Friday, December 4, 2009

Going Somewhere

I think I mentioned previously that I am involved with a number of writer’s groups populated by aspiring novelists, that I recently attended a college workshop on creative writing, and work with several novice authors mentoring them on their books and short stories. In these groups, I read submissions on a range of topics and styles and for some time I’ve noticed a trend. A large number of aspiring writers have a fascination with plotless stories. It might not be a trend exactly, but it is new to me. This usually manifests itself in the short story form rather than the novel, yet I've known a few.

What I mean by plotless is that the story begins at a random point and ends at a random point without any noticeable conclusion or reason for the tale. An extremely condensed example might be: “I went to the grocery store on a Monday. I picked up a gallon of milk and mused on how it came from cows. I bought the milk, put it in a plastic bag, and left the store.” The story would be several thousand words long and filled with beautiful, poetic phrases, but the plot remains anemic.

Reasons for this phenomenon are legion. Here are only a few:

1. I don’t want to write a predictable story.

2. It’s about the writing not the story.

3. It’s true.

4. It has a plot! The character goes to the store and buys a gallon of milk. That’s the plot.

5. I want the reader to decide for themselves what it’s about.

6. Real life does not tie up neatly, so why should stories?

7. The plot is just subtle. The milk represents “enlightenment,” the plastic bag is “society” and the store is the “world.” You just don’t “get” it.

It might just be my sick and twisted bias here, but I am partial to stories with plots. And while I don’t mind stories that leave some aspects open to interpretation, I feel that it’s the writer’s job to do the work and not leave the reader to fill in the blanks. In most other industries, such an attitude might be considered lazy, if not negligent.

What I am most struck by is that authors of such stories would never interrupt a dinner conversation to tell this kind of tale. When people talk, when they relate something that happened, or something they heard about, it invariably has a point. No one is likely to present an ambiguous account and leave their audience to decide what it means as the result would be an immediate and awkward silence—and perhaps a reduction in dinner invitations.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Good stories use what is presented in the beginning to add meaning, justification, or emotion to the end creating a greater sum than the parts and providing a form of circle tying up the whole. They can be surprising, ironic, touching, sappy, frightening, thought provoking, even totally expected and horribly clichéd, but at least they are stories and not mere writing. My thought is that if you can’t imagine telling the story (not reading it) to a group of friends (not writers,) with the expectation of interest, laughter, shock or knowing smiles, then you don’t have a plot. And writing without a plot is like a car without wheels…it doesn’t go anywhere so what’s the point?


  1. I do have to agree. I like to know the story I am reading has a purpose and the author is going somewhere with it. I like thinking on what the author maybe doing or where they are going.

    The author can be unique in their own way of how they get there and the happenings along the way. The way you get there is part of what makes a great book.

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