Can you write a story without a plot? Ultimately, that depends entirely on your definition of a story. There are quite a few people who would argue for plot-less variations, but I’m not one of them. When I talk about story, I’m talking about plot. Why? Because it’s the most intuitive entry point to a story with the potential to have it all: entertainment, great characters, beautiful writing, and deep themes.
While there are certainly examples of good stories that get away with little to no plot, the only memorable ones are those that achieve absolute brilliance in other areas of storycraft. Please note these are not the stories I’m going to teach you not to write in this post.
The stories I’m going to teach you not to write are the ones that totally, absolutely, 100% think they have a plot, when really… they don’t. What results in these instances are not gorgeous bits of art that break the rules by dint of their impossible brilliance, but rather sloppy, immature, undisciplined attempts that just flat don’t work. (It’s kinda like the difference between Picasso and what I produce whenever I laugh at one of his paintings that sold for a gazillion dollars and say, “I could paint that!”)
How Can You Recognize a Story Without a Plot?
The problem with these books (too many of which do get published) is that their authors often don’t even realize what they’re writing is a story without a plot.
How you can you think you’re writing a plot when really you’re not?
Easy. Stuff’s happening on the page. There’s excitement. There’s action. There’s romance. To quote Peter Pan’s abbreviated version of Cinderella:
There was stabbing, slicing, torturing, bleeding… and they lived happily ever after.
Isn’t that a plot?
Sadly, as fun and comparatively easy as that stuff is to write, no, it is not plot.
Here’s the key: Plot is not a string of random events, however interesting or exciting they may be.
Consider three different books I read recently:
Book #1: Too Many Events, Not Enough Plot
A heroic protagonist sets out on a quest (interjected with many other related quests for many other POV characters). Just like in Peter Pan’s story, lots of stuff happens. Sword fights! Romance! Fun fantasy creatures and their cultures! And eventually, it all pulls together in the obligatory big battle at the end. But maybe 50% of this stuff could have been cut without bumping the protagonist off his road to that battle.
Conclusion: The only part of this book that actually had a plot was the beginning and the end. Almost all of the random events in the middle could have been pulled like the core of a squash without removing anything vital.
Book #2: Too Many Plots
Starts out about an orphan boy and his relationship with his adopted mentor/master. Then a subplot enters, in which a supernatural threat to the locals must be fought off. So far, so good, since the two subplots can certainly live in harmony. But then a new subplot about defeating outlaws enters. And then another subplot about the protagonist being trained as a spy. Oh, and then, we skip ahead a couple years without warning (I had to flip back three times to make sure I hadn’t missed something) to a whole new plotline in which the protagonist is now an adult pursuing goals only distantly related to those any of the original plotlines.
Conclusion: Many different plots do not make one whole plot.
Book #3: More Talking Than Doing
Has a cohesive focus from beginning to end. All the characters have a mutual goal they’re pursuing faithfully in every single scene. But, again, maybe only 25% of the scenes actually involve movement toward that goal. Most of the scenes are just about the characters thinking (and maybe talking) about that lovely goal and all the dangers that lie in their way, until of course they reach the obligatory big battle in the end.
Conclusion: Talking about plot isn’t actually plot.
6 Must-Have Factors to Create Meaningful Plot
Are you seeing the common thread here? Plot is about forward movement toward a specific end. For a series of events to qualify as a plot, they must fulfill all of the following:
1. The beginning of the story must ask a question.
2. The end of the story must answer that same question.
3. Every scene in between the beginning and the end must build upon that question.
4. Every scene must build toward that answer.
5. Every scene must create forward momentum toward the story goal.
6. Every scene must create change that directly affects the characters’ current relation to that goal.
Note, this doesn’t mean the plot question must be blatantly in the readers’ faces in every single scene. Think of how gentle the plot question is in Anne of Green Gables, which ties its episodes together with the cohesive question, “Will the orphaned Anne find belonging?”
Nor does the forward momentum and change in each scene have to be hugely dramatic. Think of the scene in Secondhand Lions in which Walter’s great-uncles buy a lion to hunt—only to have their expectations of an old-time safari thwarted by a tired toothless lion who refuses to even stand up.
The point is that everything must be an unbroken chain. Everything matters and everything moves. That’s plot. That’s a good story!