Plotless adventure novels

by KIB

Question: I'm writing a few fantasy novels, and some of them have this storyline: basically, the hero has to travel from Point A to Point B. During his journey, he fights monsters, meets many strange characters, and visits many weird places. There's not much plot: the dramatic question could be summed as "how will the hero survive all this?" Also, there's plenty of worldbuilding and mysteries: again, most of this doesn't have anything to do with the plot. No character development, too; the hero doesn't need it.

The truth is that I'm not interested in plots; I've read them a million times, and they're always the same, predictable and dull. For me, the only interesting plot is "the hero becomes bored and decides to go adventuring".

But I always hear that there "should" be a strong plot in a story, and that all the story's events "should" be tied to this plot. This bothers me greatly, because I honestly don't care about plots. I read books just to see some great action, characters and worldbuilding, and that's it. Every time I try to write a plot-driven story, it bores me to death, because I have to cut tons of interesting stuff AND insert lots of dull content just to drive the plot forward.

I prefer plotless, character-driven adventures: they flow better and are more entertaining. But is it possible to find readers (and publishers) for this kind of fiction? Will they be annoyed by the lack of plot? As I said, there IS a dramatic question that should keep the reader's interest, but I feel that's enough, while everybody says it's not.

Answer: There has always been a market for episodic stories about pure adventure and exploration of novel terrain. Most of these, I must say, are aimed at younger males. Testosterone and a yearning for adventure seem to go hand in hand.

The problem is that, for many readers, the kind of story you describe comes across as dull, predictable, and pointless. I'm not judging here. It's just that there are different types of readers who like different types of stories.

It takes a story goal and development of the main character's inner conflict and relationships -- the process of self-examination and growth -- to create meaning. The quest for meaning is a powerful emotional drive within people, and a well-structured plot feeds that drive, encouraging readers' enjoyment of a story.

Just having a story goal means there is a point to all the events in the story. It gives the reader a way of evaluating your character's choices along the way. There's an emotional roller coaster created as events show the characters moving closer to or further away from accomplishing the goal, a build in tension to a climax, and relief afterwards when we see the results.

When you make your stories too episodic, the risk is that many readers will put the book down at the end of an episode and never return to it. There's no penalty for doing so. On the other hand, a structured plot gives the reader a reason to pick the book up again later -- to discover the resolution of the plot. Will the main character ultimately make the right decision? Is the impact character giving him good advice or not? Can the relationship survive? Will all this lead to happiness or disaster?

It is true that not all stories emphasize the overall plot. In literary fiction, for example, the character's inner conflict or the authenticity of the voice may be more important. In romance, the relationship throughline may be more in the foreground, and the overall plot becomes backdrop. But the mere presence of all these elements adds considerably to the emotional impact.

You have to know what readership you are writing for and what they want from a story. But even lovers of adventure stories will feel the emotional tug that comes from developing the character's inner conflict.

For instance, what would Star Wars be without Luke's struggle to find faith in himself? What would The Hunger Games be if Katniss simply gave in to the Capitol's demands on every issue and never rebelled? What would Harry Potter be if Harry simply behaved like Draco Malfoy? Far less impactful, I'd say.

Comments for Plotless adventure novels

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Feb 10, 2015
by: KIB

Thanks for the answer. Though I still do not understand the importance of plotting. In every plot-driven story I read, the whole plot, including ALL the characters, conflicts and resolutions, can be guessed correctly by reading just the first chapter. It just never fails. For example, I always know what the hero's love interest will be like, even before she is introduced. When the villain appears, I immediately know how the hero is going to defeat him. There's always a conflict between the hero and his best friend, and both the cause and resolution of this conflict can be easily predicted, too. And the hero's choices/decisions are always clear to me. I know that, in every dilemma the hero faces, there are only two or three choices he could make, and they are pretty obvious. And I know that he is going to take the "wrong" decisions at the beginning (most of the time), and the more "right" decisions at the end. There's no drama whatsoever!

In an episodic story, hovewer, this can't be done. There's absolutely no way to guess what's going next, and this is what I consider enjoyable. The dramatic question is "ok, we know that the hero is going to make the right choice, but which one, exactly? The situation is hopeless!" The hero is compelled to find inventive, often crazy, ways to get out of the trouble he's got into. And this inventiveness IS the point of the story. This doesn't mean there's no inner conflict. The obstacles he has to face usually target his foremost weaknesses, as if the whole universe secretly hates him. But instead of changing/adapting, he has to find ways to defeat the obstacle without exposing his weaknesses to danger. This is what makes him and his adventures interesting, and it DOESN'T require a plot. In fact, the plot itself usually acts as one big and annoying spoiler.

