Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life

4.2 11
by Noah Lukeman

See All Formats & Editions

As a literary agent, Noah Lukeman hears thousands of book pitches a year. Often the stories sound great in concept, but never live up to their potential on the page. Lukeman shows beginning and advanced writers how to implement the fundamentals of successful plot development, such as character building and heightened suspense and conflict. Writers will find it


As a literary agent, Noah Lukeman hears thousands of book pitches a year. Often the stories sound great in concept, but never live up to their potential on the page. Lukeman shows beginning and advanced writers how to implement the fundamentals of successful plot development, such as character building and heightened suspense and conflict. Writers will find it impossible to walk away from this invaluable guide--a veritable fiction-writing workshop--without boundless new ideas.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lukeman's second book on writing after 2000's The First Five Pages (a third volume on dialogue is still to come) discusses the craft of writing well-plotted fiction. Lukeman, a literary agent, rallies against the lazy and mundane that cross his desk in the form of 50,000 manuscripts submitted in the last five years. Initially, at least, he is less concerned with artfulness than the simple need to make the book compelling beyond the first few pages. He asserts that the foundation (and often the first casualty) of a book is character, and accordingly, Lukeman dedicates the first two chapters to an exhaustive list of questions a writer should ask about the "outer" and "inner" life of each character. He encourages a Dr. Frankenstein-like approach to creating realistic fictional characters: devising them with the intention of bending them to the writer's own will, but at the same time investing them with enough life that they are capable of making their own way in the world and ultimately surprising their creator. A third chapter called "Applied Characterization" discusses how to use this knowledge to form a plot. The remaining five chapters cover different aspects of plotting: "The Journey," "Suspense," "Conflict," "Context" and "Transcendency." Lukeman's advice is practical and often entails multiple, time-consuming steps without a hint of the flakiness that creeps into many writing guides. The closest he ever gets to sounding like a guru is when he sagely stresses, "Real life is the best teacher." Though Lukeman works with books, he wisely asserts that the observations in this volume are applicable to all types of imaginary writing, from film to poetry. Indeed, it is a worthy addition to any narrative writer's reference shelf. (July 8) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher

“One of the best-ever books about the craft of writing. It is a book that can change the world of every writer who embraces Lukeman's ideas. His classroom on paper should be on every writer's shelf to be read again and again.” —Authorlink

“Full of practical common sense about how to write fiction and [he] answers many of the difficult questions first novelists ask themselves.” —Michael Korda, author of Making the List

“Lukeman's advice is practical---and often entails multiple, time-consuming steps---without a hint of the flakiness that creeps into many writing guides. Though Lukeman works with books, he wisely asserts that the observations in this volume are applicable to all types of imaginary writing, from film to poetry. Indeed, it is a worthy addition to any writer's reference shelf.” —Publishers Weekly

“A godsend...The Plot Thickens is not the type of book you want to check out from the library or borrow from a friend. It is the type of book you need to purchase so it can sit on your desk, dog-eared and underlined, worn from years of overuse.” —Prairieden.com

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.08(w) x 7.62(h) x 0.87(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Plot Thickens

8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life

By Noah Lukeman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Noah Lukeman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9084-4


Characterization: The Outer Life

Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created — nothing.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

You may have been in a situation — perhaps in a government office — where you've been asked for your mother's social security number, your father's place of birth, and realized, in a horrific flash, that you don't really know the people you think you know best in the world.

How much more so is this true of the people you attempt to create out of sheer imagination, often on a whim, people whose very existence can be the result of a mere circumstance or plot twist. You have no opportunity to spend time with them as living, breathing people, to eat lunch, get drunk, play sports with them, watch them at work. You can only add imagination to imagination, picture how they might act in imagined circumstances and settings. In real life, though, when we anticipate, we are often wrong. Ultimately human beings are impossible to predict, and there are factors we just cannot anticipate.

To even begin to accurately bring a character to life on the page you must do your homework, quiz yourself fastidiously about every last detail of your character's inner and outer life. The seemingly insurmountable task of capturing a person on the page will become possible — even easy — once the details are laid out before you. Once you really know your character, your knowledge will flow unmistakably through the text; like an undercurrent, it will authenticate every word, gesture, and action. Without this knowledge, you are lost. As a writer, you have no visuals or audio to assist you. Only words on paper. Or, as Toni Morrison says, "only the 26 letters of the alphabet."

