A Writer's Life No.7: The Story Isn't The Most Important Thing

Christopher Fowler
Bullitt This week I'm researching again, and wondering just how much of a plot I really need in a book. It's often been pointed out that the most important part of the Bryant & May novels isn't the storyline. This is becoming an increasingly conscious decision on my part. Few of us remember the identity of the killer in murder mysteries. There's an old rule of thumb about whodunits; the murderer is nearly always the person about whom you have been given the most information. There's no satisfaction in discovering that he or she is a minor character who has been given two lines of dialogue in the chapter two. So I concentrated on creating strong characters and making London key to the story. But do stories actually matter at all? The books of Ned Beauman and Keith Ridgway actively defy story lines. Both 'Hawthorn & Child' and 'The Teleportation Accident' avoid traditional structure to present what amounts to a series of blackout sketches, none of which quite match up - and it all works. The former builds up a kaleidoscopic image of the characters, the latter plays out like glimpses of a life without the boring bits. AD Miller's 'Snowdrops' was also a game-changer because you're not sure until after you finish it what the story was even about. This is where the role of an unreliable narrator can be fun - you play with readers' expectations. In recent films, 'Her', 'The Last Days', 'Tabu' and 'Upstream Colour' are all deliberately non-linear and open-ended. The other night I made the huge mistake of seeing a very badly planned-out double bill; 'Bullitt' and 'Fast & Furious 6'.
The latter has a storyline that's so perfunctory as to be invisible, and avoids realism to the point where it becomes a cartoon mash-up of Things Boys Want To See so that there's zero emotional investment in anything. Presumably this was deliberately planned to please a drunk, dumb late-night crowd, so why even bother with occasional lines of plot at all? Why not assemble it in YouTube bites and please the target audience even more? In 'Bullitt' something subtler happens. The story is there, but the key on which it turns is hidden in just two dialogue lines. And director Peter Yates constructs his set pieces in such a way that you still can't quite see what they're about until they're happening. He does this by docking out key lines of conversation so that there's no clunky explanatory dialogue. Having seen the film 20 times or so over the years I still can't figure why Johnny Ross leaves the chain off the hotel room door. I think it's perhaps every good writer's dream to dispense with story completely and yet have it lying there like the skeletons beneath the bones, in case you need it.


Keith Page (not verified) Mon, 16/12/2013 - 12:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Reminds me a bit of Michael Moorcock's 'multiverse'.I'm sure there was an overall plot there somewhere, but it's a hell of a job sorting it out.

Jo W (not verified) Mon, 16/12/2013 - 13:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for cheering up this old lady,on a grey and very wet Monday morning,with that picture of Steve McQueen! Oh,sorry Admin, what were you writing about?

Dan Terrell (not verified) Mon, 16/12/2013 - 13:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hummm.... Not sure if that really works in a novel or over a series of novels. In a film you have the limited time of both the film and the audience's rental of a seat. In a novel the story's timeframe can be pretty much unlimited (except for the number of pages in the physical book), but the reader-s time is open ended. The reader can read it straight through, read over a couple days, or for a much longer period. After each time away, the reader must return and reenter the story. I have a feeling you run the risk of disjointedness, sort of islands of story, with momentum lost if there is little structure.
Richard Brautigan's 1960's "novel" Trout Fishing in America would be an extreme case of a plot less novel.
It would be interesting to see if the concept would work and woek more than once.

Patricia (not verified) Mon, 16/12/2013 - 14:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In my opinion, a blow-by-blow plot is not necessary at all and using the storyline as a background where interesting/exciting/funny things happen holds your attention better. What matters is having strong characters to anchor everything. But what do I know, maybe I just have a short attention span.

snowy (not verified) Mon, 16/12/2013 - 16:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)


'Ross' isn't Ross.

It is one of several 'sleight of hand' moves, to convince everybody that Ross is dead.

'Ross' is expecting to be taken out of the hotel by a confederate, but is double-crossed.

The real plan isn't disclosed until Bullitt gets to the desert motel.

[The best way to get a grip on it is to put the DVD on and skip everything up to that point and just watch the end.]


Oh, something about narrative structure, er...ummm.

Some film-makers have taken to using a fractured narrative to disguise the fact that their storyline is complete pants. [Yes, you Tarantino.]

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 16/12/2013 - 18:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You don't dispense with plot you just lay everything on top of it so that you don't notice it particularly. If there isn't something down there then there is nothing for the characters to tie together.

Steve (not verified) Tue, 17/12/2013 - 03:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A real case of Art imitating Life, because life is rather plot-less. Oh we'd like to believe there's some Grand Design Behind It All, but.......

Christopher Fowler Tue, 17/12/2013 - 07:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you Snowy for answering my question! But did Robert Vaughan need a star witness to promote his career?

snowy (not verified) Wed, 18/12/2013 - 00:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Assuming [always dangerous] you mean Chalmers, we never find out, because the film closes before the fallout.


But for the con to work it relied on Chalmers' (Robert Vaughan) greed for success. But he is only a <i>'useful idiot'</i> in the plan.

Ross dictated exactly how he wanted to be kept secure. And Chalmers is used as a front to get the Police to follow this part of the plan.

Once the 'hit' has taken place he only expects Chalmers to flap about like a wet hen and tie up the Police looking for the hit-men. After that point he is irrevelant to the plan, anything he does to muddy the waters or annoy the police is just a bonus.

[Chalmers doesn't know he has been played* and so just does what politicians do, deflect blame and search for as many scapegoats as he can possibly find.

(*and won't until the very, very end.)]


In a pleasing way the film itself is a 'con', about a 'con'. It plays like a straight forward 'policier', right up to the reveal. But this where it stumbles, only slightly, but definately.

Where there should be a metaphorical slamming on of brakes and screech of mental tyres. Bullitt just has a quick riffle through some luggage, and strolls of giving it the full 'mean and moody'.

[All the clues are there admittedly, but only seen 'in vision' and without any explanation of why they are important.]

What should shake the audience out of their slumber and key them up for the final act just passes in seconds. Just at that point, the film needed just a touch more exposition, and a touch less stylistic conceit.