Have you ever grown impatient with a novel? Have you ever restlessly flipped ahead wishing that something would happen? Of course. It’s a common feeling. Put politely, you feel frustrated. Put plainly, you’re bored.
Perhaps your own current manuscript has also had you feeling, at times, impatient. Have you struggled to find a way to make things happen? Do you sense that the inner state of your main character is significant, but that it isn’t turning into events dramatic enough? Do you secretly worry that your beautiful words won’t be enough to captivate your readers for four hundred pages?
If you answered yes then I have bad news for you: Your readers are going to feel impatient too. Not enough is happening. But what can you do about that? In particular, how can you “plot” a novel that inherently lacks one? Even more, how can you work alchemy when your process is exploratory, the opposite of applying a formula?
As a non-plot driven novelist your frustration can deepen when you consider classics and contemporary literary successes. To the Lighthouse. The Bell Jar. The Remains of the Day. White Teeth. I mean, come on. What really happens in these novels? Almost nothing, and yet somehow it feels like everything.
There’s nothing wrong with writing about the human condition. It’s okay to examine characters who are stuck. You could say that about Holden Caulfield, John Yossarian, Jay Gatsby and even Scarlett O’Hara, all characters who are not getting what they want. Yet writers like Salinger, Heller, Fitzgerald and Mitchell make it look easy. It’s not, that’s how it feels anyway.
Fortunately there are ways to “plot” the non-plot driven novel. It doesn’t mean creating an outline. It doesn’t depend on the gimmicky formulae of quest, save-the-world, whodunit or love conquers all. It does, however, require taking a break from writing pages and asking yourself questions about your main character.
First, recognize that what holds a non-plot novel together and what gives it propulsive force every step of the way are two different issues. Tackling each involves similar questions but applied in two different contexts: in the macro-text and in individual scenes.
Second, let’s generalize. If your novel doesn’t, and cannot, have a plot as such then you are in some way or other working with a character who is blocked, frozen, hamstrung, bewildered, wandering, lost or in some other way unable to become whole and happy. There can be a range of reasons for that: internal, circumstantial, past or some combo of things.
It doesn’t matter why your main character is stuck. It’s okay with me if he or she is. Heck, we’re all stuck at times, even you. What makes your manuscript a novel is that which ultimately causes your character to become unstuck. The human condition by itself isn’t a story. Change is. [Read more…]