New York Agent Noah Lukeman offers special insights from his latest book.
Creating the Profound Journey
The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways To Bring Fiction To Life (St. Martin's Press)
by Noah Lukeman
(Reprinted with permission from the author)
"As you begin to tell your story, the first thing youll find is that story telling is not about giving away information, but about withholding it . . ."
Writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.
Hollywood studios test market their major motion pictures before releasing them to the public. They spend millions of dollars to gauge audience reaction, to find out, simply, if viewers are satisfied. What constitutes a satisfying experience? Is it universal? Is it something that can be manufactured? Why cant it suffice for us to watch merely a synopsis of a story? Why do we want to sit down with a five-hundred-page book or a two-hour film when we can get a quick summary of the facts, when we could know, up front, how it ends?
As you begin to tell your story, the first thing youll find is that story telling is not about giving away information but about withholding it; the information itself is never as important as the path you take in disseminating it. It is on the traveling of this path that the reader or viewer will find his satisfaction, as, for a bicyclist, it is in the bikingnot the parkingthat satisfaction comes. The destination, we find, is never as important as the journey itself.
The task of the writer is to create characters that can propel and sustain such a journey, it is to create characters on the verge of change, characters that will, in some way, be unrecognizable by the end of the work. Ripe characters. The man whose marriage is on the rocks and is ready for an affair; the mobster who has been careless and is ready for his downfall. The ideal character is like a volatile compound: unstable, unpredictable, a hairs breadth away from either curing all disease or causing mass destruction. This is why Stanley Elkin says he would not write about someone who is not at the end of his rope. We must remember that satisfaction and resolution would be impossible without first having dissatisfaction and lack of resolution.
Why is it some journeys satisfy us and others dont? A character might journey in a highly visible way, might travel twenty countries and age fifty years, and yet we might not feel moved; conversely, he might journey in the smallest, least noticeable of ways, and yet we can feel utter satisfaction. The answer lies in the nature of the journeys. Not all journeys are the same. There are the overt, easily relatable journeyswhat I call the surface journeysbut there are also, beneath the surface, the inner, less recognizable journeyswhat I call the profound journeys. As we begin to dissect them, we find that the difference between them can mean the difference between satisfaction and boredom.
Let us begin by looking at the three profound journeys:
"Seeing other people for who they are is not as easy as it may seem; to wake up one day and remove your blinders and acknowledge something for what it is . . ."
Profound Journey #1: Realization About Others
We listen to and interact with others all day long, but rarely do we hear them, take them for who they are; instead, we create an image of who we want them to be. We might unconsciously skip over their faults. We can wear blinders for many reasons: A mother might, out of pure love, refuse to see the evil in her son; an employee might, out of fear of security, refuse to see the fraud taking place in his company; a soldier mightindeed has torefuse to see the good in his enemy. Sometimes faults are indeed seen, but are then justified, dismissed, diminished.
Seeing other people for who they are is not as easy as it may seem; to wake up one day and remove your blinders and acknowledge something for what it is (especially if it has been harmful) is, at the same time, to acknowledge that you had been wrong in your judgement. It would force us to face ourselves, to travel down the road of self-realization. This, for most people, is scarier than anything; most would rather live with the harmful person than come to such an admission about their own judgment.
So we live, instead, with blinders on about others. Until one day, if were lucky, we can wake up and see people for who they really are. The abused wife finally wakes up and realizes what a jerk her husband is; the employee realizes what a jerk his boss is; the cult member realizes his group really is a cult; the rebellious son realizes his mother has always been good and kind to him.
While realization about others is a profound journey in its own right, it is still only a partial journey. The abused wife might get rid of her husband, but a year later fall back into the old relationship, or find an equally abusive husband; the cult member might finally leave, but might end up in a new cult a year later. Removing the symptom does not necessarily break the pattern. To do this, the person would need to embark on an even more profound journey: that of self-realization.
Profound Journey #2: Self-realization
The character who embarks upon the journey of self-realization will not only realize that his group is a cult, but will go one step further and recognize that something inside him lead him there; the battered wife will not only realize her husband is abusive, but will also realize she has always been attracted to abusive relationships. These characters will take personal responsibility for the relationships in their lives. Once they reach that point they might set new limits, not allow certain treatment anymore. Others will either have to conform to their wishes or leave. In one sense, they are coming to a realization of who they are and what theyre really worth.
