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I have a concept for a story I'd like to do where my purpose for writing the story is simply to explore a hypothetical society by means of anecdotes about the members of the society. But this sounds like a horrible story to me. Basically, there is no plot, no conflict, and no resolution.

Has anyone seen something like this before? Specifically, has anyone seen it work? If not, how can I develop a plot for it? Should I just pick some classic plot (e.g., from mythology or something) and base the story around that?

In other words: what do you do when your premise for a story is not based on the plot or conflict?

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Edgar Lee Masters did this in a series of poems called the Spoon River Anthology. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoon_River_Anthology –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 7 '13 at 17:27
    
It seems like a lot of books follow this format. (The Five People You Meet in Heaven was the first that popped into my mind.) –  J.R. Jan 8 '13 at 1:29
    
You wrote "I have a concept for a story I'd like to do ... But this sounds like a horrible story to me." Unless you are under a contractual obligation or some other external compulsion, why would you want to write a horrible story? –  Fortiter Jan 8 '13 at 10:05
    
@Fortiter Well I don't want to, that's the whole point =). I have a concept that I want to explore in story form, but it's not a concept for a plot. The only way I could think to write it is as a series of anecdotes describing life in this particular society, and that's the part that sounds horrible. The purpose of asking the question was to see if a) other people agreed that it was a horrible idea; and b) how else I might write it so that it's not horrible. –  sh1ftst0rm Jan 8 '13 at 13:29

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I assume every anecdote would have it's own plot, conflict and resolution? Otherwise there would really be no point in telling them.

There are four types of stories: world based, event based, character based and idea based. While it's true that all stories need to have some kind of a plot to be interesting, the plot is not the main focus of every type.

Take Lord of the Rings, for example. It has an engaging plot, that's for sure, but the book isn't really about the war against Sauron or the destruction of the ring. If it were, the book would stop after the ring was destroyed, but instead we have the whole cleaning of the Shire afterwards, we have Bilbo's birthday at the beginning, we have Tom Bombadil... That's because it's not an event based story, it's world based. Even the characters are little more than stereotypes, with Legolas, Gimli, Merry, Pippin being simple representations for their races, with very little character debt or development. It's because the characters are not as important as the world. But the world is painted with amazing care and detail.

Every Agatha Christie novel is an event based story. There was a murder, and the plot revolves around that. The setting and the characters are not as important as the conflict and the resolution - finding out who the killer is. She has a few wacky characters, but we're not reading it for them, we're reading to find out who did it. In this type of story the plot is the most important, because no one wants to read a who-done-it that is illogical or where you figure out on the first page that the butler did it. A good plot is what drives this type of story.

Character based stories need not much explaining. I'm sure we all ran into a novel that is not so much on the plot side, but we kept reading because the characters are engaging. Who watches House for the weird medical cases? We all watched it to see what insane things he'll pull off next. The readers will close their eyes on a weak plot if the characters are cool enough.

The idea story would be Orwell's Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the plot is just a way to present the idea, to entice the reader rather than beat him over the head with that idea. The plot is in the service of the idea.

From your description, you have either an idea based story or a world based story, or a combination of the two. Which ever it is, the plot is not the central element of your story. There has to be some plot, no one will read it otherwise. You need to pick a plot, or a series of small plots, that will best represent your world or your idea. It doesn't have to be something complex. Plot of the Animal Farm is pretty simple - you have animals on a farm that have rebelled against their human owner and took over the farm. Then one of the pigs installs a dictatorship and everything goes downhill. It's not a terribly dynamic or original plot, it's actually just author's representation of the events in Soviet Union at the time. It doesn't have to be original, it just needs to represent the idea well. It could be something classical, why not? It could be a representation of a historical event. You just need to figure out what you want to show, and shape the plot accordingly.

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Great answer, thanks a lot! You're right, it's primarily a world/idea based story, and I think I can use a quest plot as the primary vehicle for moving through the story. Is it too much to name the goal of the quest "Macguffin"? –  sh1ftst0rm Jan 7 '13 at 20:15
    
@bmearns - haha, that would be a perfect name :) –  Tannalein Jan 7 '13 at 20:28
    
You make a very good point about LOTR. I always skip Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire when I read the trilogy.:) –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 8 '13 at 11:13
    
WHY?? TOM BOMBADIL IS AWESOME!! that should be criminalized. –  Aerovistae Jan 10 '13 at 4:46
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I really like this answer. Even if something deep in my head is telling me that fiction can be more than these four types, you have done a great job of characterizing some of the most common types of plot. –  M.A Jan 17 '13 at 15:32

Tannalein's answer is excellent: I have but one thing to add in rebuttal to her statement that you need a plot, which is quite certainly not true.

Read this short and excellent work by Jorge Luis Borges and you will have a renewed insight into what constitutes a story. I need say no more.

