Wednesday, July 18, 2012

So What's a Plotless Book?

     Another amazing Hamline residency has ended and now we’re back into our writing.
     As we endeavor to produce satisfying manuscripts, occasionally we might wind up with what some critics call a plotless, “slice of life” or “day in the life of”  picture book, short story, easy reader,  or even YA novel that rambles along without anything of  significance happening or resolved.
     A wag or two snickers and calls  “plotless” books those that -- ha ha -- don’t get published.
     These folks call "plotless" one with pleasant episodes in which a child goes shopping with parents or friends, spends a day at the circus or at the beach, or allows a glimpse of  life in the neighborhood, nighttime, daddy/mommy at work, and other happenstances. Is that poor writing?
     I guess it depends. Concept books often don’t have plots. They are informational or  involve the alphabet, numbers, shapes, colors, relationships and other “concepts” for very young children to try to read and comprehend, but there’s nothing “bad” about them. Molly Bang’s Goodnight Moon and Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach have been identified as “plotless” but millions of readers love these books.   Are they plotless books or do they qualify as something else?
     Without plots books should have some form of vivid structure, quality writing or any other plausible selling point that would appeal to editors, according to the experts.  Frankly, editors handle manuscripts with some kind of plot and narrative because they  want to see manuscripts that will sell well and appeal quickly to children.
     How would  you define a plotless book? What’s its place in the world of books?


  1. Perhaps a plotless story is one that lacks conflict. Otherwise, I always understand plot as so intertwined with character and what they do--HOW they gain what they want, and HOW they resolve conflict, etc., that the books you cite seem to lack conflict--and hence a plot--not sure I am comfortable using plot and conflict interchangeably, though...Help?

    So, how do characters in plotless books gain what they want if there is no struggle? As Eudora Welty (I think...) argues, and I agree: "No conflict--no story."


  2. Good questions, Mell. Maybe the wag was right? Or is there more to this business of plotless books than what we've yet seen?

  3. Well, the writing could be and often is "good" clear, crisp, and tight. But, story? Umm... The view point character often doesn't change and/or we don't invest in or even care about him or her--yet books like Goodnight Moon, etc. sell and sell and sell. So, perhaps, engagement with the "world" in the book is sometimes more appealing at different age levels--especially in early levels than later in picture books (I need to brushen up on the latest scholarship). I mean, we "care" about Max and his journey to and fro' in The Wild Things but then the whole "Good night, Moon. Good night, stars," keeps us glued to the page turn. So, maybe this is a question of "caring" vs. "engagement" and how the two interrelate...?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. It seems as if part of this discussion has to do with the age of the "reader". Young children have less plot need, then there comes a time (developmental) of wanting a clearly defined plot. I think as adults we can develop a taste for non-plot if we are interested by it, and are willing to loosen up, but a good arc of a story is a satisfying thing. The books you mention Eleanora Goodnight Moon, Molly Bangs' books and Faith Ringgold's Tar Beach have other anchors in them that hold the child's attention (illustration, language, even the topic). I think there is tension in almost all these books, even though they don't have a plot. interesting to think about why some of these work and others don't.

  6. Hi, Molly! It's good to hear from you and read your insights. I appreciate your taking the time to respond.
    To recount, I wrote that "Without plots books should have some form of vivid structure, quality writing or any other plausible selling point that would appeal to editors, according to the experts."
    Some books' attractiveness could be the "tension" you mention. So "plotless" books are something to think about. Since concept books involve very young cildren it's probably that age of the reader, as you wrote, has a significant impact on what's called "plotless" and what's not.
    Keep those comments coming, writers!

  7. Another way of putting it, I suppose, is to say the book has no story. There are list books, feelings books, experiential books, etc. For books without a story per se, I wonder if the books work because there is tension despite the book not having a conflict or true story arc. Right? The classic picture book often goes something like this: Life was like this for such and such character or family. Then one day this happened, and then things changed. Think of Harry the Dirty Dog. But if you think of Tar Beach, the voice is so filled with point of view and personal history, that each spread practically has enough tension, detail, appeal for an entire story on its own. In Tar Beach, I think the story tells us: "This is what we do and where we go because of this, this, and this. And sometimes when that's happening, this also happens. When this happens, this is what I begin to dream of. This is what I want to happen." The story arc is a very realistic portrayal of a character's experience moving from her own reality into her own fantasy. If Cassie's reality is interesting to a reader (it is) and if Cassie's fantasy pushes the reader to experience a change in Cassie (it does) then I think the book has a story. Sometimes conflict isn't expressed overtly. This is important to remember. But when a character dreams of flying over the George Washington Bridge, there's some kind of yearning in there, clearly--and the reader has seen her journey.

  8. Jill, you expressed this so well. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

  9. Jill, you expressed your thoughts so well on this subject. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.