How to Write a Story Without a Plot (and Why You Shouldn't)

How to Write a Story Without a Plot (and Why You Shouldn’t)

How to Write a Story Without a Plot (and Why You Shouldn't)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, “could paint that!”)

A story without a plot is sort of like a Picasso painting without the Picasso.

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.

Say what?

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.

Peter Pan 2003 Jeremy Sumpter

Peter Pan understood how to make stuff happen in a story. But that’s not the same thing as writing a book with a cohesive plot. (Peter Pan (2003), Universal Pictures.)

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?”

Anne of Green Gables Marilla Colleen Dewhurst Megan Follows

The question driving your story’s plot can be largely understated for most of the story, such as in Anne of Green Gables: “Will Anne find belonging?” (Anne of Green Gables (1985), CBC.)

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.

Secondhand Lions Jasmine

Every scene in your plot doesn’t have to be hugely dramatic. Sometimes quiet irony is just as effective, as in Secondhand Lions. (Secondhand Lions (2003), New Line Cinema.)

The point is that everything must be an unbroken chain. Everything matters and everything moves. That’s plot. That’s a good story!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever tried to write a story without a plot? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I like the non-Picasso Picasso painting of you! 😉
    I’m thinking you didn’t mean for the conclusion of #2 to read: “Many different plots do make one whole plot” but instead to have read “Many different plots do NOT make one whole plot.”
    Me? I still struggle to get the plot I have in my head onto the paper, so to speak. Somehow it ends up with gaps :/ but I’m not giving up!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Like my painting enough to buy it for a gazillion dollars? *bangs gavel* Sold! 😉

      And thanks for nabbing the typo.

      • I love your writing advice articles. I’m confused, does the story need to answer a thematic question at the end to be a plot or a specific question?

        Because when I think of the ending being the answer to the question, I literally think of a specific question.

        I ask because even though I don’t have a current WIP I definitely see lots of issues in my previous draft and outline.

        Even with an outline I had lots of subplots and by the time I realized it there was no way I could salvage the outline. I even got confused and lost track of the story.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Sorry, I’m confused too. :p I’m note quite sure what you’re asking: “Does the story need to answer a thematic question at the end to be a plot or a specific question?”

          • Sorry, I confused myself as well because I forgot what I meant to ask. How do we find the plot question of our story?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            If you think of the conflict’s conclusion in the Climactic Moment as an answer, then the rest of the story (beginning with the Inciting Event) must ask the corresponding question. For example, “Will the orphan find a new family?” or “Will the protagonist save the free world?” or “Will the protagonist learn to forgiven his brother?”

    • Good for you, Linley! The plot in your head may not be the plot you actually end up writing. But that can be a good thing because the plot you end up writing may be much better. So don’t worry too much about writing the plot in your head. Just start writing and let the plot develop as it may. This doesn’t mean you don’t start with a plot structure. It just means that the plot will emerge and change as you write.

  2. I agree about asking and answering one question. The Arcturian series opens with Jane trying to work out what the seven bells is going on and ends with her getting answers.

    What I do find is a trap is the “false alternatives” situation where, because I can’t decide what to do next, the characters spend five pages arguing about it.

    What I tend to do is sketch the big arc first. In “Thirteenth Commandment” Jojo initially kills the man who is attacking her. The experience leaves her cold and hard, and she becomes a very cruel criminal. But somebody from her past still loves her and through him she finds redemption. That’s the big arc that I started with. Then this created three phases, London, Newcastle and Hong Kong. Each of these created a structure that led to the next phase.

    It’s like drawing the outline of a building, then filling in the details. At least that’s how I do it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with spending five pages figuring out what to do next–as long as you delete that bit once you reach your conclusion. 😉

  3. I tried writing many plotless stories in college. My teachers kept asking “What is your character’s main goal. What are they doing to get to that goal.” I don’t think I ever knew the answers to those questions, and I certainly didn’t start to actually think of plot in my stories until just recently. Human growth. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Looking back at my own early writing, I can now see how the ones I inevitably struggled with, knowing “something was wrong,” were the ones that were having trouble finding a plot.

    • I think your teachers hadn’t learned enough to help you.