If the link ever doesn't work for whatever reason, the story is The Library of Babel.

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I basically agree with Tannalein (and upvoted her answer). Let me just add a couple of comments too long to fit in a comment on her answer.

There's lots of fiction where the writer has some idea he wants to explore, and so the plot is just a thin wrapper around the "big idea".

For example, I can think of several books where it's pretty obvious that the author wrote the book to present his idea of how to build a better society. Like, I once read a book called "Walden II". The story was about a man visiting a community where people had built a near-utopia. There really wasn't much plot, he visits the place and tours around and sees how their society works and has some trivial personal conflict with the founder of the place and leaves and then decides to come back and everybody is happy. The plot was clearly just a thin excuse for the writer to describe his idea of how he thought people could build a utopian society. Instead of writing an essay on, "here's how to create utopia", he writes a story where someone has already done it and then has the hero visit the place and meet people and so on. (P.S. I'm not endorsing the ideas in this book -- frankly I thought they were pretty lame -- but that's not the point. I'm discussing the literary technique.)

There's a lot of science fiction that falls in this category. The author wants to talk about his idea for building an interstellar spacecraft or what an alien civilization might be like or discuss the paradoxes of time travel, etc etc. He could write an essay, but that would be boring. So instead he wraps some thin plot around the idea and makes it a fiction story. Often the plot is as thin as, "hero meets someone who tells him about X" or "hero and his friends discuss how to do X". Of course when it's done well the writer creates an engaging story that keeps the reader interested, while pumping in the big idea on the side.

Side note: If the idea is controversial, this has a side advantage as a propaganda technique. If you write an essay on why some social change would be a good idea, the reader will naturally be thinking about the pros and cons of your idea, and will be on guard for weak arguments and simplistic solutions. But if instead you write a fiction story, you can present the idea as having been tried and worked and never mention any problems that you don't have answers for. If someone objects, you just say, "Hey, it's a fiction story, not a legislative proposal!" If you're good at it, you draw the readers into the story and they don't think about the fact that it's all made up. They get the idea in their heads that your utopia would be a really great place to live and the people who built this society are all good and honest and likable people. Like, I once posted an article on a web site where I commented that the society in Star Trek appeared to be a totalitarian military dictatorship: There is little mention of any civilian government and none that I ever caught of elections, but all decisions are made by "Star Fleet Command". There don't appear to be any institutions other than Star Fleet: no one even casually mentions a college other than Star Fleet Academy, a company where he used to work, or a church that he attends. No one ever quotes a source of news or information other than messages from Star Fleet. When there's a natural disaster it's always Star Fleet that responds, not the Red Cross or the Salvation Army or their future equivalents. Etc. Anyway, I got more hostile email about that article than about anything I ever wrote about politics or religion or other really controversial subjects (with just one exception, an article about capital punishment). All these people wrote me to say, "No, no, the Federation is a wonderful place, how dare you criticize this great nation that has done so much for the galaxy" etc. Like it was not only a real place but their own homeland. I think I could have said that George Washington was a child molestor and a cannibal and gotten less hostile response.

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Thanks for the input. Now that everyone has pointed it out, it's apparent to me that many stories are in fact like this, as you said. I think the worst example that comes to mind is one of the books of His Dark Materials (don't remember which one), where the author spends far too much time describing details of a particular alien species with minimal plot. I really liked the books otherwise, but this did a number on my interest level, so I just want to make sure I avoid doing the same. –  sh1ftst0rm Jan 8 '13 at 17:31

Actually, this is a quite common format of a story as a blog.

Explore the idea of Tumblr "ask blogs". The blog owner impersonates a protagonist, who then answers questions of readers and tells his/her own stories as separate entries. This is usually accompanied by rich illustration but not always - there are quite a few text-only ask blogs (one of which is regularly updated by yours verily...)

The questions are actually a nice addition. They set direction and pace, they allow for more live interaction between the protagonist and the audience, give extra insights and ideas... generally writing that way is much easier than plain writing of novels. The protagonist may even ask the audience for advice when in a bind. (some of those are almost solely based on that, a kind of role-playing game where the audience suggests actions of the protagonist.)

Just how you incorporate the protagonist's ability to interact with the blogosphere is up to you... voices in his head? A magical communication device?

Now I don't know if any of the text blogs ever reached paper publication, but I heard of some of the graphical ones to be released as normal comic book releases.

Now for your question: "what do you do when your premise for a story is not based on the plot or conflict?".

There always is a plot and a conflict. Or many minor ones. Small, bite-sized conflicts, stories that occupy a single entry maybe a page long. Story arcs that take a couple entries. Amusing retrospections and world building in between. The fact the stories are anecdote-sized doesn't invalidate them in the least, and in our modern world always in a hurry, such instant gratification pills of text may be more attractive than full books.

So... just go ahead and get to it!

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