"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 can't it suffice for us to watch merely a synopsis of a story? Why do we want to sit down with a 500 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 you'll find is that it 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 biking--not the parking--that 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 hair's 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 resolve would be impossible without first having dissatisfaction and unresolved issues.
Why is it some journeys satisfy us and others don't? A character might journey in a highly visible way, might travel 20 countries and age 50 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 journeys--what I call the "Surface Journeys"--but there are also, beneath the surface, the inner, less recognizable journeys--what 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.
We will begin by looking at the three Profound Journeys:
Profound Journey #1: Realization about others
We listen to and interact with others all day long, but rarely do we hear others or 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 might--indeed has to--refuse to see the good in his enemy. Sometimes faults are 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 all this time. 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 we're 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. Breaking 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 his group is a cult, but will go one step further and recognize that something inside of him led him there. The battered wife will not only realize her husband is abusive, but will also realize she has always attracted abusive relationships. These characters will take personal responsibility for the relationships and circumstances of their lives. When they reach this point they might set new limits, not allow certain treatment anymore. Other people will have to either conform to their wishes or leave. In one sense, they have come to a realization of who they are and what they're 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, and this is 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 remorse--some will even pardon him based on this alone. Indeed, many religions hold that a criminal's entire fate in the afterlife--whether he can be redeemed, whether he ends up in heaven or hell--is dependent 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 significant--but the journey of self-realization is, like 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 50 other people in the classroom or church heard those same words and didn't come to any self-realization. One must be ready and willing to hear something, and this can only come from within.
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 life's pattern, to seek therapy, to say no when the next one comes around--to take action based on that realization. The audience will get satisfaction from the realization alone, from, say, a killer's remorse. But they will get even greater satisfaction from the killer's 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 take into account the depth of the realization. Has your character changed his beliefs after listening to a one hour speech? Or has he changed his beliefs after having spent four years educating himself on an issue and carefully pondering it? You must also take into account your character's 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 won't 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 who 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 been--unrecognizable even to himself. Now we see the importance of creating a character with potential to change. Beliefs go hand-in-hand with identity: all one needs do is change his beliefs and take action based on his new beliefs, and he is an entirely different person. Whether one 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 he'll spend with her, but whether her beliefs will influence his, and thus change him into a different person--one that chooses not to spend anymore 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 people--involuntarily--and it is as if the original characters have been lost forever. It makes us realize how vulnerable we are to becoming different people.
* Make a list of all of the major events or plot points in your work. Beside each, write down where your main characters stand in their journeys of inner realization. Do you find that your characters are changing evenly throughout? Not changing until the end? Changing too soon? Not changing at all? Should their inner journeys be prolonged? Condensed?
* Look at your list of plot points and ask: are any of these events the product of an inner character realization? In general, do you find that events are triggered by realizations, or are realizations triggered by events? Can any events be added as a result of a realization? How would that impact the work?
* Examine each moment of realization and ask yourself, what, if anything, was the catalyst. Another person? A shocking event? Are these catalysts given their due importance throughout the work?