      Just because someone asks “what is the goal” when there isn’t one, doesn’t mean you can come up with an answer.

      When there isn’t a goal yet, something more than that simple question is needed to trigger the thought process that leads to creating a goal.

      What is the unfulfilled desire? What is this character unhappy about? If this character died today, what would the regrets be? What does the character regret never having done? What is on the character’s bucket list? What is the question that is raised at the beginning and answered at the end–what must the character do to provide us with that answer?

  4. Mornin Cap,

    Great thought provoking post. This helps fuel my understanding of a working plot and how it works. Now pulling it off is the hard part.

  5. My thoughts are immediately turned to the 1975 movie “Rollerball.” Many say that the film didn’t have a plot. My counter to that comment was that the plot was about life in 2018, (God that’s next year), where corporations run the world and everything is done to the good of the corporations and that the game Rollerball was spawned to show the futility of individual effort.
    Now, I’m going off on a different tangent here but I think that the film’s protagonist played by James Caan was the antagonist to the corporation’s goal.

    • Hey 80smetalman: I’m not sure I agree in terms of what you refer to as plot. “Rollerball was spawned to show the futility of individual effort” sounds more like in the realm of theme to me. Plot – or as the broad term usually implies – includes an ‘inciting incident’ or something that sparks a motivation to go from point A to point Z.
      I like what you said about Caan as the antagonist. If the overall goal of the story is from the corporations point of view, to eliminate Caan from the game, and I believe it is (it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen it), then you’d be right: the corporation acts as protagonist and Caan effectively, as the antagonist.

      • Wow thanks Garrett. I think you’re spot on with that. From the beginning of the film, we know that the corporate executives want Jonathan E, played by Caan, to retire from the game but we are never led to know why until near the end. You are also spot on with the reason why Rollerball was spawned being more of a theme than a plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haven’t seen it. But it sounds interesting!

  6. Excellent advice! Thinking back to the first drafts of some of my first few short stories, you’d think I hadn’t ever even hear the word “plot.” And, really, I didn’t. I treated short stories more like scenes from a larger work, and that’s how they read. No beginning, no end, all middle. I was essentially writing slice-of-life that went nowhere.

    I even got a bit angry when someone pointed that out to me, haha. Anyhow it didn’t take too long for me to understand that I was the one who was wrong. The “put your character in a tree” analogy is what convinced me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. You know, I actually find it rather amusing to look back on my reactions to other people’s reactions to some of my early stories. It all makes sense now. 😉

  7. I think I’ll blow up that Picasso of you to a 24×36 and sell it for a quadrillion dollars!

    I liked your points on plot (plot points? ;-D) Especially, “the point is that everything must be an unbroken chain. Everything matters and everything moves.”

    In the Dramatica theory of story – and I know you love Dramatica! – plot (methodologies), along with character (motivations) theme (evaluations) and genre (purposes) are seen as processes of the storymind. That being, if story is seen as an analogy of a human mind trying to solve a problem.
    All those times we the audience or we the reader call foul at illegitimate plot developments, or ‘plot holes,’ it makes sense! All that outrage reflects our mind’s refusal to accept a work that inappropriately reflects the mind’s problem solving process.
    Those “unbroken chains” and connections that you mention are exactly right. Objectively, if you honor how the mind goes about solving a problem and using all the tools at a writer’s disposal, there’s no doubt we can all write stories that reflect sound plot and story development!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hey, don’t rip me off. I’ll sick the art police on you. 😉

      Great explanation by the way. I’m a fan of logical solutions (as you’ve probably figured out), but they always have a basis in emotion–and vice versa. When a story makes a reader mad, it’s inevitably because something was messed up logically within the storyform.

      • Yep, feeling – also interestingly enough, is a dynamic pair with “logic” in the Dramatica structural chart – plays a huge roll!
        It’s a wonderful thought that if we connect in our storytelling with people’s minds we can also connect (and moreso) with their emotions.

        Pfft, bring on the art police! 😉

  8. Yes!!!! I have noticed the same thing in many young Indie authors I read. There is a lack of focus, a lack of plot. It does help me as a writer, because then I analyze them with, “What’s wrong with this picture!” Thanks for the concise tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This goes back to the idea that some authors are better at “ideas vs. execution.” But if I had a nickle for every story with a great premise, but which then failed that premise through poor execution, well… I’d have a lot of nickles. 😉 But, honestly, how awesome would it be if more authors were as good at their execution as they were at their initial ideas? We’d be drowning in amazing fiction!

