic Novel for my self challenge I downloaded The Princess Bride by William Goldman and dived into what I assumed would be a bit of fancy-spoken fluff with a plot I knew well having seen the movie adaptation several times.

And while this book still qualifies for a light read, the unexpected things I discovered about it mixed with an intriguing conversation from the last book club meeting – on why different people like certain books – has had me thinking a great deal about this book and whether I think it’s good or bad – and why other people might think differently. So while all of this is jumbling around in my brain sounding very smart, I thought I’d put it to paper (blog?) in the hopes that they come out clever, too, or at the very least so I can have it said and done and maybe be able to change subjects in my brain instead of having it flit around in there for all eternity. It’s worth a shot, right?

First off, a recap of the conversation we had at book club. Amidst a lot of silly chatter about the rather pervy books we’ve been reading lately and miscellaneous discussion about our personal lives and the ranting from yours truly about all the reasons I loathed The Lonely Polygamist, our book club president made a rather fascinating (to me) comment. To paraphrase her because I have a poor memory, she basically said that she thinks there are two different types of readers – in general. The ones who read for prose first and foremost – i.e. pretty words, clever ways of saying things ; and the ones who read for plot first and foremost – i.e. a good story from beginning middle to end.

Obviously we all hope that a book will come with both, most sadly do not quite hit both targets. That doesn’t always make it a bad book – and if they’ve managed to nail one of them, a lot of people will still like or even love it. Our fearless bookie leader claims that whether a person loves these books comes down to whether they are in it first for the prose or first for the plot. For instance, we would both agree that  she is very much in it for the prose. She commented that she can read a book in which nothing happens at all, so long as they say it prettily.

I, on the other hand, can probably get through a book that is not so polished as long as the story is really good. Hence my adoration for fluffy chick lit and young adult titles. We’ve found the books that she and I both adore – tend to be the books that really have the whole package – beautifully written, fascinating story – example: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. We both really loved this one and I have to agree: beautifully written [check!] amazing plot [double triple check].

Anyway, Her Awesome Leaderness of The Bookish Variety I think makes a very stellar point and I’ve been musing over it ever since, straight through the first half of The Princess Bride which I’ve found has mixed reviews from the populous at large.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The first thing you need to know is that The Princess Bride is a bit of a story within a story within a… Goldman fictionally claims in the beginning that this story is not his own, but the works of a Florinese writer S. Morgenstern, that his father read to him when he was ten and sick with pneumonia. And his father read to him, and his father…. and so on. A family tradition that was read aloud to him and quickly became his favorite book. So when Goldman’s fictional son turned ten, he sought out a copy of the book (with great difficulty as it was now out of print) and presented it to him on his 10th birthday. He wasn’t in town that night and asked his son to give the book a shot and they could talk about it when he came home.

Fictionally, his son it turns out did not like the book at all – which floored Goldman until he reread the book and realized that his father had been very much telling the abridged version, the full text being more of a political and social satire than a good fun adventure story. Not wanting the world to miss out on the “good stuff”, Goldman got permission to write an abridged version which he later also adapted for film.

None of this is true. But man, he duped me. Cause I’m slow or something, I don’t know – but he duped me good. And you know… I kinda commend him for that – he really almost had me going, though I commented to my husband that the whole introduction in which he tells us this is so fantastically written that it almost seemed…. staged. A bit of googling later and I learned the truth, but honestly, well done Goldman! You got me!

Some reviews complained a bit bitterly about Goldman’s inability to just tell the story – that his constant jumping in and explaining stuff was just plain irritating and that the movie is simply better. I kinda get that… Until Goldman comments in the middle of a scene about how annoying he found it when Morgenstern commented in the middle of a scene and I realized, dude this is totally all planned. Genius.

But the thing is – I often complain about writers who do certain things in a story to sort of prove a point or make a statement or accomplish this vague goal – even if it means making the story less enjoyable. I think I said just that kind of cranky thing about The Lonely Polygamist in fact. So what makes The Princess Bride different? It’s not really the prose which is almost too modern even when he tries to claim it’s the original text of an ancient story, this clearly isn’t coming close to seeming that way. But I kind of dig the modern writing style in this case and at the root of it all – is one hell of a story. The story we can all see in The Princess Bride: The Movie and that I know pretty well and have come to love. I can picture Cary Elwes as the Man in Black and it just makes the whole thing soooo good (because I have a major crush). But maybe that does mean that the movie is better? I don’t know. Since I can’t go back in time and unsee the movie, I can’t help but compare the two, but still I say, I like them both. The story is quirky and some might say the prose is just meh, but I dig it…

quote from the book

Around halfway through the book, I read this quote from the narrator(ish), you know Goldman’s fictional version of himself. About his father reading the wedding scene between Buttercup and the Prince and then ten year old Goldman getting all angry and telling his dad that he read it wrong. Simple as that. It was impossible for Buttercup not to marry Westley, that’s just not how stories work. His dad got upset and closed the book and left the room and poor fictional Kid Goldman had to go to sleep thinking that there would possibly be no happy ending. He tossed and turned trying to work out a way for it to be okay – how Buttercup could marry the Prince but still end up with Westley somehow.

