The Plot (or Lack of) Thickens

Last week I was reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and my brain was queasy with mixed feelings. The novel is intellectual, philosophical, existential — clearly a great mind was at work there. But I was at times bored along with being impressed, and found myself putting the book down every few pages. Then I started to skim it.

Why the partial boredom? Well, the protagonist sat in cafes, watched people, walked down the street, moped, thought, overthought, etc. There was no dang plot, or very little of one. And a plot-less novel — no matter how well-written and thought-provoking — is going to have a harder time holding a reader’s interest.

Now a brief poetic interlude, sung to the tune of “If I Only Had the Nerve” from The Wizard of Oz:

There are followers or leaders
Who were bound to become readers
They like literature a lot

But they could change that habit
Flee as fast as a rabbit
From a novel with no plot

I’m afraid there’s no denying
If I did I would be lyin’
To adults or to a tot

Authors could show their prowess
(With a touch pad, not a mowess)
If they only had a plot

Oh we’d be in our stride
Book fans to the core
Oh we’d read the way we never read before
And then we’d read
And read some more

If many an authorsaurus
Wrote works that were more for us
More book sales to be got

Yes, we’d gladly read their fiction
And our brains would have less friction
If they only had a plot

I’m exaggerating a bit, because there are a number of novels with little or no plot that I like a lot. It helps if that sort of book has humor (as with, say, John Steinbeck’s episodic Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row), but even plot-challenged books with a scarcity of laughs can merit our admiration and deep respect. The aforementioned Nausea is one of them, as is Evan Connell’s exceptional Mrs. Bridge, which I finished this afternoon (more on that novel in next week’s post).

Yet…a plot is usually needed to activate another “p” word: page-turning.

Take any of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, such as The Killing Floor and 61 Hours. How will the bad guys be defeated? How much damage will they do before that happens? How much damage will Reacher do to them? How will Jack’s latest romance begin, and end? We’re on the edge of our seats.

But a novel doesn’t have to be a thriller or a mystery or another kind of genre fiction to propel the reader along. It can be literary fiction, or a popular/literary hybrid like Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Will Edmond Dantes escape from prison? Well, it’s pretty obvious he will. But how exactly will he exact his epic revenge on the various people who framed him?

Other classics are also full of plot lines, even as they can be brainy, too. For instance, we wonder what will happen to Crime and Punishment‘s double-murderer Raskolnikov even as we are awed by how Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrestles with all the important questions: psychological motivations, guilt, nonconformity, and more. Nearly as propulsive and thought-provoking is Richard Wright’s Native Son, which also stars a murderer whose fate we very much wonder about. Or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, in which an innocent man is put on trial. The last two novels have the added dimension of gruesome racism.

A fictional crime doesn’t have to involve real or alleged physical violence, of course. Donna Tartt keeps the suspense going for hundreds of pages after her protagonist takes and hides a priceless painting in The Goldfinch.

Another compelling plot line focuses on whether characters will survive a war (Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die, etc.) or survive a hostage scenario (Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto) or survive other life-threatening situations. It’s hard to top death, or the threat of death, for drama.

And will courageous political activists — such as those in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies — survive opposing a despotic government?

Then of course there is the age-old and frequently fascinating plot line involving relationships, married or otherwise. Will two people get together or not? Will they stay together or not? How lovey-dovey or stormy is the relationship? So many examples: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, and thousands of other novels.

And there are all kinds of other plot variations, including whether characters will finally achieve a non-romantic goal — as with the protagonist in Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, or Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Woodman, and The Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

How important is a plot to you when reading fiction? Do you like some novels that mostly lack a plot? If so, which ones? Also, what are some of your favorite books with compelling plots?

That’s a lot of questions, but at least I didn’t post a second Wizard of Oz parody…

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I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.