Story Hospital

#38: A Plotless Novel

Hi Story Nurse,

Up front, my question is: what is the best way to go about a plot-less novel? Is such a thing possible?

Meaty details: the Most Important project that I’m working on right now is best described as a postmodern epistolary (anti-)bildungsroman. In simpler terms, it’s a collection of letters written by a shut-in. You can imagine that nothing much happens. Or maybe more precisely, nothing really resolves in any kind of traditional storytelling way.

I have personal reasons for wanting to finish this sucker and put it out into the world more or less as I’ve envisioned it, but I obviously would like it to be readable (and, ideally, marketable). I’m at a loss for other works I can use as an example for what I want to accomplish.

Any protips?

—An Unfunny Seinfeld (she/her)

Dear Unfunny Seinfeld,

It is certainly possible to write a plotless novel. You’re demonstrating this by doing it. If you want to entertain yourself by writing a book where not much happens, plot threads don’t resolve, and characters don’t grow, there’s no reason not to do that.

The snag comes with wanting anyone else to read it. Books have plots for a reason: readers like them! You might be able to find a small audience of postmodernists or people who read only for prose, but you’re probably not going to entertain the masses with your antibildungsroman.

Again, that’s no reason not to write it. “What’s the best way to go about this” is a very broad question; “the best way” depends rather a lot on your goals and it’s not clear to me what you’re trying to accomplish, other than writing the book of your heart, which only you can decide how to do. But, generally speaking, if you’re eschewing plot, I recommend focusing on prose quality and characterization. You could also give the individual letters a degree of structure and narrative, making each one moving or dramatic or intriguing or beautiful.

If you imagine your hypothetical reader recommending your book to someone, what do you picture them praising about it? When they say “It doesn’t have much plot, but I kept reading anyway because—”, how do they finish that sentence? This exercise will help you focus on what you want to put into your story, rather than on what you’re leaving out. And once you’ve finished the book, it may also help you find an audience for it.

Regardless of any advice I give, I suspect you’ll keep coming back to your personal reasons for writing the book the way you are. There are some projects where artistic urges outweigh commercial considerations, and this sounds like one of those. So really the best way to go about it is the way that makes you feel good, and creates a project that satisfies your own internal (maybe inarticulable) parameters.

I’m sorry I can’t give you a more detailed response, but I hope this gives you something like a useful starting point. Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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