Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Tip for Tuesday

If there is one book every novelist should read, as well as one book that will scare the hoo-ha out of every novelist, it is:

Writing The Breakout Novel (Workbook) by Donald Maass.

I was privileged to sit under Maass's teaching last fall, and I have to say, it was everything I'd hoped for and more. Not only did he teach from his Writing The Breakout Novel, he also taught about the core ideas in his latest book: The Fire in Fiction.

The central key to writing great fiction is to maintain the tension from the first word until the last.

When I first considered this idea, I thought, "That's only for suspense novels, or thrillers. I write romance. I can't be blowing things up and having people fight all the time."

It took awhile for the lightbulb to go on. Tension isn't about exploding helicopters and bodies dropping everywhere...or at least, that isn't the only type of tension a novelist can put in a story. Tension is about upping the stakes for the characters, about putting them in situations where they have to chose between two equally difficult paths. It's about dredging up a characters past and forcing them to face it, to either stay the same and atrophy or change and grow. It's about writing tight and keeping your scene goals crystal clear.

Question for you:  1) Have you read anything by Donald Maass. 2) Are you working to put tension into your scenes?


  1. I do work on tension. I really strive to have it on every page. and that book up there....it's probably the most valuable writing craft book I've ever purchased. I wasn't a HUGE fan of the book, but the workbook is unbelievable! Especially helpful (I think) before you even start writing. I used it while plotting.

    Love you "boo-ha" comment. I can picture you saying it. :)

  2. I've read the workbook Katie mentioned b/c she suggested it to me and The Fire in Fiction. I won a second workbook through another site and I feel spoiled rotten. I'll get to work through it for this next novel.

    The man knows writing.
    ~ Wendy

  3. Stakes stakes stakes--that's what I remember most from this craft book. I love the intro to his Fire in Fiction book, too, talking about true storytellers. Valuable stuff!

  4. He was teaching at one of the first conferences I had ever attended in 2002. It's an amazing book!

  5. I wonder if Donald Maass has any background in drama or screenwriting...I can't remember offhand.

    I think it was Katie who commented the other day that the biggest advance in her writing occurred when she learned to write in scenes. Studying drama is a fantastic way to understand tension and how it should work in a narrative. We have to face the fact that our culture is now addicted to the film-based story. Our novel writing techniques have to be dramatic, and that's basically what Maass is teaching.

  6. I haven't read that book yet - though I'm sure I'll get it eventually. I hear good things about it all the time...but rarely take time out from writing to read books on the craft.

    I...am a tension addict. I adore tension in fiction, both emotional and physical, and I find it comes quite naturally in my writing. Without it, I get bored writing - and if I'm bored writing, I assume readers will be bored reading.

  7. Your phrase, "scare the hoo-ha," made me laugh :)

    While many reviewers of the Skylar books have commented that the tension made for a page turner, I've had a few say they felt like Skylar had "too many problems going on." One of those comments where I wasn't sure if I should dismiss it, or really examine its merits. Knowing Maass, he could still find sentences where I let the tension ball drop.

  8. I have this book, as well as Fire in Fiction. Both are excellent! It is a bit overwhelming for a newbie, but I am so glad to have them on my writer's bookshelf. :)