Why is remorse so important to us as a society? If someone has committed horrendous acts and is facing the death penalty, why should we even care if he feels remorse? What difference does it make? It makes a great difference for many people, because remorse signifies the journey of self-realization. This journey is held in such high regard that many people will be satisfied simply knowing that a criminal feels remorsesome will even pardon him based on that alone. Indeed, many religions hold that a criminals entire fate in the afterlifewhether he can be redeemed, whether he ends up in heaven or helldepends on whether he takes this inner journey. It is not accidental that the journey (or anti-journey) to remorse has been the crux of many works, from The Stranger to Dead Man Walking. Remorse itself is not significantbut the journey of self-realization is. (Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment).
It is possible that self-realization can be triggered from within. The ponderous thinker or recluse might come to self-realization through his own efforts. But often self-realization is triggered by an outside source, such as listening to a teacher, or being moved by a priest. Something clicks, and one realizes something deep within oneself. These outside sources are important catalysts, although one must remember that the fifty other people in the classroom or church heard those same words and didnt come to any self-realization. One must also be ready and willing to hear something, and this can only come from within.
"Taking action based on realization is the most profound of all journeys."
Profound Journey #3: Taking Action Based on Realization
It is one thing to finally realize what a jerk your husband is; it is another to file for divorce. It is one thing to realize that you have attracted a pattern of abusive relationships into your life; it is another to make a conscious effort to change your lifes pattern, to seek therapy, to say No when the next one comes aroundto take action based on that realization. The audience will get satisfaction from the realization alone, from, say, a killers remorse. But they will get even greater satisfaction from the killers being remorseful and dedicating his life to helping other victims. They will get satisfaction from the employee realizing his own company is crooked; but they will get greater satisfaction if, as a result, the employee decides to quit. A character can feel remorse, and think kind thoughts, and have a powerful self-realization, but at the end of the day, when it comes time to make a judgment on this person, we are left only with his trail of actions, like dots on a map. Indeed, one could even argue that a realization is not a true realization if it is not followed by action.
In order to determine if your character might take action, you must first take into account the depth of the realization. Has your character changed beliefs after only listening to a one-hour speech? Or has he changed beliefs after having spent four years educating himself on an issue and carefully pondering it? You must also take into account your characters personality. Is he whimsical and easily impressionable? Or is he stubborn and hard to influence? A person who is constantly attending New Age seminars and comes home as a changed person once a week wont surprise (or satisfy) us if he comes home changed yet again; on the other hand, the man who has ranted against New Age philosophies his entire life but one day decides to attend a week-long retreat will satisfy us greatly. This man has journeyed.
Not going back to the old way of doing things is also a form of action. There is tremendous temptation for the former alcoholic to return to alcohol, the former gambler to return to gambling. Since we are creatures of habit, saying no to an old way of doing things is a powerful journey in and of itself.
Taking action based on realization is the most profound of all journeys. At the end of such a journey, one is left with an entirely different character, unrecognizable from the character he had beenunrecognizable even to himself. (Now we see the importance of creating a character with potential to change.) Beliefs come hand in hand with identity: all he need do is change his beliefs and take action based on his new beliefs, and he is an entirely different person. Whether he decides to join the army or dodge the draft depends entirely on his beliefs. When a son brings home a new girlfriend, what makes his parents worry is not the amount of time hell spend with her but whether her beliefs will influence his, and thus change him into a different personone that chooses not to spend any more time with them. This is why among the scariest of all works are those where the characters beliefs are forcibly thrust upon them. It is no accident that what we remember most vividly about The Manchurian Candidate or A Clockwork Orange are the brainwashing scenes. These characters have become different peopleinvoluntarilyand it is as if the original characters have been lost forever. It makes us realize how vulnerable we are to becoming different people.
About the Author
Noah Lukeman is President of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd., a literary agency based in New York, which he founded in 1996. His clients include winners of the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, National Book Award finalists, Edgar Award finalists, multiple New York Times bestsellers, national journalists, major celebrities, and faculty of universities ranging from Harvard to Stanford. Mr. Lukeman has worked as a Manager in the New York office of Artists Management Group, Michael Ovitz multi-talent management company, and has worked on the editorial side of several major publishers. Mr. Lukeman is himself author of the bestselling The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile (Simon & Schuster), and of the recently published The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life (St. Martins Press), a selection of the Writers Digest Book Club and a national bestseller. Copyright 2002 by Noah Lukeman