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Plotting the Non-Plot-Driven Novel

Mass-1024x698 [1]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 LighthouseThe Bell JarThe Remains of the DayWhite 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.

The approach I’m recommending today plays off your readers’ feeling of impatience.  If you think about it, that impatience is expressed not only as I wish something would happen, but as unspoken questions like these.

Why can’t the protagonist just get what he wants?

Why can’t she simply talk it out?

Why can’t he just walk away or quit? 

Why can’t she simply change?

No, seriously, why not?

Now let’s adapt those questions in two ways and use them in two contexts.  First with respect your manuscript as a whole, reframe the questions like this.

What big thing could my protagonist do to get the big thing that he wants?

What big thing has to happen before the big conflicts can be talked out?

Not what, but who, is actively holding back my protagonist?

My character could change but before that she must do or experience what?

Your answer to the first question is the start of a solid premise, meaning the overarching thing which must done for your character to become happy and whole.  That Big Thing is the focus, in a sense the “goal” or “problem”.  Of course the Big Thing is not easy to do.  Step by step we can find out why.  That, really, is the “plot” of your non-plot novel.

Some problems could be talked out or walked away from.  When they can’t, it’s often because someone else doesn’t make that easy.  That other character, then, can become the focus.  That other character is the “problem”.  The “plot”, then, is simply showing the many ways in which that problem character makes it impossible to reach an easy resolution.

When simply changing would make a character happy and whole, it would seem that there’s no actual reason for that not to happen.  Honestly, there isn’t.  However, change is often unlocked by a cathartic release.  A big brouhaha breaks out what is locked inside.  The Big Brouhaha, then, becomes the focus.  Anticipating it, avoiding it, running away from it, orchestrating it and ultimately arriving at it are, step by step, the “plot” of your non-plot novel.

Now, it’s good to set in place a big thing to do, a person who is a problem or a brouhaha to be feared/catharsis to be desired.  But that’s only a bookend to your story.  The middle needs to be dramatic too.  It doesn’t matter which scenes you choose to write, what matters is that things happen in them.  For each scene, then, adapt our list of questions like so:

What could my protagonist do—right now– to get what he wants?

What’s getting in the way—right now– of talking things out?

Who—right now–is holding back my protagonist and how?

My character is avoiding herself for what reason—right now?

The key, here, are those words “right now”.  As I said, it doesn’t matter which scenes you choose to write.  Every one of your choices has buried in it the answer to one of the above questions.  That in turn leads you to what can occur to enact, show, dramatize and make outward your answer.  Something can always happen, simply identify why it must.

All story questions have answers.  That’s true because you have them.  When you’re stuck simply ask the very questions the reader is asking.  Demand answers—and watch things begin to happen.

What answers did you come up with?  What’s the focus of your non-plot novel?  What did you answer for the scene you’re working on today?

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].