#38: A Plotless Novel

Hi Story Nurse,

Up front, my question is: what is the best way to go about a plot-less novel? Is such a thing possible?

Meaty details: the Most Important project that I’m working on right now is best described as a postmodern epistolary (anti-)bildungsroman. In simpler terms, it’s a collection of letters written by a shut-in. You can imagine that nothing much happens. Or maybe more precisely, nothing really resolves in any kind of traditional storytelling way.

I have personal reasons for wanting to finish this sucker and put it out into the world more or less as I’ve envisioned it, but I obviously would like it to be readable (and, ideally, marketable). I’m at a loss for other works I can use as an example for what I want to accomplish.

Any protips?

—An Unfunny Seinfeld (she/her)

Dear Unfunny Seinfeld,

It is certainly possible to write a plotless novel. You’re demonstrating this by doing it. If you want to entertain yourself by writing a book where not much happens, plot threads don’t resolve, and characters don’t grow, there’s no reason not to do that.

The snag comes with wanting anyone else to read it. Books have plots for a reason: readers like them! You might be able to find a small audience of postmodernists or people who read only for prose, but you’re probably not going to entertain the masses with your antibildungsroman.

Again, that’s no reason not to write it. “What’s the best way to go about this” is a very broad question; “the best way” depends rather a lot on your goals and it’s not clear to me what you’re trying to accomplish, other than writing the book of your heart, which only you can decide how to do. But, generally speaking, if you’re eschewing plot, I recommend focusing on prose quality and characterization. You could also give the individual letters a degree of structure and narrative, making each one moving or dramatic or intriguing or beautiful.

If you imagine your hypothetical reader recommending your book to someone, what do you picture them praising about it? When they say “It doesn’t have much plot, but I kept reading anyway because—”, how do they finish that sentence? This exercise will help you focus on what you want to put into your story, rather than on what you’re leaving out. And once you’ve finished the book, it may also help you find an audience for it.

Regardless of any advice I give, I suspect you’ll keep coming back to your personal reasons for writing the book the way you are. There are some projects where artistic urges outweigh commercial considerations, and this sounds like one of those. So really the best way to go about it is the way that makes you feel good, and creates a project that satisfies your own internal (maybe inarticulable) parameters.

I’m sorry I can’t give you a more detailed response, but I hope this gives you something like a useful starting point. Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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3 thoughts on “#38: A Plotless Novel

  1. I kind of want to know a bit more about what the letter writer considers plotless.

    Very small scale plots can work just as well as large ones. Like, I constantly have to remind myself that “Character A and B resolve their differences” is just as much a viable plot as “Characters A and B go on a quest to retrieve the seven items of Plot Expansion and save the world in the climactic battle of Large Scale Narration”. There’s tons of fanfic that works this way.

    But you can also definitely have a story where the beginning and end of the story are defined by something other than either action or character development. A big one would just be time. I really like “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” which is an amazing and well loved book with no plot whatsoever. Nothing really happens, and none of the characters really change, its totally descriptive and the start and end of the story is defined by Ivan waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. But its still a coherent, interesting, emotional story.


    1. LW here!!

      By “plotless,” I think I generally mean: “nothing substantial happens and no one really changes.” There are small things that randomly come up, but there isn’t (for now) a whole lot of build-up/tension. It’s more like small bits of drama dropped in between biographical/metaphysical ramblings, but they’re not really featured or resolved in a way that drives the story. I would say. I’ve been working on this for three years now so I don’t even know what is interesting or true about this anymore~~

      Thank you for the book rec, though! I’ve added it to my GR and I’m eager to see what it’s like, though I’m afraid I don’t even have the controversial STALINIST WORK CAMP to drive interest in my silly little story.


  2. I think plotfree writing demands more from the author and if you can pull it off, it can be a much better reading expreince. Plot can, to some extend, be a crutch in writing. But to go without it demands more from the autor


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