Who is Donald Maass you ask? You haven’t reached the querying stage yet, have you? Aside from owning a very successful literary agency, Mr. Maass has written a few books, one in particular called Writing the Breakout Novel. He also holds workshops on that same subject. I know some of you may be skeptical of another how-to book, but I think after you go through my notes you’ll see how incredibly knowledgeable he is and will likely want to stop by Amazon.com to pick up his book after you’ve finished here.
Get your novel out, even if only mentally, and have it at the ready as you go through these notes. You’ll probably be making a few of your own. So, without further ado, the notes:
Start with your protagonist. List them on the page. There are typically three types of protagonists. The everyman, the hero/heroine, and the dark protagonist.
The everyman is exactly what the name implies. Someone like us, someone we can easily slip into and experience the world with. He’s more likely to react realistically to situations, though not as much in an epic heroic way. (If you need more on an everyman, try here.) If your protagonist is an everyman type, then consider the following questions:
- What is this character’s most outstanding quality?
- What makes them good, unique, strong?
- How can the readers experience a little bit of the best of this character on the first page?
Again, a bit more obvious. He’s heroic. He may have super powers, he may not. He’s out to save the day, even if he’s reluctant to do so at first. If your protagonist is a hero/heroine type, then consider these questions:
- What is one way in which this character is perfectly human and ordinary like everyone else?
- How can the readers see this in the first 5 pages of the story?
THE DARK PROTAGONIST
He’s flawed, maybe even severely. He may be depressed, he may have horrors in his past or demons in his mind (literally or figuratively). If you have a dark protagonist:
- What is one way in which this character would like to change?
- How can the readers see this in the first 5 pages of the story?
If you have multiple protagonists, pick the one with the highest conflict and use them for these notes. We all have strengths and so do your characters. If you find yourself resisting certain changes or directions to go with your novel, remember that resistance is good, resistance is your friend. We feel the most resistance on things we most need to work on. Make a note of your resistances.
Similar circumstances don’t make you care about people–or stories. You care when you see the good characteristics. Don’t make your heroes too perfect or your readers won’t be able to connect. And your dark protagonists should be longing for something better.
2 MOST COMMON SHORTCOMINGS OF NOVELISTS
- They’ve created characters we don’t care about right away. What is the inner change the character wants to make. What is the character grappling with?
- And insufficient microtension.
Go back to your protagonist. What is your protagonist’s defining quality? What makes them, them? Finish this sentence, they’re the kind of person who….
Show different dimensions–more sides of the character. Find two other ways to open your character up and show another side of them we don’t normally see.
In a calm moment, what would this character like to do right now? Acting out is dramatic. For our characters it’s often faster and bigger than we would do. Novelists sometimes take the smaller actions, because they’re safe. When it’s boring in your book, try letting the character do what they’d want to do. You’ve got to violate people’s expectations to some degree.
THE MAIN PROBLEM
What is your character’s main problem? What would make this problem matter more? How is this problem a challenge? Why is it something the character must do?
Now that you’ve written all that down, what would make it matter even more? Is your character the only one who feels this way? Why? Why would they bother to take care of their problem? Is this a part of something else? When will you reveal the connections?
How can you make it matter even more than that? Is it connected to their childhood? What is the secret connection for your protagonist? What was the hurt? How does the current problem push that button?
RAISING THE PERSONAL STAKES
What is it the protagonist most wants? What’s the opposite of that? Can your character want both, even a little? When is the first moment your protagonist wants the opposite? Can you make it sharper? Can you make them go the opposite way? Can they embrace something they don’t believe? What is the first moment the character becomes aware of wanting the opposite?
What is the second moment? What is a trigger for them? A point of frustration? What do they do to take the opposite direction? When your protagonist is stuck, tape their mouth shut. What do they do in that situation? (Not that their mouth is literally taped shut.)
In the third moment, what propels them in the opposite direction? Is it chaotic? Do they behave selfishly? Get angry? Whom can they offend, hurt, insult?
When do they say “I quit,” or they leave their quest/goal and walk away? What does it mean to burn bridges for them? What would mean there’s no going back? What is it they can do that’s over the top, out of bounds, that ordinary people won’t do? How far can you make them go?
In what ways is your protagonist conflicted? Can you hold a conversation in your head with your character? When characters are conflicted, we want to resolve them. Your readers may end up thinking about that character even though the story resolves. (And that’s a good thing, you want memorable characters.)
THE PLOT or HAVING YOUR CHAPTERS DO SOMETHING
What is the external problem? What is it we find or get to uncover? What does it mean to grow up or mature?
How can the problem get bigger? Who else is hurt if the problem isn’t fixed? How can the problem cost more? What help does the protagonist have that can be taken away? Does he have allies or friends? Can they be taken away?
