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.

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?”

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.

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 lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. 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

  2. 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. 😉

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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
    Natalie

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Outlines are tools that can help us discover plot, but they are not plots in themselves.

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