  9. Catherine H. says

    Nope, never tried to write a story without a plot. I might have written a few stories with terrible plots, but they were never plot-less. A “story” without a plot is just a description, at least in my mind. Sort of a “picture paints a thousand words” kind of deal. Sometimes there’s no story in those thousand words – it’s just rambling.

    • Catherine H. says

      P.S. Love the painting of you.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Yep, as I say, it takes a genius wordsmith to make 300 pages of no-plot entertaining.

        • Like a Seinfeld writer, perhaps. 😉

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            “How much patience an audience has for that kind of thing really depends on the audience, doesn’t it?”

            And, I’d argue once again, on the skill of the author. One author’s deliciously meandering tale is another author’s mess. :p

          • True, but somewhat vague. Would you say then that everything that doesn’t move the main plot has to justify itself in some other way, a connection to something else the reader is almost guaranteed to care deeply enough about that they don’t feel betrayed by the delay of game?
            And of course, wouldn’t that relate strongly to genre? A suspense or action novel has less room for rose-smelling than a novel relying on humor or a sense of dramatic beauty?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            At the end of the day, the only true qualifier for what works is that readers like it. If it’s pointless but entertaining, it will still get a pass. And what entertains one reader won’t necessarily entertain another, which ties directly into what you’re saying about knowing your genre.

            Ultimately, however, yes, your use of the word “justify” is perfect.

  10. “Have you ever tired to write a story without a plot?”

    Ignoring for a moment the obvious Freudian slip, the key word is ‘tried.’ Have I ever tried? ¿Have I ever sat down at the whatever and said, “Golly-dang! I think I’ll write a story wif no plot.” No.

    What I have done is to write for an hour before my weekly workshop, so I’d have something to read there. The book starts with my MC on the rack, the result of having sent the local archbishop a vulgar and insulting poem. Anonymously, of course, but since there’s only one poet in Zaragoza who can write that well, he might just as well have signed it.

    Every week, I got the MC out of the trouble I’d put him in the week before. Then I’d get him into new and different trouble right at the end.

    People started showing up at the workshop just to find out what had happened to the MC. I now have a 104-chapter episodic novel that several people insist I must publish. Is there a plot? Um, not much. There is a theme, however: some people can’t stay out of trouble.

    What I learned from this exercise: There is no situation you can’t get your hero out of. There’s always a way.

    Get some rest.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ohmigosh. I swear, I’m going to retitle this post: “The Sea of Typos.” That’s the fifth one this morning. 😕 Thanks so much for pointing it out!

      “There is no situation you can’t get your hero out of. There’s always a way.” Totally agree with this. The worse the situation, the more you get to flex your creativity and come up with unexpected and interesting scenarios. Your story situation sounds like fun. Makes me think of Don Quixote, another arguably plot-less novel–although that’s a subject of its own. 😉

    • So I started reading the comment above and thought to myself, that sounds exactly like Jeff’s story of “Tennerax.” Too funny! Hi, Jeff.

      On a serious note, KM, what do you think of literary or “slice of life” stories? Are they without plot? I’ve been experimenting with literary short stories, and they definitely do not follow the roadmap that begins with a question and ends with an answer.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        It’s true, most of them follow plot on at least *some* level. I kept thinking of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (which I loved) while writing this post and responding to comments. It’s a literary novel that is very light on plot, mostly just describing the characters’ daily lives. And yet it still possesses the throughline of the characters’ goals and reasons for those goals: survival.

        That said, it’s the kind of story that would have otherwise been deathly dull if not for the very deft hand of the author in involving readers in the daily lives of these characters and making us care about even tiny inconsequential moments–such as two women braiding their hair.

        • When I read Julie’s comment, I thought of Cold Mountain too! Yes, light on plot or maybe a light plot?

          Just a tiny silk thread gathering each scene, pulling us gently towards the end, until everything was tight and resolved.