How can this problem get even worse? Who can be destroyed? What are some consequences if the problem isn’t solved? What are some aspects of the problem you haven’t touched? What are some ways the problem can affect the story that you haven’t thought of? Who is counting on the protagonist? Who can the protagonist trust? Who can the protagonist let down? What would be shattering? Why does the community need this problem solved? Why does it matter? How can it become more important?
Who is the pessimist (not necessarily the antagonist)? Who will love when the protagonist fails? Who will be proven right? Who is constructing the protagonist’s humiliation?
How can we make it even worse? Let’s give the problem a mind of its own. What’s the thing your protagonist wants least to have happen? What are the circumstances of actual failure? (And by the way, many of the novelists in the room at this point said they couldn’t make it any worse because their protagonist is dead. But Mr. Maass reminded us all that there are things far worse than death our characters could experience. So try to think what’s worse than death?)
The next 30 pages after the worst…
- What does the character learn?
- What is the first thing that is going to change?
- What begins to change?
- What has your villain overlooked?
- Who returns to the protagonist’s side?
- What kind of understanding or insight might be given to the protagonist?
- Maybe the circumstances aren’t as good/bad as everyone thought?
- What’s the first thing that can go right?
The next 20 pages after that…
- What is success now?
- Who can change?
- How can they solve it?
- Do they work with somebody?
- What wasn’t possible before?
- How can your antagonist overlook things?
- Who can say to your protagonist, we need you, come back?
- Why do they come back?
- What did they not burn down?
- Is there something humbling, some forgiveness?
- Is there a way for things to come out okay, well enough, differently than we expected?
- What’s one outcome the protagonist never expected? What is the silver lining?
- Who else can change?
- Can you give the protagonist a reward? What is it?
- What do they feel they don’t deserve that they can get?
- Even though the worst has happened, is there still a way back?
- Can you do a happy ending?
Go through your own notes. Is there something useful you discovered? Can you add some or all of this to your story? Almost every manuscript needs more stuff in the middle.
For the blah scene (the one you find the least interesting, but feel it’s still necessary). At the end of the scene, write down what is different than when it began. What is the exact point when things change? What is it that causes the protagonist’s brain to go ding! That moment is the scene. It’s the turning point of the scene. Now, how much of the rest of the scene can you cut?
When creating scenes, remember to always: ARRIVE LATE and LEAVE EARLY.
As your POV character walks into the scene, they should want something. Whatever they want, do they avoid it or not? If it’s positive, what are three things that suggest it will be negative? If it’s negative, what are three things that suggest they will get what they want?
What are three things that send the reader’s expectation in the wrong direction before the outcome? Write down two things the POV character will notice in the scene that no one else does. It might be taste, smell, a shift in a relationship, a mood, etc. Is it an abstract thing that can change?
What’s the mood in your scene? What’s the public collective mood? How does your protagonist or POV character change by the end of the scene? Who are you at the beginning–who are you at the end of the scene? Can you put a name to what has changed in the scene? There are inner and outer turning points. Can you rewrite the scene–not revise–completely rewrite? What if you picked 4 blah scenes to do this with? (I tried this with my first chapter. I opened up a new Word doc and wrote something completely new with out referring to the old stuff at all. I came out with something much, much stronger. I recommend you try it with whichever chapter(s) or scene(s) you choose to rewrite.)
Tension is what drives your story. There should be tension in macroplot, floor by floor, and line by line (called microtension). The effect in the mind of the reader will be momentary uncertainty that makes them anxious or uneasy. It should unsettle them. The constant simmer can occur with dialogue, action, or exposition.
Remember that in dialogue, where there is agreement there is no tension. Tension is based in opposition.
Action cannot generate tension only a character and their feelings can create tension. Actions themselves don’t create tension, but what we do with it. Have contrasting and conflicting emotions.
Read your manuscript in a completely random order. Look at each page and ask yourself how do I add tension to these characters? Do this one page at a time on every page. As you practice microtension it will get better.
Your goal is uneasiness in the reader. It’s the emotional undercurrents of the fighting. There’s not enough tension in most aspiring novelist’s manuscript. “Trust me, I’ve read your manuscripts,” he quipped.
Mr. Maass is holding more extensive workshops, covering some of what he did here, but more in depth. He holds them at various locations across the country. Check the schedule here.
He also has another book out filled with prompts, as he puts it “to help you move from blah to breakout.” And you can also follow him on Twitter where he sometimes offers advice and prompts. You can see some of the prompts from 2011 on the agency site as well.
And that, ladies and gents, brings us to the end of the Backspace Writers Conference notes. I hope these have been helpful to you in improving your writing. Let’s get cracking on our rewrites so we can soon join the ranks of the others they call published!
Have any advice you’d like to add? Stick it in the comments below.