Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Book Review: The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman

Reviewed By Erin Hartshorn
Erin Hartshorn


In The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman discussed what agents and editors are looking for so they can reject your manuscript. The Plot Thickens, on the other hand, is about plot. In Lukeman's words, "It is the purpose of this book to show that plot is not just about having a single great idea." As with his previous book, this is a distillation of what he has learned through reading tens of thousands of manuscripts in his years as an agent.

The first three chapters are devoted to characterization -- outer, inner, and applied. I am not a fan of laundry lists of character traits. These lists have about as much personality as a police description: "male Caucasian, mid 30s, short brown hair, blue eyes." Even with height and weight, that is pretty generic, unless it is something like 5'1" and 320 pounds. But here, the lists are the merest starting point.

Outer characterization starts the process of "[quizzing] yourself fastidiously about every last detail of your character's inner and outer life." It begins with appearance and runs through medical history, family background, education, employment history, police record, etc. This is not compiling a list; it is creating an abridged biography, trying to capture the telling details of the character's life without any knowledge of motivation. It is a lot of work. It will not appeal to writers who get to know their characters through writing scenes or listening to the voices in their heads. For those who do create character sheets, however, this may provide a source for overlooked material.

The questions Lukeman addresses in the inner life chapter include such things as "Will he refuse to hold a job, [or] pay his bills?" and "Does he write poetry or frequent bars? Or both?" The first exercise for this chapter does require compiling a list, but Lukeman uses further exercises to expand on it. One such exercise is to create a character list for a friend or family member and think about what makes them unique that is not included in the list, then apply that knowledge of oversight to your character profiles.

The chapter on applied characterization has many bits of wisdom that are not apparent from the chapter title, such as discussing the impact of a character's frequent appearances, elaborating on the three objectives of a narrator or viewpoint character, and discussing what effects character interactions have on our perceptions of them. This is, by far, my favorite of the chapters on characterization because it involves context with nary a list in sight. The distinction Lukeman draws between creating a multidimensional character and relying on "realism" for characterization is worthwhile reading for everyone. "Art has become less an escape and more an embrace of the mundane." Regardless of one's writing style, reading and rereading this chapter when embarking on a new project can only give strength to one's writing.

Journey, the fourth chapter, takes a rather different approach than one finds in Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, which Lukeman does refer to. Again, the difference between internal and external comes up (called "profound journey" and "surface journey"), as well as the need to create parallels between the two. A journey requires a goal, a destination, and a beginning. "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." The path, the journey, is what leads to satisfaction in the reader. Journeys provide inspiration, catharsis, change, and purpose. Lukeman discusses how multiple journeys can interact, as well as speed and pacing for the journey.

The topic that affected me the most in this book was suspense. He discusses how to create it, how to lengthen it, when it is appropriate, and how to recognize if you have too much of it without a break. After reading this chapter, I sat down and wrote out an entire chapter for my current novel that simply created suspense because the main character did not make a decision. Later, I realized the entire chapter had to be cut, but it was a great exercise in applying what I had read. Ways of adding suspense that he discusses include raising stakes, danger, a ticking clock, inability to take action, the unknown, and sexual tension.

It seems that no book on writing can do without a discussion of conflict. Lukeman examines thirteen of the more basic forms of conflict. Anyone with any family at all (which is probably most of us) should not be surprised to find family on the list of conflict-generating situations, along with romance, work, and time.

Sooner or later all writers face the need to "murder their darlings," and Lukeman addresses this issue as well. We must cut out words carefully chosen, passages beautifully honed, and scenes that no longer work. They do not fit into the piece, and no matter how much we love them, they must go. The chapter on context discusses how to decide when things do not fit, or when they detract from the work as a whole. This is the shortest chapter in the book, but well worth reading.

The last chapter is on transcendency. It is hard to view this as having universal applicability. Not all works can stand out and become classics. This chapter looks at what transcendent works have in common. However, Lukeman points out that if these elements are to be incorporated into a piece of writing, it must occur organically rather than by force. Writing with an agenda is not transcendent, nor is writing a morality tale. Having said this, he goes on to include practical things to consider, such as emotion, the writer's motivation, and goals for the work. The two-plus pages on the audience arc should be required reading for every author as a reminder of where we are trying to go with our writing.

This book is a valuable addition to every beginning writer's bookshelf. I cannot say how much value it would have for those who have already published multiple works, who have demonstrated they already know that plot is more than a single idea. This examination of, as the author says, "age-old principles of story" does provide new ways of thinking about character and conflict, suspense and journey. I may have to reread this next week.

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman

St. Martin's Griffin paperback published 2003, also available in hardback.

ISBN 0-312-30928-7 (pbk) 0-312-28467-5 (hbk)

The Writer's Journey (Paperback) by Christopher Vogler

Pan MacMillan (February 28, 1999)

ISBN 0-330-37591-1