As character is the basis for all further talk of journey, conflict, suspense — and is the cornerstone of plot — we begin this book with the construction of character, which I cover in three chapters. This chapter, the first, is designed to quiz you on your knowledge of your character's surface (or outer) life. It will prompt you to consider facets you may not have previously considered. Write down your discoveries as you go.

I use "he" predominantly and "she" in instances where the facet is particular to a woman. Keep in mind, though, that all facets should be considered for both sexes; as I mentioned in the disclaimer, the use of "he" is solely a grammatical convenience.


The biggest mistake writers make is feeling compelled to set down their character's physical appearance immediately, usually at the expense of the narrative. You can get to know someone without knowing what he looks like — by phone, by mail, on-line, through a confessional. Looks fade and even change, and people are not the sum of their physical parts.

It is important for you to know — for yourself — every aspect of your character's appearance, just not crucial to divulge it all to the reader, and certainly not right away (unless the story demands it). Ideally, you will leak a description, at opportune times (preferably earlier), in unique ways, and in palatable doses. Imagine the following four scenarios in helping you accurately portray your character:

Police Sketch

A murderer is on the loose. He has been terrorizing the city for months, but there is no living witness to offer a description. He strikes again, and this time you are there, get a good look at him before he flees. The city looks to you for an answer. Across from you sits a professional police artist. Behind you hover ten detectives, waiting. What does this man look like?

Appearance I

Face: What is his facial structure? Does he have elongated cheekbones? Wide, sturdy jaws? Broad forehead? A jutting chin, or no chin at all — or perhaps he's overweight and has three chins? Does he have wide, thick, brutal lips — or small, thin lips, pinched tightly together? A huge nose? A small one? Broad or narrow? Short or long? Are his eyes large or small? Close together or far apart? What color are they? Is he cross-eyed? A glass eye? Does one eye wander? What about his eyebrows? His eyelashes? Does he have any facial hair? A moustache? Beard? Goatee? Long sideburns? Is he tan or pale? What is his race? Does he have any deformities — any scars, moles, burns, injuries? Overall, would you consider this person good-looking?

Hair: Does he have any? What color? Is it long, short, curly, straight, wavy? Thinning, balding? Dyed? Healthy or unkempt? Tied back in a ponytail, hanging over his eyes, braided in dreadlocks?

Body: How tall is he? How much does he weigh? Is he fat? Skinny? Muscular? Are some body parts in better shape than others — does he have muscular arms but a big belly? Broad shoulders but skinny legs?

Age: How old is he? Is it easy or hard to tell? What physical signs of age are there? Wrinkles, crow's-feet, jowls, spots? Does he look prematurely old at twenty? Or like a teenager at forty-two?

If you had to say he looked like one person, who would it be?

Let's say the murderer is a woman. Some other questions might arise: Does she have large or small breasts? Her waist? Hips? Legs? How does she keep her nails — bitten to the bone, perfectly manicured, painted black, fake extensions? Does she have long eyelashes, does she use mascara? Makeup? Does she wear too much? Not enough? Is she naturally beautiful?

If you had to say she looked like one person, who would it be?

Now, leaving the police room, apply these rigorous questions to the character(s) in your work. What details might you add that you may not have thought of previously?

If you were to ask your character his analysis of himself, would there be any discrepancy? Denial? Does he think he's handsome even though objectively he's not? Or, does he think he's ugly although he's good-looking? Does he consider himself young although he's obviously well aged? Does he think he's short although he's over six feet? Does she think she's heavy even though there's not an ounce of fat on her? What do any of these discrepancies say about the character? Do they point to any greater issue?

A Crowded Room

You've set up a friend on a blind date. You described what his date looks like, but he's now standing in the bar where they are supposed to meet, and there are over two hundred people and potentially many girls who fit her description. He calls you from a pay phone and needs to know more. He's already been there for twenty minutes and fears if he doesn't find her soon, they'll miss each other. What else can you tell him?

