Six impossible things

Why “There’s no Plot” Sometimes

Could you try an entry or two on punching up a sense of ‘there really is a plot here”? I’ve read several that I’ve thought were good but my husband grumbles had no plot. *I* thought there was one, but it’s not getting across to him. And he sees the same in our teen’s fiction.

I think your description nails the fundamental problem dead on: this reader is not getting “a sense that there really is a plot here.” The question then becomes, why does he have trouble seeing the plot, when you don’t? There are a couple of possibilities; some of them are susceptible to a writing solution, and some aren’t.

For starters, readers vary a lot in taste, preference, and reading conventions. For instance, some readers only recognize a plot if it is an action plot; they parse emotional or intellectual problems as subplots, if they recognize them as plots at all. At the other end of the scale are readers who like to work at the books they read, teasing out meaning and connections from obscure hints. For them, the typical action plot is too easy and too obvious (it is hard to miss or misinterpret explosions, fist-fights, battles, or chase scenes). Any book written with one end of this spectrum of readers in mind is unlikely to please the people at the other end, and there’s not much that can be done about it.

More commonly, though, when one reader sees a plot and another reader doesn’t, the reason is that seeing the plot depends on stuff that the writer has not actually put into the book. Sometimes, the missing thing is some background knowledge or other that the writer assumes is common knowledge but that isn’t (like a knowledge of Greek mythology or a familiarity with particular cultural norms). This is, obviously, extremely common with great books written by someone from a culture different from the reader – it’s why a lot of foreign-language books “lose a lot in translation,” and why stories from a hundred years ago or more frequently need lots of footnotes to explain things ranging from the significance of different styles of horse-drawn carriages to the meaning of a rude gesture that nobody has used in a couple of centuries.

The missing link isn’t always outside cultural or background knowledge, though. Sometimes it is more of an angle of attack, a point of view that is so clear and obvious to the writer that he/she doesn’t get it onto the page, except perhaps by implication. Readers who have a similar approach will instantly make the right assumptions about what is going on; everyone else has to dig for it or end up floundering.

And sometimes, the problem is the problem. That is, the thing that is supposed to be the central story problem is so obvious and important to the writer that it simply doesn’t occur to them that not everyone will instantly recognize it as of crucial importance to the main character. Saving The World is probably going to be important to any main character (though if the author forgets to mention that the reason the hero needs some odd item is to Save The World, it can be hard to understand why the main character is in such a hurry to locate a pair of scissors or a lost roller skate). A central problem that involves the main character deciding between taking a job at K-Mart and working at Taco Bell seldom seems as urgent or important, especially if the character him/herself has no reason to recognize this as a potentially life-changing decision.

When the story problem has a lot of emotional connection for the author, the author sometimes assumes that it will have an equal intensity for readers, and may even deliberately play it down a little to avoid being too obvious…or to avoid raking up the author’s own emotions around the subject. If the central problem is the sort of thing that most people recognize as emotionally intense, like abuse or dealing with the death of a friend or family member, damping the intensity a bit can work very well. If, however, the problem is something like losing a library card, which was highly traumatic for the author at age 8 but which most people aren’t likely to see as a big deal, downplaying how important this is to the main character is likely to result in an impression of non-plot, except among readers who already consider losing their library card to be a tragedy.

The other difficulty in this sort of situation – when the author is using something in the story that has a lot of personal emotional resonance for them – is that it can be a lot more difficult than usual for an author to judge what has gotten into the story. Years ago, I read a scene in which the author described an incident that anyone would recognize as emotionally intense – think watching a drunk driver in an SUV come straight at you, and then waking up in the hospital. The scene was brief, factual, and a bit clumsy…and what the author wanted was advice on how to “tone it down, because it is so intense.” It was intense for the author, because the scene was based on a real incident and just writing a minimalist version still gave that author the shakes…but for the reader, it was more of a “Yeah, that would have been bad, I guess” moment. It wasn’t involving or emotional, because the author’s emotions got in the way of putting the incident vividly on the page – it was already way too vivid in the author’s mind.