          Could the dramatic question in Cold Mountain be: Should patriotism supplant personal desires or happiness? Perhaps in a literary novel or short story the dramatic question is directed towards the human condition rather than a more individualistic direction? I’m not sure if that’s true.

          I recently watched the movie Genius. The story is about Milton Perkin’s relationship with Thomas Wolfe who wrote voluminously but went on to great literary success. But first, with Perkin’s in the lead, they spent 2 yrs cutting 90,000 words from the manuscript of what would be Wolfe’s first published novel. Cutting was brutal for Tom and there were many heated discussions. Also, Jude Law plays Tom Wolfe and Nicole Kidman his lover. (both in the movie- Cold Mountain) So there’s that too. 😉

          Oddly enough, the movie Genius was a little weak on plot, but not in a literary way. Still, a gr8 movie for writers.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            My take on Cold Mountain is that it was asking a much more primal question about what humans will do to survive. If you think about it, almost all of the disparate characters that Ada and Inman meet are representatives of different avenues to survival.

  11. Hi!
    My problem is that I’ve a character with a conflict but I DON’T know what’s the goal.

    My character doesn’t know what he want.. 🙁

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Take a look at what is causing the conflict. Story conflict always results from an obstacle placed between a character and a goal. Either your character *does* have a goal, which is being blocked by the conflict, or he is functioning as the obstacle to someone else’s goal–in which case, you will probably want to tweak things to give him a more active role.

  12. Here I beg to differ, just a tad. Do you know what had too many plots? “Age of Ultron”. It made it feel distracted, hard to follow, and hard to get that sense of satisfaction at the end where everything comes together. It seemed like too many balls were in the air, and some were dropped.
    Do you know what one of my favorite movies is? Age of Ultron. Not the first watch-through of the movie, or the second, but the third and those that followed.
    Yes, you have to have a plot, and a unifying theme, to reach an audience. But having read a couple of your books, I can say I’m a much bigger fan of “extra stuff” in a story than you appear to be. I adore sub-plots, and I adore depth, breadth, and color that grows organically out of the world and the characters. Yes, “The Wheel of Time” was too big and messy, but “The Way of Kings” was told from a dizzying array of perspectives and purposes, including a book-long flashback, and it was gorgeous.

    How much patience an audience has for that kind of thing really depends on the audience, doesn’t it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Whoops, just realized I mistakenly responded to this comment in response to Seinfeld addendum above. But looks like you found it.

      At any rate, I’ve been mulling on this throughout the afternoon and realized that I missed a key phrase in your initial comment here. You’re talking about “too many subPLOTS” that work. They’re still plots; they still have a focus; they’re still related to the main story and driving it forward, however tangentially.

      That’s different from a bunch of random events that *look* like plot but really don’t offer anything except a sense of action in themselves.

      Ultron is a good example. It’s a mess (whether a good mess or a bad mess), but all that messiness is still focused on answering a common plot question.

      Same with, say, Patrick Rothfuss’s books. They’re huge and rambling, but everything ties together with a sense that it’s all happening to drive toward a common goal.

      You also mentioned above that it’s vague to say the idea of “talent” is the reason that some rambly books work. That’s true enough. But in contemplating some of the rambly books that have worked for me (such as Rothfuss’s), they key reason they worked, in contrast to the book I mentioned in the first example in the post, was trust. A talented author’s obvious and immediate skill in crafting the narrative promises me he will be worth following even when he starts going off track. In contrast, the book I mentioned lacked that almost from the first page, which didn’t create the necessary glue to make me *care* when the plot started diverging.

      Anyway, just some thoughts of the afternoon. Thanks for spurring me to further clarifying some things for myself. 🙂

      • Good thoughts! There’s one more piece I want to bring up. In the “Writing Excuses” podcast, writing is often described as making a promise, and then keeping it.

        In the “Name of the Wind”, Rothfuss’s promise is that the reader will learn who the enigmatic Kvothe is, how he came to be a wounded legend, and maybe, what will heal the wound. Exploring a character is a promise that gives him a lot of rope, and yes, Rothfuss’s prose and irony are so delicious that we are glad to be led meandering through the darkness. His skill does imply that there is a point to the exercise, and his anecdotes are worthy episodes in their own right. More generally, in less structured novels, we do have to trust that a lack of steady progress doesn’t mean the promise won’t be kept. I submit that in some genres, especially those driven by a sense of wonder, structure is less critical to the promise than in others.