Appearance II

Clothes: What does she normally wear? Designer clothes? Work clothes? Casual? Salvation Army? Are her clothes generally revealing? Does she wear miniskirts and low-cut blouses? Or does she tend to cover every inch, wearing skirts down to her ankles and modest, oversize sweaters? Does she wear large straw hats, tie her hair back with bandannas? Accoutrements? Handbags, jewelry, watches? A ring on every finger? A large, golden cross about her neck? Large hoop earrings? A nose ring? A tattoo on her shoulder? Is she more likely to wear Rolex and Guccis, or sandals and a five-dollar watch off the street? Does she dress more expensively than she can afford, or does she dress down despite her wealth? What colors does she tend to wear? All black? Neon pink? Does she have a good sense of fashion? Are her clothes in line with the latest trend, or ten years out of style?

Grooming: Is she tailored, impeccably dressed, or an unkempt, unbathed slob? Does she shower twice a day, or once a week? Does she smell? Does she wear too much perfume?

Body language: Does she stand stiffly, or is she always slumped over? Does she walk in a feminine manner, swaying her hips as she goes, or does she walk like a man, as if looking for a fight?

Voice: Some people can be picked out of a room by voice alone. Does she have a forceful, booming voice? Can her conversations be heard across the room? Or does she talk in a whisper, hardly audible, so you always have to ask her to repeat herself? Is her voice high or low? Nasal and whiny, or clear? Is it the perfectly neutral, businesslike voice of a telemarketing professional, or is it the husky, suggestive voice of a prostitute? Does she talk with great speed, in a manic rush? Or does she beat around the bush, talking so slowly that you watch the clock as you wait for her to finish? Does she stutter? Have an accent? A lisp?

Now, leaving the bar, apply these rigorous questions to the character(s) in your work. What details might you add that you may not have thought of previously?

If you were to ask your character her analysis of herself, would there be any discrepancy? Does she consider herself in line with fashion while wearing outdated clothes? Does she think her voice is sexy though it is loud and piercing? Does she think her jewlery not fancy enough while wearing a gigantic diamond ring? What do these discrepancies say about the character? Do they point to any greater issue?

The Doctor

You are one of the top doctors in the country, and your specialty is diagnosing hard-to-name illnesses. You have just been referred your toughest case yet. He has been to ten doctors in as many months, and no one can find what's wrong with him. He sits across from you now on his first visit, ready for you to inquire into his medical history.

Medical Background

How is his general constitution? Can he not get sick in the middle of a jungle, or does he get sick within one hundred feet of someone's germs? Has he ever been seriously sick? With what? How many times? Was it hereditary? If not, how did he contract it (in a foreign country, sleeping with someone)? Was he ever hospitalized? What was that like? How much of an impact have his illnesses had on his life? How much do they have right now?

Does he have a chronic illness or condition? Is he on any medication? Asthma inhaler, blood pressure regulators, anti-depressants? How often must he take it, and how does it affect his life? (For a diabetic, his illness — his constant monitoring of food, blood sugar, and injections of insulin — will be a major part of his life.) Are there side effects? Interactions? How must he compensate (not drink, not smoke, adopt a special diet)?

Has he ever been injured? How? (A sports injury, a fight, a car accident?) Broken bones? Plastic surgery? Bad back, tendinitis, arthritis? Does he have any disabilities? Is he blind, deaf, lame, mute, mentally challenged? Is he insane? Schizophrenic?

Now apply these questions to the character(s) in your work. What details might you incorporate that you may not have thought of previously?

If you were to ask your character his analysis of himself, would there be a discrepancy? Does he consider himself sick although he is perfectly healthy? Is he a hypochondriac?

The Psychologist

You are a psychologist, specializing in inter-family dynamics. You've just been referred a new patient and need to know everything about his family before you can begin.

Family Background

Was he raised by both parents? If not, why? Were they divorced? Was one deceased? How old was he when either of these things happened? If he wasn't raised by both parents, was he raised by his mother or his father? Or did he alternate between them? How much time did he spend with each? Did he live in different homes? Did they live close by? Or, was he raised by another relative (grandparent, uncle)? Was he raised by a homosexual couple (two fathers, two mothers)? Was he adopted? If his parents divorced, did either remarry? Does he have a stepparent?

