Can You Write a Breakout Novel?

by Marg McAlister


A few years ago, I interviewed Don Maass for a Writing For Success Newsletter article. He glanced at the book I was holding and laughed - it was a copy of his "Writing The Breakout Novel", bristling with post-it notes. As I flipped through it, he could see it also had highlighted paragraphs everywhere.

"I'm flattered," Don told me. "I can see you've read it!"

Recently, I plucked it from the bookshelves again. Why? Because I'd received about half a dozen pieces of writing in a row that were competent - but which didn't stand out in any way. These were writers who had studied the craft, and were writing fluent passages of prose. They had all the technical aspects of their craft right. They knew how to construct passages of dialogue; each scene was well planned... so WHAT WAS WRONG?

I remembered Don's book. I remembered talking to him, and thinking how well he knew his market and authors generally. He'd gone to all the trouble of putting it down so writers could move to that next level. What had he said?

Here, I'm going to summarise his advice. I strongly suggest that you print it out and keep it somewhere by you. Refer to it when you're editing and polishing. Refer to it when you're plotting. Promise yourself that YOU are going to move up to the next level. (I also suggest that you see if you can buy this book - a worthy addition to your professional library.)

Advice from Don Maass: Inspiration versus Understanding

"I believe it is possible for a writer to understand, at least in part, the mechanics of the breakout novel and apply these devices to his writing.

"Now, there is such a thing as inspiration. No formula can predict the sudden plot that leaps from an author's unconscious mind to his fingertips to the computer screen, causing him to whistle and exclaim, "Where did THAT come from?" Is that true magic? In a way. But it is dangerous to hope that random flashes of lightning will make one's fortune as a writer.

"A sounder plan is to learn the techniques of the breakout novel and commit to them. Great novels - ones in which lightning seems to strike on every page - result from their authors' refusal to settle for being 'good'. Great novelists have fine-tuned critical eyes. Perhaps without being aware of it, they are dissatisfied with sentences that are adequate, scenes that merely do the job. They push themselves to find original turns of phrase, extra levels of feeling, unusual depths of character, plots that veer in unexpected directions. They are driven to work on the breakout novel all the time. Is that magic?

"Not at all. It is aiming high. It is learning the methods and developing a feel for the breakout-level story. It is settling for nothing less." So... what does Don Maass recommend? How does he suggest that the 'adequate' writer move on? Where are you supposed to find those 'unusual depths of character' or 'plots that veer in unexpected directions'? How can a writer learn to do these things?

He maintains that breakout novels can be written in any genre, but it is important that an author remain true to his own "voice". Furthermore, he says that this approach is not for those who wish to get rich quick: rather, it is for dedicated craftspeople. Here, we'll look at two of the areas that Don considers important when you're honing your craft: characters and plot. (He mentions more than two, but we'll choose the most obvious.)

Breakout Characters

For many years, I have maintained that of all elements in a plot, the characters are the most important. Why? Because if you don't have characters that readers believe in, they won't read your novel. If your characters don't behave consistently with the personality you have given them, readers will put the book aside in frustration. If they don't LIKE your characters, they certainly won't want to spend time with them. Without vivid, interesting characters, your book is dead.

Don says: "What do folks remember most about a novel? I have asked this question many times, of all different kinds of people. Your answer is probably the same as that of most readers: the characters. Great characters are the key to great fiction."

How do you create 'breakout' characters?

  • Look for characters who are strong and 'larger than life'.
  • Give them inner conflict to make them three-dimensional and 'human'.
  • Let your characters embrace life and be self-aware. Let them care.
  • Create characters who are witty and spontaneous (and that doesn't mean they crack jokes all the time!)
  • Give them qualities of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Memorable characters are admirable.

A Breakout Plot

Don says: "Plot is the organisation of a story: its events and their sequence. What events? What sequence? The choices you make will mean the difference between a gripping manuscript and a dull pile of paper. Beginning novelists tend to tell their stories in strict sequential order, following the protagonist through her every day from sunrise to sleep, over and over again until the novel is completed. That can make for some dull reading. Not every moment of every day is dramatic. In constructing a novel, the novelist needs to leave as few lulls as possible. Fortunately, there is a tool that can make that job easier. So powerful is this tool that it can gloss over many faults and, if properly applied, will keep readers glued to a novel's pages. What's the tool? Conflict."

How do you create a 'breakout' plot?

  • The essence of a story is conflict. Conflict hurts - but to hold us for a long span, conflict must be rich and highly involving. To achieve that level of involvement, the conflict must matter to us. (How will the average reader relate to the conflict in your book?)
  • The story must concern a sympathetic character - one whom we know in some detail. Something happens to that character; a problem arises - conflict appears.
  • Conflict must undergo complication. It must twist, turn, deepen and grow. Without that constant development, a novel will eventually lose its grip. When you are writing, ask yourself "How can this get worse? What can complicate this conflict? How can I raise the stakes?"
  • In fiction - unlike real life - a plot must have a climax and then resolution: it must end satisfactorily. (This does not mean it has to have a "Hollywood" ending. BUT - real life is frustrating in that so often, conflict is unresolved. People are left without closure. Don't let this happen in your breakout novel. Relieve your readers' anxieties!

A final comment from Don: "So, how can you begin to create or work on improving the plot of your breakout novel? Where do you start? What should you be thinking about? Think about this: Make conflict deeper, richer, more layered, more unavoidable and more inescapably true."

(c) Marg McAlister & Writing4Success; quotes from Writing the Breakout Novel (c) copyright Don Maass, Writers Digest Books, ISBN 0-89879-995-3.


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