Ever since I can remember, my one dream was to be a published author. However, I quickly learned plotting and I don’t get along. I don’t know if it was a bad experience with diagramming in Mrs. Bloom’s Fifth Grade grammar class or the gene I was apparently born with which shuts my brain down when I see the word “outline”. Whatever it is, I just can’t plot out a story, poem, novel, series, or even structure the grocery list.
For many years I despaired of ever becoming a writer. I had moderate success with poetry and I like poetry, but poems aren’t novels. I wanted to write novels and everywhere I turned, folks talked and wrote about the need to plot. I was in the Slough of Despond.
Then one of those serendipitous events occurred in the form of the movie “The Remains of the Day”, based on the book of the same title. I liked the movie and it appeared to have not much, if any, plot. And what I especially liked was that it seemed to largely be a character study. For me, when I read, it’s all about the characters. I don’t care how intricate the plot, if I don’t like the characters the book is set aside. The lightbulb went off over my head.
I Googled “plotless novels” and to my delight found dozens upon dozens of novels with little plot and dozens upon dozens of authors who write them. I also found plotless films, especially those of the late Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. He was a master at creating intense feelings with a minimum of story. His characters carried the day.
Suddenly the sun broke through the clouds. I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels “The Remains of the Day” (even better than the movie) and “An Artist of the Floating World” and loved them. I watched Ozu’s films and was moved deeply. I also discovered an entire form — the picaresque novel — which is nothing more than a series of vignettes. The movie “Little Big Man” is a film version of the picaresque novel.
The dam broke and I started writing. I learned (thanks to my sister) I was a pantser. And I was okay with flying by the seat of my pants. Being a pantser has its own unique set of issues. The main one being not having a clue what is coming next. But then you just trust your characters to tell their story.
Some will argue there is no such thing as a plotless novel or story. To make sense, a story has to have a plot. If there was no plot, the story wouldn’t make any sense. Even if all the characters do is to go from point A to point B, one has a plot.
I won’t quibble over semantics. If one looks at “Little Big Man” or “The Remains of the Day”, there is movement. The progressive story of a man’s life or the taking of a vacation. But those events aren’t what make the story. It is the development of Jack Crabb and his life experiences which make the story. What life has taught him is what is important. Or that Stevens must come to grips with a changing world and to survive he must change along with it. His vacation, at the end of the day, is simply a vehicle for him to come to grips with himself.
Perhaps the Plotless Novel should be called the Character Novel, because that is what is important. It is the character him or herself that is important and constitutes the story.
Whatever we call it, the Plotless Novel has been a godsend for me. I wouldn’t be writing today without its discovery.
What are your thoughts on reading or writing the plotless novel?