Notice that in all of the above cases, the “missing plot” problem has to do with something getting left out of the story. Usually, this is accidental, but occasionally an author has a deep and abiding horror of being too obvious (the way many authors have a horror of writing purple prose), and they’re leaning over too far backward. In any case, the solution to the “there is no plot here” feeling is to make the central story problem clearer, harder to achieve, or more obviously vital to the main character. If the author objects that the problem is already hard to achieve and/or vital to the main character’s health and happiness…well, if a significant percentage of one’s beta readers can’t find the plot, then the difficulty and/or importance of the central problem hasn’t gotten onto the page. (I can talk more about this in the next post, if people are interested.)

Also notice that there will always be differences in taste and preference. Back in high school, I had a friend whose taste in fiction ran very strongly toward things I considered over-the-top melodrama, verging on the hysterical. She considered my favorite books unemotional, cold, and full of almost robotic characters. With forty years of hindsight, I can see that it was a difference in taste, not necessarily in the quality of the prose, plotting, or characterization. There will always be readers who want every detail of the plot laid out clearly (whether it’s action-adventure, romance, or man-learns-lesson), and others who find it annoying to have stuff spelled out that they consider obvious. There will always be writers who have a horror of being obscure, and others who cannot stand the thought of being too obvious. Sometimes, all you can do is say, “I guess this isn’t your sort of story, then.”

16 Comments
  1. I’ve just read a book that I think I would say has no plot.

    The problem is that it’s episodic. Exciting (or sometimes, alas, not so exciting) episodes that didn’t link up. It was military SF without an objective that could be completed in the story, so it needed to tie the happenings more strongly into a chain of character development, but that was too weakly done.

  2. …then the difficulty and/or importance of the central problem hasn’t gotten onto the page.

    My plots usually end up involving life versus death, with other valuable things also at risk. But they don’t start that way. The reader comes to realize just how much is in jeopardy about halfway through the book.

    The result is that the first half of my story tends to be slow in starting. Thing is, I can’t just cut the first half. Without knowing the elements presented in the first half, you can’t realize what’s at stake.

    I’ve successfully solved the slow-start problem by starting with a snippet from the crisis point of the story and then backtracking to where it all started. That way there’s some urgency to the start along with some curiosity evoked in the reader. But not every story lends itself to that solution.

    I’m also one of those writers who has a horror of being too obvious, with the result sometimes not enough information makes it onto the page.

    So I’d love it if you would talk more about how a writer can discern when more needs to go onto the page, whether that more is plot-oriented or character-oriented or setting-oriented.

    I’d also love to hear more about how to present a story that has a lot of elements that must be seen to come together in order for the reader to understand that, “Yes, the protag’s personal universe is in jeopardy.”

    • sometimes “bridging conflict” helps. We see Luke complaining about being on the farm to give him some conflict with his uncle before he gets pulled into the main plot.

    • Or start in medias res, and add judicious flashbacks as to how the protagonist got into that mess? This is one of the things that work if you can make it work….

      • Yeah. That can be tricky — going into past perfect in your opening scene is a bad sign — but sometimes there is no other way.

  3. This is so true. As an author, the stakes have to be clear and they have to be important. My problem is more so how to keep raising the stakes while still having the beginning propel readers on.

    • Good point. My stakes are clear but sometimes lack the importance needed to give the stories the emotional drive they need. Two of my stalled WIPs involve main characters whose primary need is “to go home”. That worked for Dorothy, but it isn’t enough in these two cases.

  4. then the difficulty and/or importance of the central problem hasn’t gotten onto the page. (I can talk more about this in the next post, if people are interested.)

    Yes, please. This seems at least tangentially related to a problem I often have — it’s not so much the plot per se, but that readers can’t tell what’s going on at certain significant points. Most readers, that is; the few who, as you say, have a similar approach to the author do instantly make the right assumptions about what is going on. Unfortunately, they’re a small minority. And it’s usually the sort of story where stating things outright would ruin the effect. Figuring out how to clue in the rest without ruining it for the few who do get it and like it is something that leaves me flailing.