Enter the quote I pasted above in which Goldman says that as a kid, happy endings are basically a given. You can punish your characters straight through the book but it’s okay because we know that by the end of the book everything turns right somehow. The guy gets the girl. The hero saves the day. And even though things turn out okay in The Princess Bride, Goldman fictionally says that this scene kind of disenchanted him as a kid – that on some level he realized for the first time that life isn’t fair.

This of course brought me back to my book club conversation where at one point, someone asked if a book had to have a happy ending to make us Plot-readers happy. I said no, of course not, but then struggled to find an example – the only fitting one I could think of being Gone With The Wind. To which some prose-readers snarled back and commented that they hated that book. And I laughed. And laughed… But it’s true, no real happy ending in Gone With The Wind – an awful lot of unhappy throughout in fact. But even just that promise of tomorrow, when all would be well, was apparently enough for me. I knew Scarlett, of all people, would be okay somehow. She’d get her man or get some new plan of happiness and she’d make it work – no matter what. That’s just her way. And I loved the story. Like adored it with a firey passion. So it’s all good.

But in general, call me childish, but YES – I prefer books with a happy ending. And you know what? I won’t appologize for it. Because you know what? Life isn’t fair. People are awkward and clumsy and they say the wrong things and they sometimes fumble things up even when they have the best of intentions. And sometimes a tornado or tsunami or other natural disaster will come in and wipe out entire families who had GOOD lives and important things going on but now it’s gone and it doesn’t matter. And wars happen – and people shoot other people – who had families, children, wives, dreams, hopes, et cetera that now don’t matter any more because their story is over.

But fiction is different. A fictional story can happen any way you want it to. It’s entirely up to the author. The characters can say things in the clever way that we hear them in our head before we open our mouths and stutter out an attempt at cool speech that will in real life sound like, “So um what’s for dinner, ahem?” but in fiction can come out, “My darling, I have had the most tiresome of days and all I want now is to sit down with you, my love, over a warm meal and forget about my troubles for awhile because you make me so happy.”

Or something, I don’t know – a good writer would say it even better than that. Because they can. And at the end of the story – the guy gets the girl! The hero saves the day! Because if we want to see a sad ending, we can turn on the news or talk to our neighbors. Sad endings are for real life. Happy endings are for fiction – where we as writers can control every page. Because, I at least, read to be entertained. To escape the real world and enter into the fantasy world where dreams come true and milkmaids become Queens of Florin but then say, “Screw that, I’m going to hook up with the hot pirate instead because I CAN.” The End.

That’s just how I like it. No apologies.

How about you? Do you read for prose first or plot for sure? I know most of us would try to huff and say, “I like both!” I know, so do I, but I do think there comes a point where one becomes suddenly clearly more important at the end of the day. So which is it for you?

6 thoughts on “On Reading: Happy Endings & Plot vs Prose

  1. I think the plot vs. prose part would make a great post, maybe if you cut out the part in the middle about The Princess Bride? Which I think is also a great subject, but maybe a bit long and rambly for 5M4B. 🙂

    Let me play with it a bit and send it to Jennifer and see what she thinks.


  2. I loved this post!

    I read for plot first and foremost, and I prefer plot-driven novels over character-driven (and yes I know that wasn’t your question). The characters can be really well written and the prose can be amazing, but if nothing’s happening, I lose interest. And I can get past sub-par writing for a good plot, so long as it’s not atrocious.

    This makes me think of the literary fiction genre – I often tag books in Goodreads as literary fiction, but without being able to pinpoint why I think it fits that genre, it’s just kind of a feeling I guess. But now I think books that have wonderful prose and an intriguing plot fall into this category.

    By the way this would make a great guest post to 5M4B’s On Reading. 😉


  3. I don’t know how I even came upon your blog…somehow it was through one of the other blogs I read daily…but I love it. Your writing is funny and I often find the things you say to be ‘oh so true’.


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