Novels In Which Nothing Happens

White Painting (Three Panel), by Robert Rauschenberg, 1951
"White Painting," by Robert Rauschenberg (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

I’ve been thinking about novel plots lately and what makes the difference between good ones, bad ones, and nonexistent ones. Of the critiques I’ve received on my last novel from various people who’ve read it, the most troubling one for me is that “almost nothing happens.” Of course, in writing it, it seemed to me that quite a bit happens in the story. People have conversations! They have thoughts, ideas even! They feel things, decide things, change their minds about things. To me, those all seem like things that happen.

I think what such criticisms are getting at is that, while “things” may technically “happen,” they are boring things.

Off the top of my head, though, I can think of a number of well-known novels in which nothing, or almost nothing happens. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for example, which is about a bunch of people in a mountaintop sanatorium who spend most of the book having conversations about humanism, communism, freedom, art, religion, death, life, love, and morality. Granted, one of the characters does have sex (once, and just barely), people die off every now and then, and one kills himself. Oh, and there is a seance where one of the dead people comes back to say hello.

Hmmm … actually, when you think about it, things do happen in that book. But mostly, it’s people thinking and talking.

Then there’s James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A boy grows up in Ireland, in a very Catholic setting. He wins an essay contest and uses the prize money to sleep with a lot of prostitutes. Then he hears a sermon and worries he’s going to hell, and becomes ultra religious. Then he goes to university and studies philosophy, loses his faith, and decides to become an artist. Okay, so there is some sex, but apart from that, it’s mostly thinking and talking and deciding things.

Another book I thought of in the “almost nothing happens” category is The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by French author Muriel Barbery, which came out relatively recently and which I really enjoyed. The main things that “happen” in the book are: An old concierge lady is secretly intellectual. A tween girl is secretly suicidal. A rich Japanese man moves into their building. They all eventually meet and talk and like each other. A minor character is into drugs, there are a few conflicts between dogs that live in the building and [SPOILER ALERT!] somebody dies. But the death is weird, almost as if it’s tacked on as an afterthought, just to make sure no one can say of this book that “nothing happens in it.” All the same, I loved it, and liked the other two book quite a bit too. Maybe one element of this book’s success, though, is that it came out first in France, where people study philosophy in high school, and public intellectuals have celebrity status.

In any case, I wonder: Does someone have to die or have sex in order for a book to count as having something happen in it? Can it count if people almost die or almost have sex, or if they just want to die or want to have sex? I’ve long had a theory about the stories that get printed in The New Yorker. Back when I used to read them regularly, I noticed that almost every story that made it in there had either death or infidelity or both in it. Are death and sex what make a good story? Can anyone think of a good book or story in which there are neither? (One notable exception to my New Yorker stories theory that I remember was a story, “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” by J.M.G. de Clézio, who I think is French. Why is it always the French who can get away with low-plot stories?)

It makes me think of the movie Adaptation, with the script by Charlie Kaufman, who also did Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. It’s clear in that movie that Kaufman is also struggling with questions of what makes a good plot. He puts himself into the movie as a writer with a twin brother. The twin brother also wants to be a scriptwriter, but takes a formulaic approach, reading books about how to write good screenplays and then writing them by the numbers. The conventional twin brother becomes successful, while Charlie’s writer character struggles, trying to preserve what he thinks of as his artistic integrity. He’s assigned to adapt a nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, into a screenplay. The problem is that the book doesn’t have a plot. As the movie goes on with Charlie searching for a story, the plot twists begin to get more and more absurd. Orlean is revealed to be have an affair and doing drugs with the main character of her book, the brother gets killed, and another character gets eaten by an alligator.

The implicit question the movie asks is: Does it really make a better story if someone gets eaten by an alligator? Really? Or do we lose our honesty that way? Is fiction ideally supposed to be a flight from reality–reality with its boring, boring plots in which “nothing happens”—or a way to understand and explain it to ourselves, to make sense of it, to put structure and elegance and coherence into it?

Of course, in real life, people seldom get eaten by alligators, and often go for long stretches without having sex. Real life can be terribly boring and repetitive. And yet real life is also full of things I find fascinating. Small tragedies that fall short of death or infidelity, moments of despair, disappointments, wanting, beauty, sweetness, mysteries, deceptions, discoveries, and triumphs. Things people need to make sense of and process. I see value in writing and reading about such things, even if fiction tends to distort them as it makes sense of them, exaggerating, extending, reshaping, and rephrasing them.

I’m still wondering if someone should get eaten by an alligator in my book, though.

(This week’s music link: In Another World, by Donna the Buffalo)

8 thoughts on “Novels In Which Nothing Happens

  1. I agree — sometimes the thoughts and conversations are, for me, what really drive the book — not just the actions. The intangible can stand almost alone if it’s written well enough, although I do love a good plot now and again. : ) I think a happy medium is good. There are so many books that don’t delve deep ENOUGH into the characters, and that bothers me too.

  2. I know one “problem” (problem is pretty subjective) in my writing (especially from my journaling) is that I do not often write about EVENTS. I don’t write about conversations, dialogue, setting. I write about grappling with ideas…an internal monologue…or really, a conflict within the self. Even when there is action, it’s more to advance the internal monologue (or provide the food for thought).

    So, I’ve gotten some of the same feedback (“nothing happens”) from people for my short stories.

  3. Hi Therese,

    This is Johnny from your writer’s group. I’m looking forward to meet you tomorrow.

    >while “things” may technically “happen,” they are boring things.

    It actually means while things may technically happen but those things don’t drive the story forward.

    For example, in your chapters where Marie and Jean-David sit and talk on the steps, technically nothing happens, but it does. I can feel the two of them getting closer. Marie realizes she may become an old maid. That’s a powerful realization. I assume she will do something about it, so that’s a forward momentum.

    Another example is if you write a story about a bank robber who lives alone. There could be a lot of interesting things happen in the story, including a lot of sex, but if at the end, he still robs banks for a living and still lives alone. Then nothing has happened in the story.

    This is why Seinfeld said his show is about nothing. A lot of things happen in each episode, but the series as a whole is about nothing. Each character remains the same in the end.

    In general, when I write, I try to make sure there is a forward momentum in each scene. If it doesn’t, I delete it.

    Did someone have sex or die in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? I think a lot of deaths were mentioned but no one actually dies that year.

    I think most books include death and sex because those are two powerful things that can drive the change in people, cause the story to move forward. So death and sex don’t make a good story, but the changes/effects death and sex cause do.

  4. I’m having the exact same dilemma right now (i.e., writing a pseudo-memoir).
    The only solution I’ve come up with is…to have another story in hand (in the conceptual / draft stage) where a LOT of things do happen. It’s like having an alter-ego where I can be as “juvenile” as I want to be with the latter. And really…that’s when a LOT of the mainstream things people easily react to occur.
    This way, I can have an outlet for fast-paced / raunchy / funny plots without being fussy and disturbing the one I’m currently working on.

    Oh, and great article. Stumbled upon your site while researching this “nothing ever happens” topic along with how Virgina Woolf was able to get away with it. More articles should be written about this.

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