What did his parents do for a living? How did that affect his upbringing? Are his parents still alive? How old are they? Is he close to them? How often do they talk? How much of an influence have they had on his life?

Does he have grandparents? Did they live close by? Did they have a big influence on his life? Are they still alive?

How many siblings does he have, if any? Being an only child could be a crucial aspect of a character's makeup, as could his having six siblings. Brothers or sisters? Has having five brothers made him more masculine? Has having five sisters made him more feminine? Is he the oldest, youngest, or middle child? How does this affect him? Has being the oldest made him more protective, paternal? Has being the youngest made him pampered, spoiled? How old are the siblings? Is he close to them? In competition with them? How often does he see them? Do they live close by? How big a role do they play in his life?

Is he married? At what age? For how long? How did they meet? Did they come together despite the odds? Is he happy? Is she? Are they equal as a couple, or are there discrepancies between them (in age, wealth, status, education, religion)? Are they able to overcome these discrepancies, or are they driving them apart? Do they fight? How often? What are their common interests (if any)? Where do they dissent? Do they treat the kids differently? Do they work together? Do they play a pivotal part in each other's lives? Or do they live in separate homes? Do they have a prenuptial agreement? Is either having an affair? With whom? For how long? Does the other know?

Does his wife have a large family? How do they get along? How big a part do they play in his life? Are his siblings married? How does he get along with his brother's wife? His sister's husband? How has marriage changed family dynamics? Do his siblings have children? How does he get along with their kids? Is he a good uncle? Are they all close?

Now apply these questions to the character(s) in your work. What details might you incorporate that you may not have thought of previously?

The Adoption Agency


Imagine you work for an adoption agency, and a woman has just come through the door who wants to adopt an infant. You need to find out everything you possibly can about her current children (if any), fertility, and motives for adopting. What sort of questions might you ask?

If childless, does she plan on having children? Is she unable to get pregnant? Has she spent years visiting fertility clinics, to no avail? Is she on birth control? Did she have a permanent operation? Does she regret that? Does she worry about her biological clock?

If she has children, how many does she have? How many would she like? Or are these more than she wanted to begin with? Did she get pregnant by the first boy she slept with? Were her pregnancies rough? Her deliveries? Did she have any abortions? Lose any babies? Are they all hers by birth, or are some adopted, or some from another marriage? Does she resent them for it?

How old are her children? What are their names? Were they named after any relatives? How close is she to them? Do they cause her grief? Or do they bring her honor? Is she in competition with them? Are they attending the same colleges she did? How much of herself does she see in them? Does she consider herself a good parent? Do the kids? How does she treat her kids? Is she abusive? Has she ever hit them? Or is she abused by them? Do they listen to her? Does she listen to them? Does she live vicariously through them? What sacrifices has she made for them? Does she have grandchildren? Is she active in their lives?

Now apply these questions to the character(s) in your work. What details might you incorporate that you may not have thought of previously?

If you were to ask your character to analyze herself, would there be a discrepancy? Does she consider herself good to the kids while she hits them?

The Employer

Imagine you run a company and are responsible for hiring new employees. A critical position has just been vacated, and a candidate sits before you. The future of your company might lie in his skills and abilities. He is a complete stranger. What might you ask him?


Consider not only the basics — whether he completed elementary school, high school, college, or graduate school — but also when he finished these programs (a Ph.D. at twenty-four is as telling as a B.A. at forty-eight). How is his grammar, diction, spelling, vocabulary? Is he smart despite having never been to school? Is he naive despite his Yale degree? How hard did he have to struggle to get his education? Did his parents pay for it, or did he work himself through college? How much does it mean to him? Does he act or feel superior as a result? Inferior?

Any special training? Does he have a commercial driving license? Training as an electrician, as a plumber? Does he take continuing adult education? Is he constantly seeking to educate himself? Does he study new languages or vocabulary words on his own? Is he a big reader? Is he the self-taught type, or does he need the structure of a program? Does he love to learn, or is all education a struggle?


