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The Breakout Novelist – Book Tip

by on Mar.02, 2015, under Writing Craft

The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers, Donald Maass

Author Creds: The Donald Maass Literary Agency sells over 100 novels annually to publishers worldwide.

I was excited to find this book, as Mr. Maass has been working with professional novelists for over thirty years. Among the first things that woke me up about his book, and my own writing, is a paragraph that punched through strongly:

“…a novice thriller writer opens with a “grabber” scene in which an anonymous victim is slain by a nameless assailant—the reader’s interest level is only mild at best.”

For me, even worse than the fact that every James Bond movie I’d ever seen begins with something quite like this, was the fact I had launched my latest thriller, Halcyon Threshold, with a first chapter that does exactly that.


Not that you can’t start a novel with a meaningless murder, many have begun that way and others will in the future. But Maass speaks in his title about a breakout novel, a book that will ignite the reader’s passion and imagination for the characters and situations you have created, keep them flipping pages to the end, and keep them talking about it.

Maass follows with this line: “Strong reader interest results from a high level of sympathy, which is grounded in knowledge of character and enriched by personalizing details.”

Maass goes on to lay out his first three required elements of a breakout plot.

FIRST PLOT ELEMENT: Engage the reader’s sympathies.

“The first plot essential, then, is not events per se, but a highly developed and sympathetic character to whom they will happen.”


“Conflict appears, something happens or is about to happen to that character: a problem arises. Easy-to-solve problems are easily forgotten. Complex conflicts… stick in our minds, nagging for attention. If you want your readers to think about your novel long after the last page is turned, consider putting your characters into situations in which the right path is not obvious. Ambiguity and moral dilemma might seem as if they would muddy a story, but in reality, that makes it harder to forget.”

Human beings are complicated. They are messy, they are contradictory. They are flawed. This I felt is what’s meant at the deepest level by knowing your character. In an earlier post I wrote that putting a character on the stage with their worst enemy would lead to drama. What if your character’s worst enemy is a contradictory part of themselves? There you have the meat of a complex character who can be riveting, if you pick the right complications to bring out the things about human nature that interest you.

THIRD PLOT ELEMENT: Greater depth.

“The third essential element of a plot, most agree, is that it must deepen; that is to say, it must undergo complication. Without that constant development, a novel, like a news event, will eventually lose its grip. There are many ways to conceptualize conflict: the problem, tension, friction, obstacle to goal, worries, opposition, inner warfare, disagreement…”

Don’t listen to me, this article is merely a taste. I am reading this book now. Get it. If you’re serious about your fiction in any aspect, get the book.

Note: My only real negative on this helpful book is the introduction. While there is useful information there, it’s meandering with many rhetoric questions. Cut to Part 1 where he starts about premise and you won’t be sorry.

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