Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 25)

This entry is part 25 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

What is the Worst That Can Happen?

Here is a pearl of wisdom:

What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate.

How is such a conflict constructed? Let us begin with depth, by which I mean pushing your central problem far beyond what any reader might anticipate or imagine. To accomplish that you, the author, must first be willing to push your characters into situations that you would never go near in your own life.

Hey, if you like your characters, you might be a bit wary to put them in harms way, but into the fire they must go if you’re ever going to get a story worth writing out of them. Not only that, but you must enjoy doing it because once you’ve made it as bad as you can you need to make it worse.

Here, Maass breaks down one of my favorite books. No, it isn’t some literary snoozefest like Molloy or Against Nature. It’s Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Yeah, I know I blasted Crichton about half way into this essay, but I (like millions of people) loved Jurassic Park. I loved the movie too. I can remember the theater I saw it in, which seat I sat in actually, and how I felt tears welling up when the dinos came on stage. Ok, you probably didn’t have that reaction, but when I was a tot I loved dinosaurs and that is a big reason I loved Jurassic Park. But the way Crichton told his story, how he bent the rules of science to suit the needs of the plot, it was all so believable. It felt real.

This is something you can learn from because fiction is not real life and sometime you have to play with the rules in order to turn a dramatic trick, but you have to balance that against the believability of the premise. It’s a fragile thing, but you can do it by driving the reader to want to believe in the story.

I’m not sure Maass does a good job of this (and maybe I’m not either) but I think he is trying to tell us that character interactions can help divert attention from some things that might not be technically feasible in your story. I have no idea how far one can push this premise but it worked for Crichton.

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