From late 2021 to early 2022, I spent about 8 months doing the Twitter thing. You know the thing. The Twitter thing you do because every literary agent’s query submission form asks for your twitter handle before it asks for your email. Twitter has its ups and down, but let’s highlight some positives. It’s a convenient place to find other readers and writers. I discovered some of my favorite books there, and read many threads of solid advice from experienced professionals. Of course, there’s the cornerstone of every social media empire: the memes.
A popular, meme-able sentiment among the writing community during that time was all about The Vibes. I continue to see this sentiment spring up in the writing community. Why must my novel have a plot? Why can’t I just… viiiiiibbbbbbeeeeee.
I recently hate-read a vibe-driven book. The first few chapters grabbed me with their beautiful wordplay and gorgeous imagery. As it wore on, however, the novelty faded, and I felt myself grasping for some substance. Substance remained elusive to the last page. The experience was incredibly unsatisfying.
So, why can’t books “just vibe?”
What do posters mean by “no plot, just vibes?” While it likely means something different to each one, the gist is that plot is difficult, and it would be great to capture a certain tone or spirit without all those inconvenient scenes killing the mood. Chaining together a series of causal events in a believable, moving, and entertaining way is no easy task. Believe me, I know. I would not go as far as to say it is easier to focus on line-level aesthetic beauty, because I have read books that have blown me away with their prose, and I respect the heck out of their authors*… but I do believe writing the perfect line is a more narrow, and immediately gratifying feeling. Vibes are about lyrically pleasant prose that evokes a certain emotion without considering how each sentence builds the plot.
(*Also, those writers plotted fantastic novels with well-rounding characters and tight plots.)
I get it. It sounds artistically pure: Write beautiful words! Reject genre conventions! Reject confining plot structure! Join the vibe revolution!
I’m here to proudly plant my flag on the plot hill. “Plot” is such a stuffy, academic word. It’s dry, and often pairs with cold, utilitarian partners like “-structure,” “-device,” or “-outline.” However, when we step back and appreciate plot for what it is, it is just the novel’s events. Actions give beautiful (vibey) prose much needed context. That context provides weight, and therefore meaning. Indulge me in an example:
Imagine a person running. Sweat beads on their brow. They’re breathing heavily, all flared nostrils and heaving chest. Their pulse pounds in their temples and the jarring, percussive strike of each stride punishes their limbs. For a moment, the look in their eyes betrays the weight of their task. They are sorely tempted to stop, to rest, if only for a little while. But then, with clenched jaw, they press forward, fueling their increased pace with pure, concentrated determination.
It’s a little overwritten, but it will do. You get the vibe of this scene, right? Perseverance. Determination. Body odor. I bet you have questions, though.
Where is the runner running? On a paved track in a stadium? Through a crowded train station? A dense jungle? An open field? As written, they are running through a blank white void.
Under what circumstances are they running? Are they being chased? In a competition? Late for an appointment?
Why are they running? For a prize? For themselves? From a fear of missing out? For their lives?!?!?
Context informs meaning. Context grows from the setting and backstory, yes, but also from every choice the protagonist makes before that scene. And those choices should be driven by character.
Characters make or break a novel. A book can have incredible worldbuilding and an intense plot hook, but if we don’t care about the person at the center of it all, we won’t be engaged. Reading is, at its heart, a magic trick. It is reading minds over time. The author imagines a thing, writes it down, and years later the reader imagines something similar. Because our brains are pattern-seeking learning machines, our subconscious can’t differentiate imagination from memory. When you imagine a story vividly, your emotions are triggered as if you experience it yourself.
But I digress.
We share characters’ emotions when they are believable enough that we place ourselves in their circumstances. We gain this empathy when we understand their motives. We understand their motives when we spend time in their heads, or, in the heads of those close to them. This understanding establishes stakes: what the character stands to gain or lose by accomplishing or failing at their goal (oh look, there’s that plot again). When the reader feels the stakes, every action is infused with tension. Tension pulls the reader through the story, building to the crescendo.
Well-Plotted -> Character-Driven -> Vibe-Filled
I love a book with strong vibes and beautiful prose. You thought I didn’t? On the contrary, I eat that stuff up. It’s just that the style of writing implied by the All Vibes Meme Movement misses the mark for me. Strong vibes emanate from a well-written book. Choose your favorite metaphor for interdependent systems: strands on a rope, legs on a chair, parts of an engine. A believable, exciting, surprising plot is the foundation of a good book. Characters bring heart, soul, and life. Artistic prose and clever turns of phrase are the icing on top. Style is important; it’s what makes every author unique. This is not an either-or thing. Suggesting you must pick vibes or content is a stormwind fallacy in a different coat.
Strong vibes come from intriguing plots and engaging characters. A book built from the vibe out is a roof without a home.
Happy Reading, folks. Good vibes to you and yours.
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