With the above added: is that a good way to write stories that the audience will enjoy? I should also mention that my stories tend to be somewhat humorous in nature, and I heard that comedies doesn't rely much on the plot, too.

Feb 11, 2015
by: Glen

It sounds like you've been reading too many of the same type of book -- by authors who all follow a similar formula.

This happens, especially because certain publishers will put out lines of similar stories designed to target the same set of readers.

I suggest you explore other types of novels, because the range of stories is really quite vast. You might focus on books that have won major awards, for example.

P.S. Again, it's somewhat a matter of taste. Episodic stories can appear formulaic to many readers. In an episodic story, the main character cannot change (because he has to be the same person going into the next episode). Therefore, the reader knows he will basically always solve problems in the same way (for instance, by pulling a MacGyver, or out-shooting the villain). His values are fixed and cannot evolve through experience. He cannot grow as a person.

Feb 11, 2015
by: KIB

I've read many kind of novels, including those that won awards. The pattern is always the same: plot-driven stories are ALWAYS predictable and therefore boring, and if they're actually interesting, it's never because of their plots or character growth.
Also, I honestly don't understand why "character growth" is needed to solve problems. For example, the hero is in prison, does he need to "grow" to get out of there? No, he needs to find an inventive way that is totally unpredictable and fun. There's no "solving problems in the same way" - it's quite the reverse. However, if character growth is unavoidable here, then he needs to "grow" about 40 times per novel, because that's the minimum amount of plot points needed to keep readers interested. This is illogical. So there's usually 1 or 2 instances of character growth in every novel, while the rest is pointless drama, where the protagonist is pathologically unable to solve a moral dilemma that anyone intelligent and responsible would be able to solve in a second. This explains why so many protagonists are viewed as boring and annoying - it's because they're portrayed as indecisive and lacking will and spirit. Readers prefer strong-willed heroes most of the time, as many polls have shown. Heroes who stick to their ideals no matter what.
Character growth is useless (at least for the main heroes), because it's results can be easily calculated by the end of the first or second chapter, so the writer needs to find better ways to preserve drama.

Feb 11, 2015
by: Glen

At the risk of repeating myself, tastes differ. The type of protagonist you describe as preferable (strong-willed, decisive, non-introspective, and lacking self-doubt) though popular with some readers, appears to other readers as emotionally shallow and dull.

Why the difference?

Some people are linear thinkers and some are holistic thinkers (and most are a little of both). Whichever end of the scale a person is closest to, they will tend to see the other end as irrational or psychologically deficient.

For instance, to a linear thinker, a holistic thinker will seem unduly concerned with trivial considerations and lacking a sense of urgency.

To a holistic thinker, a linear thinker is too single-minded if not simplistic. By refusing to consider collateral issues, the linear thinker risks doing more harm than good in the long run.

For instance, some people love Hamlet while others can't understand why he doesn't hurry up and take his revenge in act one. Some see "Waiting for Godot" as profound; others see it as a play in which nothing happens twice. Some people will be on the edge of their seats watching an action film, while others will fall asleep.

Truthfully, neither way of seeing things is right or wrong. It depends on nature of the story problem and the individual reader. Hence, stories that seem dull to one person will provoke a strong emotional response in someone else.

Some readers enjoy seeing how the hero will succeed without changing, while others find books where the hero always wins and never questions himself boring.

You have to know what audience you are writing for.

This psychological difference is why, if a main character is a linear thinker, the impact character is usually holistic and vice versa. It takes someone with a different way of thinking to get the main character to reconsider his approach.

In some stories the impact character's approach is right. In some the main character's approach is right. And the main character does not always make the right choice in terms of whether to change or not. It depends on the situation. Hence, some stories are tragedies, some have happy endings, and some fall in between. The unpredictability of outcome makes stories interesting.

Feb 15, 2015
by: KIB

Thanks. Hovewer, it should be noted that heroes who never question themselves are usually viewed as boring because they're "unrealistic" - but there are many ways to make a character realistic, and giving "character growth" to the hero is just one way. It's just writers usually invent a shallow protagonist, give him "character growth" to compensate, and consider it good enough. It happens every time. The trick is to make sure everything the hero does is interesting, not just the moments of change. In many books, everything in the middle is dull to read for this very reason: the writer just invents a few "points of change" and thinks that's all he/she needs. And this is why the hero often looks like a mere plot device, while the other characters (who are non-changing) are viewed as interesting. The truth is that there are better ways to maintain the flow than just "character growth".

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