        But that brings me to Ultron. Structurally, it’s complicated, at best. But it’s so interconnected. There is no scene, and hardly a line of dialogue, that has only one meaning. The reason I love it is because, in every watch-though, I find something new, and the characters’ journeys (minus Bruce Banner’s) become richer. In an action flick, that’s special. I will forgive an immense amount of a story that can pull that off.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Excellent points. I agree about the idea of a story being a “promise.” I tend to think of it, as I’ve mentioned in this post, in terms of question and answer. But the idea of “promise” is much richer and deeper.

          Also agree about Ultron, and I’m glad you brought that out. It’s a movie I *don’t* like, for many reasons, but it’s definitely worth giving kudos where kudos is due in regards to a very complicated plot still hanging together (if only by its fingernails) in a cohesive way.

  13. Growing up, the stories I wrote rarely had anything even remotely resembling a plot, and sometimes I still find myself falling into that trap. So this was very helpful–thanks! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the big problems is that sometimes plot isn’t defined well. As soon as you understand what it actually is, it’s much easier to consciously pursue.

  14. Hah, I love your faux-casso!
    Wow, sounds like you had a grip of not very good stories to read through. Clearly they haven’t been using your resources 😉

    I’m sure my first forays into writing produced many plotless or too-many-plot stories. I’m trying to think of what I’ve read that lacked in the plot department.
    I do sometimes enjoy the “wandering journey” story, even without a central plot, possibly because that’s how life can seem at time, like a series of random events, though I do in fact believe there is purpose behind all of it. But most stories without plot fail to engage the audience. Even memoirs have movement, leave out the boring stuff and tie together a central theme.

  15. I’ve been thinking a bit about this very subject -sort of. Rather, I’ve been thinking about older children’s books, like `Winnie the Pooh’ and `The Neverending Story’ and `The Phantom Tollbooth’, where the plots are sometimes a little hard to find. In each case, though, there’s a string-of-connected-short-stories feel to the books, so every section has a plot (which makes sense since all were written back when reading bedtime stories was more common) and, at least in `Neverending Story’ and `Phantom Tollbooth’ an actual story question is answered by the end. I guess these are Picasso cases. The painting still has form, focus, and intent, they just aren’t quite the same ones most people are used to, and as a result, they’re hard to imitate. You need a very clear understanding of what the artist did and why it worked before you try it yourself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Pooh, in particular, does fulfill the idea of episodic stories within a story, which still features plot in the strictest sense, just on an abbreviated scale.

  16. robert easterbrook says

    Dark sarcasm. I love it! 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Who me? 😉

    • We don’t need no education.
      We don’t need no thought control.
      No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
      Teacher leave them kids alone.
      Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!
      All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

      Another Brick in the Wall, Pink Floyd. That song was popular when I was in high school. Some schools banned it.

  17. When I started to write my novel, Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident, I had the idea of having women all over the world suddenly becoming mermaids. It was a great hook, and I thought it would be a great premise. It was designed to be the opposite of a lot of the mermaid books out there, where being a mermaid was some sort of big secret that had to be protected. The secret was out now, so there was no way to hide it. The problem was, I didn’t have a plot to go with it. I could have just talked about random events in their new lives, but I quickly realized that would get boring. I had Homeland Security there, but what would they do? Then I remembered an idea I had for a mechanical kraken. It would destroy ships, but in a different way than the real kraken. I decided to put that in the book. Someone tried to reactivate the device. That gave me the plot.

  18. Jamir Miranda says

    I’m having trouble with my story that is still in pre-development stage. While I was imagining the events of the story, I felt like it doesn’t have a plot; it’s like a lump of words that doesn’t have any meaning.

    But because of this article, I can finally change the plot to make it more meaningful while keeping the exact same story. Just some tweaks here and there, and voila! my story will have a TRUE plot. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Woohoo! Plot if very often a doorway to helping us discover meaning in a story. It isn’t necessarily meaning itself, but it’s clear path to finding it.