  5. Since the book Elaine’s husband considered plotless was Graydon Saunders’ _The March North,_ I am happy to report that my daughter figured out how I could read it on my PC. I have now read it twice (in rapid succession, which is my personal standard for a Really Good Book), and *I* think it has a plot. But I did note — there was a thread related to this a while ago — the climax of the plot, if we can so designate the moment when the good guys FINALLY win the last conflict of that battle and can begin making their way home — happens about four-fifths of the way through the story, and the last fifth involves getting home, discovering that there’s about to be a massive change of government which not all the participants may survive, and getting it done, and setting up the next line of defense where it’s likeliest to be needed.

    Elaine, is it possible that your husband likes the kind of plot that ends with a bang in Chapter Last? (You might ask him. Maybe ask him for some examples of stories he does think have plots?)

    Moving right along to the original question, Patricia once answered a question on rasf-c about whether collections of related stories (same world/characters, e.g.), aka fixup novels, can sell. Her answer was basically, “it depends on what the meme of the day is.”

    Which might be why, after buying all the Cynthia stories one by one for _Swords and Sorceresses,_ Betsy Wollheim rejected the compilation, _The Witch of Syracuse,_ by saying it had no plot. I thought it had a plot; I was following a plotline in my head from the second story through the last … but she was the editor.

    • I’ve bought The March North but it’s probably going to be a while before I get around to reading it. I’ll be interested to see how my impression of it matches yours.

      • It’s about a battle (or several battles), with magic and guns (that are probably magical too) and footsoldiers. Some of the characters are Not What They Seem. I’ll look forward to your review.

    • I’m glad you succeeded in downloading, it, Dorothy!
      I quizzed my husband about why he didn’t like THE MARCH NORTH and he said it was a string of disconnected episodes to him. Yeah there were some nifty details (we all like the 5-ton firebreathing battle sheep) but .. There was no thread of plot propelling the story forward. (He tends to have this opinon about CJC books and McKillip as well, I don’t want to seem to pick on Saunders. That was just the most recent example.) He doesn’t necessarily mind a long winding down of the story, as he sees that, say, the Scouring of the Shire and so on is the right way – or at least not wrong – for that story.

      Whereas I, and I suspect you noticed the three high powered magic users being assigned to that command and took it as a clue that there was going to be major, very important fighting and consequences to deal with, and that’s what the story was about. he didn’t get that message. It read to him like Sarah’s description of Gene Wolfe’s books, below in this thread. (he doesn’t like Wolfe’s books either, FWIW.)

      • I see what you mean: the story was one damned thing after another. But that’s what battles are frequently like.

  6. I think I’m going to stop worrying. I know I have a plot: if you need the life-changing events listed in order, I can do that, and tell you exactly what is happening at each.

    But I keep getting odd comments – from a few people.

    Since comments are few, I read them – and save them if they trigger anything I might have to look into.

    But there has to be the assumption of basics: the reader lives in the same universe as the writer, and people who don’t have those basics won’t be able to read.

    You can’t please everyone. ‘Taint possible.

    I hadn’t thought of it thoroughly enough before as a matter of taste.

  7. I think, at least for some readers including me, it often feels like “there’s no plot” when the story doesn’t have a central problem or goal driving the action forward, even when this is intentional. It just feels like you’re meandering through events and there’s no point to it all. I’ve been reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (in the middle of Sword of the Lictor right now) and it feels like that to me. My husband is a mega fan of Wolfe and has painstakingly explained the significance of everything to me, but it still feels frustratingly plotless because right now the main character is just wandering around and things are occasionally happening to him.

    When it’s an intentional element of the book (as it surely is in Wolfe’s case) there’s really nothing to be done about it but throw up your hands and admit this kind of book just isn’t for you no matter how much your husband raves about it. (I still intend to finish the Book, but I don’t think Wolfe’s writing is my kind of writing.)

    • I like Wolfe a lot (and his Book of the New Sun series well enough to have reread it a few times), but I found it lacking in terms of theme. Typifying this, there is a point where the main character meets and spends some time with a young boy who has the same name. There should be some thematic resonance to this, but unless I missed something, he just passes it off as a meaningless coincidence. The boy’s sudden, unexpected death should mean something too, but it doesn’t appear to.

      Plot is more than a series of events, one following after another. They should interlock with shared emotion and meaning, and it is theme that provides that necessary connection. Fiction should mean something, no matter how pretty it is.

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