I recently read Scott Smith’s first novel, A Simple Plan. I had already read, a few years ago, Smith’s second book, The Ruins, which I consider to be one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. Smith is one of those interesting writers who doesn’t put books out very often—A Simple Plan came out in 1993, The Ruins, thirteen years later, and those are his only two so far—but when he does, they are hugely successful. Both of his books have been made into movies (A Simple Plan I saw years ago, when it came out, and loved it. I haven’t seen the movie of The Ruins, although I heard it’s not very good, which is interesting because the screenplay was written by Smith himself).
What interests me most about Smith, though, is how seamlessly he weaves together genre-like plot with believable characters and beautiful writing (although the beautiful writing was less prevalent in A Simple Plan than I remember it being in The Ruins). Both books have very well developed characters, each who behave in the exact way these characters would if the story were real, regardless of the fact that the overall premise of each book is not really the stuff of real life.
It’s kind of amazing, if you really think about it, this ability Smith has to make sure the characters are always doing and saying things that are consistent with who they are, while still keeping the plot fantastically gripping. The problem with most highly plot driven stories, in my opinion, is that they tend to sacrifice believable characters for exciting plot points. The writer has mapped out, before he/she even began in many cases, exactly what should happen in this story. What will keep the reader turning the pages? What’s the most unexpected, electrifying way to keep the story moving? Then, the writer has to force the characters to do and say things that will make that next, pre-determined plot point happen. The result, of course, is that the characters aren’t doing or saying what they would if they were real people who actually found themselves in these bizarre circumstances.
But the alternative tends to require the sacrifice of a really stimulating plot. Well, this character would do this and not that in this situation, so unfortunately, the next plot point is going to be a bit dull.
Don’t get me wrong, I prefer stories that are more character driven. If your characters feel real and I totally buy everything they do and say, I don’t mind, so much, if the plot is fairly uneventful, as long as there is at least the bare bones of a plot somewhere in there (Raymond Carver is the perfect example of this style of writing). I don’t like it, though, when the plot is thrilling but the characters are bland and lifeless. That, to me, is the epitome of bad writing.
Smith, though, is able to have it both ways: his characters are believable and consistent, and yet turn after turn, the plot keeps you on your toes—in both books, the characters are dropping like flies, and there’s a lot of psychological suspense and unexpected plot twists. Yet at no point does a character do or say something that doesn’t ring true to who that person is.
Here’s my theory about what Smith does: I think he comes up with a wild premise (three men discover a crashed airplane with a dead body and millions of dollars inside; they decide not to report the plane and keep the money for themselves. Or a group of college kids on spring break in Mexico accidentally stumble into some ancient ruins; they become trapped there, and quickly discover that the ruins are home to a man-eating plant), and I think Smith knows how it’s all going to end, too, but beyond that, I believe that he has no idea what’s going to happen in between. How will these three men reach this conclusion? How will these kids escape or not escape (I won’t tell you which one in case you haven’t read it) these ruins? I believe that Smith himself doesn’t know when he starts writing; he just gets the characters to the starting point and then lets them do what they naturally would from that point forward.
If my theory is true, then why do Smith’s plots end up so compelling? That’s pretty much the way literary fiction writers go about writing, isn’t it? Probably these books’ success is largely based on the fact that Smith is just a good writer, plain and simple, but part of it, I think, comes from the way he’s going about it. His premises are bizarre and genre-esque, and his characters, very well drawn out. No matter what choices these characters make in these crazy situations, their choices are bound to lead to more interesting plot points, which will lead to more interesting choices. He doesn’t need to sit down and figure out the plot beforehand; a good plot is inevitable based on the way he set things up.
I don’t know, of course, if this is really what Smith is doing, but I really do think it is. It’s hard for me to imagine these characters remaining so true to themselves if Smith had planned the plot out in advance, and it’s hard for me to imagine the plot remaining so compelling if he hadn’t started with a high-concept premise and very strong characters. I think he’s just found the perfect balance between plot and characters, and ultimately, I would describe his stories as character driven, even though the plots are also very strong. Reading Smith’s work is enjoyable as a reader and inspirational as a writer. I can’t help but pick apart what I think he’s doing and learn from it in the hopes of improving my own work.