Does a novel really need to have a story?

I’m reading World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. I’m loving it so far (I’m a little more than halfway through). But it occurs to me that it’s not really a story in the traditional sense of the word. There’s characters. And stuff happens. But there’s no one protagonist to latch onto. It’s designed so that we are given the information through a series of interviews with fictional characters. We spend a couple pages with a person and then move on, gaining a piece of the puzzle as we go.

The puzzle piecing is what makes it interesting. And it is really interesting. You start wondering where you’d be in the grand scheme of things. Would you be one of the survivors? One of the dead?

There’s a part of me that’s like an itch I can’t scratch as I read it, though. I want to either come back to a character or two, or have someone (like the person doing the interviews) as a focus character. Because, while Brooks has done an amazing job with the characters who have been telling the story bit by bit…I can’t remember a single person’s name or title. It’s all one big blur. So I have chaos on top of chaos on top of chaos. Which, ya know, is effective for a zombie story, but still!

Which brings me to my main question: Does a novel need to have a main character, with an arch, in the traditional sense? Or is what Brooks writing not really a ‘novel’ but a ‘fiction book’? Does it even matter in the grand scheme of things? (And apparently, in this book, not a whole lot matters in the grand scheme of things.)

Book Thoughts

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Well, you know me – when it comes to zombies, I've got a soft spot.

    But, specifically, I think your question has a lot to do with the “oral history” part. Go back far enough, and all big stories were sprawling things. But, once we started having this new technology of books, we started expecting our stories to behave a different way.

    Overall, I'd say that given the way book technology has affected the way we think, it's really difficult to go against expectations of linear plot and central character(s). It can certainly be done, but it's a challenge to pull off.

  2. It's more of a journey, or experience. Which sounds really new-agey 🙂

    I think as a rule, there needs to be a reason, or payoff for reading a novel, Something you take away from it. In this case, maybe that's chaos?

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