Criss Cross, a Newberry Medal winner from Lynn Rae Perkins, begins with the sentence, “She wished something would happen.”

This sentence is followed up with a meandering story, told from the perspective of six different adolescents across the span of one summer. Nothing dramatic happens to any of them. None of them end up dating each other. Anticlimax carries the day…and yet Perkins manages to eek poignancy out of their mundane summer.

I’ve heard lots of complaints about Criss Cross’s “plotless-ness.” It has the lowest Goodread‘s ranking of all Newbery winners in the past ten years, pulling in just 3.22 stars, and most of the readers who have given it a low ranking blame its plot (or lack thereof) for their censure.

This is what I have to say about that…

Writing a “plotless” book is one of the bravest and truest things an author can do.

If there is one danger that books pose to their readers, it is the creation of a sense that “things should be happening” all the time. Romances should be blossoming, struggling, or dying. You should be grappling with your enemies or inner demons. A whirlwind trip to another country is likely to fall into your lap at any moment.

But that’s not the way life is.

Life is not always action-packed. Life does not always follow a forward trajectory. More often than not, we are in a lull. More often than not, we feel aimless.

Criss Cross dares to enter that lull with us, dares to share our aimlessness. It captures the longing of a girl who “wishes something would happen.” It refrains from making us compare ourselves to heroes who are on danger-fraught journeys of self-discovery. It doesn’t gloss over the slow journey that led up to–or interrupted–the fast one. It doesn’t leave out “the fluff.”

Image result for lightning bugs
You don’t need to embark on a hero’s journey to enjoy the fireflies on a summer night.

And by embracing the plotless-ness of human life, Criss Cross celebrates all of its subtle beauty and intricate development.

We see crushes gently unfolding–and sometimes closing back up again without ever coming to fruition. We hike down into a drainage ditch that seems, nonetheless, magical in a way. We hear a non-prodigy pluck at a guitar. We experience the pangs of a tween and her mother trying to shop for clothes together. We get to read a whole chapter of haikus because why not? This is real. This is how the human mind entertains itself when it has nothing else to do.

Bottom line?

We should write more books without plots. And read more books without plots. Maybe if we did, we would be better at appreciating our own meandering lives. Maybe if we did, we would feel less alone.

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7 thoughts on “Criss Cross: Do Books Really Need Plots?

  1. i read your piece early in the morning just before I left for work and had it on my mind. thinking it over and seeing that i write a little like that, i mean i am no writer but the things that come out of have all these little stories with no plots, no beginnings or endings just a little middle part tat escaped from my heart. I must have a look at all those scribblings and see if they could possibly be worth anything, i always thought they were just rambles, thank you for such a thought provoking post. you are so right not every life or story has an end or conclusion, sometimes there is no closure, just possibilities of what might happen and we have to leave it like that and just enjoy the experience. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you so much for commenting! It’s always uplifting to feel like we’ve written something genuinely meaningful to another person.

      I like how you described your writing: “little middle parts that escaped from my heart.” What a lovely idea, and yes, there’s no doubt that they are valuable!

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  2. I think what matters in fiction is that the words have a lasting impact… That impact could be literary and timeless, or it could be a welcome moment of respite. But then that is a vignette….stories, on the other hand, need plot to stay stories. Slice of life vignettes can be as important, but I do think function is at the heart of definition when terms get thrown about. And I say that as a vignette-bloated writer!

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    1. I like your idea of impact. Maybe a book with a killer plot, a book that reels me in and makes me forget about my problems, is as impactful as a literary book that I connect with my own life and use to work through my problems. I hadn’t thought of the first angle before.

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