Sunday, July 10, 2011

the stories that change us

If you've ever read a novel you couldn't stop thinking about, where you cared about the characters as if they were dear friends, where you couldn't wait to get to find out how it ended but mourned when there was no more to read, then you've probably found yourself wondering: How did the writer do that? How did they make me care so much? How did they make me like (or loathe) that character?

Even as a child, I tried to pick apart the books I loved best to discover why they affected me so profoundly. The first books I remember doing this with were Bambi by Felix Salton and Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter. The longer I worked to disassemble the gears, though, the less I understood the mechanics. At some point I finally gave up and decided that great writers were akin to great magicians. It was better to simply enjoy the performance than try to peek behind the curtain.

When I became serious about writing novels the question resurfaced. Finding the answer became more urgent. Though the experience of writing novels helped me better understand the mechanics of how they tick, however, the magic spark continued to hover just beyond my grasp.

Fortunately for me and every other aspiring novelist (not to mention all of us who love to read), Donald Maass never stopped asking the question. As a writer and literary agent, Maass came at it from a pragmatic, businesslike angle. He wondered: Why do some books become runaway bestsellers while others -- even ones written by the same authors -- don't?

If he could find the answer to that question, he could help his clients hone their manuscripts into breakout novels, to the benefit of his and their bank accounts and the delight of readers. And so he studied years of bestselling books -- mysteries and romances, thrillers and cozies, literary and commercial fiction -- looking for similarities that made them rise above the pack. He also looked at the slush pile of ho-hum novels piled up in his office to discover what they lacked.

What Maass found -- and this is a gross oversimplification of his breakthrough work -- was tension (or, in the case of the slush pile, lack of it). Not just the tension of a dramatic scene such as a car chase or a ticking time bomb, but tension on every page. Tension between characters -- Character A and Character B both want X and only one of them can have it -- and tension inside a character, between what he wants and what he needs, who he is and who he wants to be, what he believes and what he's tasked with doing. In this way even the sequels -- the quiet, reflective moments that follow major scenes -- are rife with tension, usually between the character and himself, between what he wants and who he is deep at his core.

Tension -- especially internal tension -- turns pages. Tension makes readers care. Tension on every page makes for a breakout book.

Maass captured what he discovered about great novel writing in Writing the Breakout Novel. As powerful as that book was, though, it only told writers what to do -- not how. Maass filled that gap in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, giving us the how with 34 chapters of exercises ranging from Inner Conflict to Plot Layers and Point of View.

Applying all of the workbook's lessons to your novel requires 591 steps (Maass's count, not mine). Almost every step requires deep soul searching and, in many cases, extensive rewrites. It's a daunting task. And so, for those of us who need even a bit more help, Maass offers two-day Breakout workshops. I was lucky enough to attend one recently, along with two of my critique partners. If you ever have the chance to attend one, a word of advice: GO.

Like the workbook, the workshop was a revelation for me. For every question in the workbook, Don asks at least 20 in the workshop. While he questions, you think. Scenes from your work-in-progress pop into your brain and you see with crystalline clarity how they can be changed, deepened, flipped on their heads or expanded. You discover layers you never knew your characters had and motivations they've kept hidden. Everyone in the room is scribbles madly, just as you do, to capture the brainstorms before they evaporate.

When it's over you may walk out with months of grueling work laid out before you on the novel you've already labored on for years and genuinely thought was finished. But you are no longer daunted. In fact, you are absolutely giddy with joy at the prospect of doing the work.

A couple of examples:

Example 1: Most aspiring novelists go with the obvious emotion. Something sad happens and the character experiences sadness. This does nothing to deepen the reader's understanding of the character or their experience of this event. If you've set up the event well enough the reader will feel sad, so there's no need to explore that emotion. They've already had it.

Instead, dig deeper. What secondary emotion is the character experiencing? What third emotion? What fourth or fifth emotion? Develop that fifth emotion and help the reader experience it. Your character will become richer and more well-rounded and your reader will experience emotions beyond the obvious, making the scene memorable.

I had a scene where the obvious emotion was resignation. After a month of fighting the inevitable, the inevitable is upon the heroine and she feels resigned. Yawn. With this technique, I dug deeper and discovered that my reasonable, rational, level-headed character was livid about the injustice of her situation. Fairness is important to her, and her situation was patently unfair. When I brought her indignation to the forefront, the character gained an entirely new dimension. The original scene just laid there. The rewritten scene positively crackles.

Example 2: Another way to create tension is to constantly raise the stakes. At the weekend seminar, Maass challenged us to raise the stakes and then raise then again. And again. And again and again and again. (And then a few more agains, just for good measure.) After about the fourth "again" my manuscript ran out of steam. I had committed the novelist's most fatal mistake. I hadn't tortured my hero enough.

Fortunately, I found I'd subconsciously planted the seeds of additional trials throughout my novel. Now that I have cultivated those seeds the story moves faster and the reader cares more. Best of all, the additional tension isn't melodrama, but what must happen for the story to be true to the situation I'd created.

Purpose-driven revisions
Although I'd spent months working my way through his excellent Breakout workbook, attending Maass's two-day seminar led me to nearly 90 such epiphanies. As I added them to my manuscript, each transformation captured more of the novel's potential.

This article outlines just two of the 40 categories and 591 steps included in the Breakout workbook. The two-day workshops delve even deeper. It's grueling, exhausting, and thoroughly exhilarating work. After all, if you're going to spend years of your life writing a novel, doesn't it make sense to give it all you've got?

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  1. I've wanted to take Mr. Maass's class for quite a while. Thanks for sharing a couple of his pointers.

  2. Wow McKenna, that was great. What an intense and inspiring article. I've hears so much about Donald Mass and I have his book, but not the workbook. After reading your article I plan on getting it as soon as possible. And you can bet I'll be taking his workshop if I'm ever givcen the opportunity. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Hi, Tam and Debby. Welcome, and thanks for stopping by.

    I hope you both get the chance to take a Maass workshop. Check his website ( ) for a list of where he's teaching and when. There's sure to be one near you in the next year or so.

    Also, for writing prompts based on “Writing the Breakout Novel” visit The prompts include a lot more tips from his workshop.

  4. I was able to attend a two hour session he did at the RWA conference in DC. It was amazing, and I walked away from that with several breakthroughs for my wip. I can only imagine what I could get out of a two day seminar. I'm so glad you shared this. I read the book, but I haven't used the workbook yet, although I do have it. I'm definitely going to dig it out and dive in. Thanks again!

  5. Welcome, Maura. So glad you popped by. Don did that session again at Nationals this year. I was so sorry to miss it, but I had to work. :-(

    I'm drooling to attend one of his weeklong sessions. There's one in September, and though I'm pretty sure he'd rake my work over the coals, the chance to get his personal feedback would be well worth any pain incurred!

    I'm on my way to your blog to sign up as a follower. Hope you'll consider doing the same for me so we can stay in touch.

  6. Thanks for sharing the brilliance of Donald Maass. I've seen firsthand how applying his wisdom works wonders. I hope to have a new mss one day so that I can benefit from his tips.

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