The Breakout Novelist, a reference book for novelist

This is my second read of the The Breakout Novelist by literary agent Donald Maass. The first was while I was revising my second manuscript-- a contemporary YA, which landed me an agent and is currently under submission (fingers & toes crossed). Now, as I write past the midpoint of my third manuscript (in-progress), I needed a refresher, so again I rifled through my worn copy of this writing craft favorite.   Maass says every novelist could strengthen three primary levels of novel: plot, individual scenes and line-by-line micro-tension. Below you will find some highlights on these three areas extracted from The Breakout Novelist. The book also covers other important topics like premise, stakes, character development and world-building.   Plot: Many manuscripts have one thing in common: not enough happens, says Maass. Plot, he explains, is defined as the events that move a character from one state of being to another. “The journey can be outward or inward and, in fact, is best when it is both,” says Maass. He lists five basic plot elements:

  1. A highly developed and sympathetic character to whom the events will happen.
  2. A problem arises for that character. The best problems are the ones where “the right path is not obvious,” Maass says.
  3. The events must undergo complication.
  4. Climax is both inner and outer and it involves both plot and emotions.
  5. The resolution ties up loose ends and provides “a moment of rest and relaxation of tension.” Maass notes that the reader should be in suspense right up to the final moments of the novel.

”What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate,” says Maass. “Breakout conflict starts with the worst that can happen and then make matters worse still… all the while making it seem perfectly plausible.”   Individual Scenes: Great scenes must both move the story forward and “simultaneously sink readers into the characters’ unfolding inner lives,” says Maass. Lackluster scenes need to be re-envisioned, he explains. “To re-envision a scene means to look away from the page towards what is really happening. What change takes place? When does that change occur?” says Maass. “In that moment, how is the point-of-view of the character changed? The point of those questions is to find the scenes’ outer and inner turning points.” This also applies to set-up scenes, which also need to have their own turning points. A dragging middle scene can be “tightened and torqued up” with dialogue. A good scene, says Maass, keeps readers uncertain about the immediate outcome. Micro-Tension:”Tension All the Time” will show you how to keep the tension when nothing is going on, says Maass. ”Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in a constant state of suspense over what will happen not in the story, but in the next few seconds,” he says. Micro-tension does not come from story circumstances or from words but from conflicting emotions that are difficult to reconcile, Maass says. In dialogue, the tension does not come from what is being said but from the inside of those saying it. ”True tension in exposition comes not from circular worry or repetitive turmoil; it comes from emotions in conflict and ideas at war,” says Maass. In summary, Maass explains, there are four facets that make novels breakout:

  1. Larger than life characters
  2. What happens to those characters is unusual, dramatic and meaningful
  3. The novel alters your way of seeing the world
  4. The novel is written from an author’s need to make you understand  

Good luck! May your manuscript become a breakout novel!