  19. Reminds me of John Birmingham’s Without Warning (first book in the After America trilogy). There’s a gazillion point of view characters running around, to the point where you don’t have a damn clue who, if anyone, is the protagonist, or which of the plots is the MAIN plot. My head aches just thinking of it.

  20. Kate Johnston says

    I’m sure my early stuff had little to no plot, but I feel like one thing I always understood about stories is that the problem had to be solved at the end. Endings always seem easy to me, because I’m a natural seeker of problem solutions anyway, even in real life.

    I think what trips me up is making sure the story progresses in an interesting way, a page-turning way from beginning to end, so that it fits the plot. I’m getting better now, but I know my early stuff had a lot of dramatic scenes that really had no bearing on the outcome of the story, or that could be cut in half. Figuring out what works for your plot or not can be hard sometimes!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, honestly, I think you’ve just summed up why many authors find the Second Act so challenging. A question in the beginning and an answer in the end are relatively easy. It’s the evolution of getting the character from one to the other that can get tricky fast without a proper understanding of how to let structural guides help.

  21. While I’ve tried writing by the seat of my pants in the past, I can’t say hat I’ve ever tried writing a story without a plot. The very notion sort of boggles my mind.

    Back on point, I can think back to some of my failed attempts to write stories in the past and recognize that the plot was often the problem. When it came to jamming in too many events and subplots, I’d reach a point where I had to ask myself what story I was even trying to tell or write. The I would have to scrap the story and start over. I suppose that’s the reason I switched from writing by the seat of my pants to actually plotting my stories.

    I rather like the notion of asking then proceeding to answer a single question. It simplifies and helps to streamline the storytelling process.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As someone above commented, I think very few authors deliberately try to write plot-less stories (and those who do at least have an idea what they’re wanting to accomplish instead). Most of the time, we run into the problem of “no plot” simply because we assume we have a cohesive plot when maybe we don’t. Being aware of the true shape of our stories gives us half the recipe for fixing their problems.

  22. I have usually tried to structure my stories.

    Book 1: Moby Dick (The Led Zeppelin song, not the Melville Book which I have yet to read. Particularly the How the West Was Won version.)

    Book 2: Game of Thrones, anyone?

    Book 3: My WIP. I got inspired by Shakespeare and threw out all the action and description. If he can do it, why shouldn’t I? Even if characters do things, the main importance lies in their motives, methods, evaluations and purposes, which are best revealed through dialogue, monologue and in some cases, nonverbal communication.

    That said, I suppose dialogue or cultural default can symbolize actions so they can be used abundantly. I concede that and also that description makes for good pacing, and is abundant in Shakespeare’s dialogue, absent in mine.

    Furthermore, my WIP is a mundane concept regardless of writing ideology and belongs in the Recycle Bin. Love the Picasso!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s no such thing as a perfect story. We’re all learning and growing with each manuscript we write!

      • Certainly. It was more of an experiment to begin with, but I’m done with experiments. Maybe I’ll go back to that immortality idea and make an outline.

  23. I am writing mermaid books/novellas. I love writing stories of mermaids or mer-folk on fictional planets. If I don’t like the mermaid young adult novel book I have read then I don’t finish reading it.

    Does anyone like first or third person writing or reading a book?

    Lotus series about Leilani’s eldest daughter will be a three book series.

  24. Would you say the Junie B. Jones books have plots in them?

  25. KM, here is an excellent instructive essay. I thought immediately of my favorite short story, “The Gift of the Magi” by O Henry.

    It begins: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”

    As I read it this afternoon, I kept thinking of neatly braided hair (a woman’s glory) and how do you find a Christmas gift for your love when you have only coins but you want to give him/her the world.

    This is a great teaching story, don’t you agree? And a lovely intro to O Henry’s surprise ending! Mary Ellen

  26. How the heck would you make a story (can it be called that?) with out a plot how would anyone have any idea wast to do next? This confuses the heck out of me.

    I love your check list. Me will bookmark precious list and keeps for me self … yessss. 😉

  27. Great post! I agree, like in “Anne of Green Gables” sometimes the plot (and each step towards the end result) is really subtle. I like that, though, because it shows that plot isn’t all pa-pow and action. And of course, you’re right, even books with lots of action do not always have a good plot. That’s why understanding plot structure is SO important!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Too often, authors do just what you’re talking about and equate action with plot. But action is just the window-dressing. You can have a falling-down plot beneath a great series of action sequences!

