The Importance of the Journey - Part Six
By Noah Lukeman
In the previous issue, we examined interdependent journeys, obstacles and destiny, and how all of these might affect the journey and the characters in your work. In this, the final installment, we'll take it one step further, and see if we can't explore the very boundaries of the journey. This means considering a journey that leads to a journey, a character that doesn't journey at all, and the very purpose for the journey itself. Why do readers need journeys after all?
The Journey that Leads to a Journey
The problem with resolving a journey is that the reader feels he has taken a ride, the ride is over, and he can now walk away. One way around this is to create journeys that offer resolve, yet also, by their very nature, spark new journeys, like a roller coaster ride that seems to end with a false dip but then rises again, to even greater heights.
In actuality, most journeys spark new journeys. Let's say your character finally wins the heavyweight championship of the world. Then what? It might seem like his journey is over, but it's not. He has a whole new set of issues to face: defending the championship, staying in shape, combating age, not letting fame and victory get to his head, becoming a spokesperson and role model, learning how to say no to requests and saving money for the future. These journeys may not be as exciting, but they are still journeys.
Your goal is to create and resolve journeys that are satisfying but also leave you on the cusp of spawning a new, equally exciting, journey. This is why Rocky, The Godfather and Star Wars spawned successful sequels: they were completely satisfying, and yet at the same time left room for entirely new journeys. This is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in writing. It is looking ahead while keeping your eye on the road.
One way of doing this is to put your character on a journey we don't necessarily like. For example, we might watch him journey to become the best criminal there is. A part of us doesn't like this, since we know it's wrong and is bad for him, but a part of us--the part that needs a journey at any cost--wants to see him take it to the full extent, to see where it ends. With Tony Montana in Scarface, although we know his journey is dangerous, reckless and will eventually destroy him, we want to see him take it, we need to see where it leads.
Consider the journey of a young and impressionable character being lead astray through a cult. We watch him become indoctrinated, brainwashed, watch him journey to become a cult leader. The journey is resolved, and yet we feel it is not resolved. We know it was the wrong journey for him, and wait for it to come crashing down so we can watch him journey once again.
Don't forget to consider whether your character has taken any journeys before the work began. Take, for example, the character who used to be an alcoholic and is sober when the work begins. The knowledge of his previous journey (into alcoholism) creates a current tension--the tension of whether he can hold onto the resolution of that journey. There is a constant fear of his slipping back into alcoholism. What's old and familiar (like an old house or neighborhood) has a magical pull, and we come to realize that his not going back to the way things were is a journey in and of itself. In this case, stasis is the journey. For most, stasis is too unbearable. The Mafioso who is released from jail and decides to turn his back on a life of crime will likely, eventually, slip back into what's familiar. For the Mafioso used to millions of dollars, a high life, action, and anything he wants, living a calm, quiet life is the most unbearable journey of all.
The Journey-less Character
Must every character in a work journey? What about a waiter who makes three-second appearances? And if everyone is always journeying, won't we be left with constantly shifting sands? Don't we need someone to remain the same, as a beacon by which to judge others?
Not every character need journey. Obviously, it takes time, energy, attention and precious space to portray a character's journey, and this space cannot be devoted equally to an infinite number of characters--if so, we would be at a loss as to whose story it is. Just as a reader can only follow so many characters, so, too, a reader can follow only so many journeys: if you overtax his attention, he might feel overwhelmed and follow no journeys at all. Additionally, the fewer journeys there are, the more significant they will seem. The journey, like all of writing, is about context. If your protagonist is the only one coming to a realization in a world of unthinking zombies, he will get the attention. In one sense then, some journey-less characters are necessary.
Looked at another way, though, every character, however minor, should be journeying in some direction. A boy can journey, rebelling against his parents, and his parents can also journey--either becoming increasingly tough on the boy, or coming to a realization that they have been wrong and asking the boy's forgiveness. In either case, the parents' journeys do not overshadow or detract from the boy's--if anything, they complement it.
As a rule, any character who is significant (remember that significance is not necessarily denoted by space) should be on some sort of journey--positive or negative, complementary to others' journeys, or as an obstacle to them, major or minor, subtle or overt. The truly journey-less should be reserved for insignificant characters, those who make minor appearances, or those dealt with en masse.
Other Types of Journeys
Next time you watch a film, pay attention to the cuts--specifically, to the length of the cuts. You'll notice that usually the opening, establishing cuts can be quite long--sometimes as long as 10 or 20 seconds for a single shot. But when this same film reaches an action scene, you'll find the cuts changing as quickly as once a second. Unconsciously, the cuts work on us: they give the film an illusion of speed, tell us when to relax and when to tense up, when to settle in and when to get ready for change. By way of the cuts (and music and lighting and a host of other elements we don't pay conscious attention to) films journey on many levels.
