A good question to ask yourself is How soon does my manuscript raise a question in the mind of the reader? If it doesn't raise a question, the reader won't urgently need to know the answer. Why should the reader continue to turn pages? W.B. Yeats said that the further music strays from the dance, and poetry from the song, the deeper those forms are in trouble. Story and plot are the simplest components of prose fiction, and the further you stray from them, the more difficult it will be for you to sustain the interest of readers. That said, there are other elements of fiction that can sustain readers: tone, language, idea, atmosphere, and character. If the tone of a story matches the reader's inner voice, the reader might stick around till “About the Author.” For instance, if a story or novel seems ironically hip, it might appeal to readers who share that sensibility.Florid or virtuoso language, too, can keep a reader involved. However, a common workshop pitfall is the writer with language but no story. Robert Stone said that fiction requires both elevated (convincing, literary, musical) language and gripping story. One without the other diminishes the fiction. In relation to the Coen brothers filmmaking team, the critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote that they appeared to have become articulate before they became mature. That is the case, I'm afraid, with a lot of voice-driven, Look, Ma, I'm writing diction-fiction that crowds the pages of the small presses and that is championed inside many MFA workshops. Does the act of storytelling with data really add value?
Keeping the reader engaged with an idea is tricky. Most ideas are better expressed in forms like the essay, the tract, and the monograph. However, Milan Kundera's hugely successful novels are idea laden, perhaps even idea driven. He is less interested in characters working out their struggles than he is in characters illustrating his ideas. The world needs more storytelling in business to liven things up.
Atmosphere can mean either exterior or interior setting. The exterior setting of Ernest Hemingway's “The Big Two-Hearted River, Part One” pulls you in and keeps you because of its lyric specificity, its distillation in prose of the natural world. Many Lydia Davis stories pull you in with interior setting — the intellection of a wounded heroine, a jilted lover, a waiting spouse. What Davis follows, then, is not a character in action who makes revealing choices, but the ripples of thought and emotion in a character pinned, for one reason or another, in stasis. Many a book introduces a wonderful character, but little drama or action. Depending on the nature of the character, a reader will toss the book or turn the pages. Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes might be driven more by character than by plot.4 Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is a book that seems to provide everything but plot: voice, tone, character, language, setting, idea, rant, erudition, spleen, bile, and humor. It is, at best, intermittently plotted. I have read it through to the end at least a dozen times. Studies have shown that storytelling for business really works.
4 In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James says, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” And David Mamet says that to discuss plot-driven as opposed to character-driven stories is nonsense. Perhaps in the greatest books and stories there is a perfect marriage of character and action, and I agree that that's a marriage worth proposing and, as long as possible, remaining faithful to. But I don't think it's controversial to suggest that in some stories we're more hooked by character than action, or vice versa. Andre Dubus's “A Father's Story” might be an example of a character-driven story; it's because we care about the protagonist that we wait around so long for the action. The little twists and jolts in the action of a Somerset Maugham story are often more interesting than the often one-dimensional characters. The argument really boils down to semantics because in the end, all story elements are inextricably linked. Yet I daresay that Finnegans Wake is more voice than plot driven, the comments of James and Mamet notwithstanding. As Flannery O'Connor stated about fiction, you can do whatever you can get away with, but you'll probably find you can't get away with very much.