  28. Phyllis Stewart-Ruffin says

    I second Jason Bougger: my drafts of short stories are in fact slices of life from a drafted memoir. The shorts need scenes, so I’ve been told. They are entertaining, but lack that certain something. Thanks for the insight.

  29. Natalie Hidalgo says

    Thanks for this advice. I’m in endless edit limbo on my first YA novel. And I’m seriously grammar challenged. Now that I think of my story Calling all Zombies, I will pay more attention to my plot! I’m learning many things in the Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild and I hope to attend my first writers conference in July so I have my work cut out for me. I’m glad to find your site. Thanks

  30. My plot is: Guy hears stories. That’s almost no plot.

    The stories form (loosely!) a subplot about the fall of the secondary character (MC’s love interest, more or less). Then the MC follows her and has his own fall. Then she dumps him because she wants to “rise” again, or get away from her past (thanks to his gentle prodding and good influence) and he’s now part of that past.

    The plot of A Chritsmas Carol is basically “guy sees stories.” They’re about his own fall.

  31. My book is one in the same vain as Anne of Green Gables. My main character goes to live with her aunt and uncle and makes a few friends and has adventures, but her ultimate goal is to be an author. It isn’t focused on to a wide extent (with the exception of her imaginative fantasies) and I wanted to know if you considered that to be very full of plot or if I should have more or perhaps a question that stretches and connects the entire story.

  32. Ciaran Cooper says

    I think this is a really interesting article and a central question in today’s literary scene. It does raise an issue that has been raised by others –has plot driven out other kids of story? In today’s literary world, which is focused far more on plot than in the previous few decades, we need to ask whether novels like Finnegan’s Wake or other ‘plotless’ novels would ever get published. It also brings to mind stories that fall outside the traditional form, such as many short-shorts and more experimental prose forms that don’t belong in the poetry category so end up as ‘stories’ for us to be moved as readers on our own sort of emotional arc, rather than via a character’s own arc. And of course I think of stories like Jamaica Kincaid’s lovely piece, “Girl” and wonder what your thoughts are on stories that similarly shirk traditional clothes but still somehow manage to dig at a deep truth we seek in good writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s only one rule in writing: “Follow all the rules. Unless you can break them brilliantly. Then break them.”

      I think there are different types of fiction. Some are more about conveying an atmosphere than sharing a narrative journey. It’s akin to the difference between abstract art, which basically throws a swash of color onto the canvas and lets it speak for itself, and photorealism, which fills in as much of the contextual experience as possible. Both are art, but both are entirely different experiences designed to do evoke different responses.

      What’s particularly important to take away from this, IMO, is that there’s a big difference between a novel like Finnegan’s Wake, which deliberately chooses to eschew all narrative rules for its own specific reasons, vs. a story that *should* have a plot and just misses the wagon.

  33. Gil Gordon says

    I guess I’m one of those odd ball writers. I didn’t use an outline because I didn’t have a complete story beforehand. I am now on my first draft edit and the story. I imagined the story in my head. First the ending, then the beginning, then the nail bitters in-between. As I wrote, the necessary scenes fell into place. In the end they followed your necessary outline requirements. Is this writing with or without a plot?

  34. For the part of “many plots and subplots don’t make up for a plot” are there really no exceptions ?

    I’m writing this story with a few different plot lines, with different POV characters for each plot line, I think there are around four.
    But what if each of these plotlines (or subplots) stand on their own ? And actually serve a purpose for the big climax and resolution at the end ? Does it still work ?
    Or must I absolutely fusion everything into one big plot ?

    It’s kind of my first time doing lots of plot lines, so I hope you can help me out <3

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If everything comes together in the Climax, then it sounds to me like it’s all pieces of the same whole.


  1. […] Once you have the idea, don’t forget the plot. K.M. Weiland tells us how to write a story without a plot (and why you shouldn’t). […]

  2. […] How to Write a Story Without a Plot (and Why You Shouldn’t) […]

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