The same holds true for the novel. An overt example is a work which uses longer sentences and then suddenly switches to a series of short sentences. The content isn't changing, but our reading experience is, and this will, subliminally, affect the content itself.
The most skilled writers know this and use the text itself to complement the journey. If, for instance, a work is about a character's breakdown and is being narrated in the first person, you might find a breakdown of the character's ability to tell the story. Perhaps sentences will become fragmented or trail off or become impossibly long. Look at your sentence length, paragraph length, chapter length as the book progresses; look at the use of style, the use of language, the use of (or lack of) dialogue in key moments. Does the text journey with the story? Do the two complement each other?
Why the Journey?
All this talk begs the question, on the most profound level: why do we, as readers and viewers, need a journey at all? Why do we crave--even demand--it of our characters? Why is it that without it we will walk away unsatisfied, angry? By attempting to understand, philosophically and psychologically, the human need, we might, as writers, be in a better position to satisfy it. There are thousands of possible answers; below, let's touch on four of the more obvious:
In some instances, we simply want to be inspired. If we are told that A is president of a company, it will likely have little impact on us as far as our feeling we might reach that position, too. But if we watch A rise from an entry level position, watch him climb through the ranks, overcome adversity--witness his journey--then we can visualize his path, see that it's possible, and perhaps feel that we might do it, too. It is the journey that allows us to connect the dots from the impossible to the possible that can inspire us to take the same path. Nearly everyone wants some sort of change in their lives, and wants to see an example to know it's possible. When we see a Rocky pull himself up from the streets, we get hope that we can do it, too.
The ancient philosophers raised the question: why do we need art at all? Plato answered that we don't. He saw art at as a bad thing, something that stirred up the emotions which, in turn, could cloud reason. Aristotle, on the other hand, saw art as necessary. Its chief function, he said, was to provide its viewer with a catharsis, to purge him of pity and fear, the two lowest emotions. The viewer could then return to normal life pitiless and fearless, ready to tackle anything. For Aristotle, the catharsis is the very reason for art.
Such a catharsis would be impossible without a journey. Readers need to go through the ups and downs, experience the traumas, revel in the successes; they need to live vicariously and finish a work having purged their own fantasies, ready to return to normal life.
Life can quickly box us in with its routines, habits, obligations. Think of your day today; it was probably frighteningly similar to yesterday. The more settled we become in our jobs, homes, towns, families, friends, the harder it can become to envision a different life. More often than not, change can feel more like a fantasy--something that happened in the past or might one day happen again. This is why we get such a rush the first week in a new job, in a new house, with a new girlfriend, having a new car. We are reminded that change is possible. It is an affirmation of free will.
This is also why we love to see characters journey, change. As we watch others change, we see what is or is not acceptable for ourselves, what we hadn't considered. On the deepest level, the journey, which fulfills our need for change, is a way of avoiding our own mortality.
There are few things more satisfying in life than a sense of purpose. It can bring the worst enemies together in a common cause; it can propel people to work 18 hour days for years on end; it can cause a man to care for his mother for 20 years and not give it a second thought. People want to rally behind a cause, want to be a part of building something. A country comes together in no greater way than in a time of calamity; if there is a flood or bombing, help pours in from all over the country; workers will stay on hand for months. Nationalism reaches its peak when a country is at war. Theories abound that, if one looks at history, one will find a major war breaking out every 30 years; if things lie stagnant for too long, a war must break out somewhere. In one sense, these 30 years can be seen as a buildup of purposelessness. Once it reaches its peak, the purposelessness is too unbearable for mankind--just as it is too unbearable for the individual--and wars are launched. Few things rival the purpose of fighting a war, or rebuilding from one.
Just as in life purpose gives the human being the greatest satisfaction, so, too, on the page, satisfaction comes with purpose--which is inherent, most of all, in the journey.
* Examine your current journeys, particularly their conclusions, and ask yourself if they resolve in a way which leaves the reader wanting more, which opens the door to a new journey. If not, can you do anything to make the conclusions of these journeys segue seamlessly into a new journey?
* Take another look at your major characters, and ask yourself if any of them had major journeys before your work began. If so, what were they? How might they impact the current work?
* Consider the four reasons behind the journey which we discussed above: inspiration, catharsis, change, purpose. How might any of these influence your characters' journeys? For example, might you decide make one of your character's journeys more inspiring? Should another character go through more of a change?
Meet the Author: Noah Lukeman
Noah Lukeman is the author of several bestselling books on the craft of writing, among them A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. Noah lives in New York City, where he runs a literary agency.