What sort of job does he have right now? A white-collar job (executive, lawyer, doctor, banker), a middle-end job (bureaucrat, salesman, manager), a blue-collar job (mechanic), or a minimum-wage job (delivering pizza)? How long has he had this job? Someone remaining in the same job for forty years is as telling as someone switching jobs once a month. Is this job congruous with his background, his level of education, his training? Is he delivering pizzas with a Ph.D.? Is he running a major company with a high school diploma?


Excerpted from The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. Copyright © 2002 Noah Lukeman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Noah Lukeman is a New York literary agent whose clients include multiple winners of the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award, National Book Award finalists, Edgar Award finalists, New York Times bestselling authors, and the faculty of esteemed universities. He has worked as a manager in Artists Management Group, and is currently president of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd. He is also author of the bestselling The First Five Pages, now part of the curriculum in many universities.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
cj_petterson More than 1 year ago
Mysteries, suspense, action/adventure genres rely heavily on plot--the idea--to move the story along. In his book, "The Plot Thickens," Noah Lukeman alerts the reader to another facet of fiction writing, the character-driven plot. The author details how to craft a dynamite story with life-like characters with whom readers can identify, or at least recognize. He shows novice and experienced writers alike how to build story using all the elements of writing. Through the use of examples, he leads the reader/writer through development of exquisite characterization, place, journey, and conflict. The book is an easy read and would have been a fast one were it not that I found myself stopping, bookmarking a page, and excitedly going back into all of my works-in-progress to incorporate his editorial insights.
KarenMcGrath More than 1 year ago
He makes it seem so simple and entertaining. He is one of my favorite authors on the art of writing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
How does a writer turn an idea into a plot? How many brilliant flashes of inspiration lead to books, movies, or plays? Not many because ideas wither away without great characters and events that drive the story forward. He uses many examples from film because this is the media where life is visualized for the audience, and his "chief concern is illustrating (sometimes abstract) points." (Lukeman) An example: * A young man is unhappy and feels trapped in his rural life. * He hungers for adventure. * He is inducted into thrilling adventures by chance. * He is part of a mystical adventure, for which he is unprepared. * Circumstances force him to face his inadequacies. * He gains friends and companions along the way. * Ultimately he finds the confidence he needs to succeed. * He saves the realm. The ideas belongs to many stories from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to Star Wars, and more. The magic of each story is wrapped into the characters and the lives they live; they are real. Each chapter and the introduction are deeper than I can show in a review. The book should be on every writer's desk. Both chapters one (Characterization: The Outer Life) and two (Characterization: The Inner Life) are 90% questions. By taking time to write the questions and answer them, they become part of a writer's arsenal. Chapter Three -- Applied Characterization discusses whether the character is major or minor, the frequency s/he appears, entrances and exits, and more. "Plot does not magically appear with the creation of a character; Frankenstein's monster might open his eyes, but until he gets up from the table and does something, there is little basis for a plot." (NL) Chapter Four -- The Journey takes us on an emotional or mental experience (not necessarily a trip) that brings about change. Simple and familiar examples are Star Wars, Saving Private Ryan, The Bourne Identity, Speed, Cujo, Carrie, etc. Chapter Five -- Suspense, "more than any other element, affects the immediate, short-term experience of the work." (NL) What is the destination, why is it significant, and what obstacles stand in the way? Chapter Six -- Conflict causes changes; they can be obvious (court, sports, or battle scenes, etc.) or subtle. No matter what the conflict is, it must exist on multiple levels because people, therefore characters, are complex. Chapter Seven -- Context "influences suspense, conflict, pacing, progression, and ultimately meaning." (NL) A writer or editor must keep the entire work in mind, and gauge the overall impression of each element in the creation of the story -- does it work? Chapter Eight -- Transcendency taps "¿ into the universal, timeless truths and facets of the human condition." (NL) The examples are clear and powerful. The book is profound and all of Noah Lukeman's books should be required reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lukeman knows his stuff! I'd buy this book 10 times over!!! Toss any other book on the subject in the trash!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I tried to take the book seriously and answer all those horrible, tedious questions about my character. I spent some boring hours that did not help my writing much. No, no. This is no way to approach writing a book. Some of the questions are good, however, and may help a writer enrich a novel.