Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 9)

This entry is part 9 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Breaking Down the Four Facets of the Three Great Novels

After getting all lovey with your favorite books, Maass walks you through the four things that all great novels do to the reader:

1) Transportation to another “place”
2) Falling in love with great characters
3) What happens to the characters is unusual, dramatic, and meaningful
4) The story has an impact on your life

The Little Components of Big Ideas

In order to take an idea and turn it into a breakout premise, an author needs to look at four things (other than the four I just mentioned):

1) Plausibility – Is your story too predictable or too implausible? “Like the best lies, the real whoppers, a breakout premise has a grain of truth.”

2) Inherent Conflict – Does the world of your story have built-in conflict? In other words, does it take place where something is already happening, something other than the story? Suburbs are tough to write about because nothing ever happens (at least on the surface) but a war zone is something else…

3) Originality – What makes your story different? Or, how do you bring the unfamiliar into the world of the familiar? This element of the premise can come aboout through combinations of discrete story elements or by just doing the opposite of what we expect. Sounds simple, I know. Don’t be fooled.

4) Gut Emotional Appeal – Maass asks, “Does your breakout premise make people shiver?” No? Then you’ve got some work to do. I think a good example of a premise that will make you shiver is Mystic River. I started watching the film adaptation and I had to turn it off five minutes in. I’m not squeamish but it was intense and I wasn’t in the mood. You’d better believe that I haven’t forgotten about it though and I’m going to go back to it.

Maass provides several good examples for you to chew on. He also takes you through both a building and brainstorming process to give you the mechanics to create your own breakout premise.


One of the things Maass comes back to over and over again is the concept of a “big book”. A big book isn’t about page count but rather the size of the canvas on which you’ve decided to paint your story.

Think hard. Be honest with yourself. Are the stakes in your current manuscript as high as they can possibly be? Can you define the stakes right now? Can you point to exact pages in which the stakes escalate, locking the protagonist into his course of action with less hope of success than before?

Again, we’re back to the elevator speech which is a good thing because it’s going to keep you focused.

Now, before the literary types get their wigs in a bustle, let me point out that scale is important in all forms of art. Lest you think this doesn’t apply to writing, I offer the example of the poetry of Lawrence Durrell. Maybe you know that Durrell always wanted to be a poet. Maybe you think he was halfway decent. But do you know what T.S. Eliot had to say about his work?

Well, of course, they’re good, but the scale, you know, is rather small.

Can you imagine the crushing blow of a statement like this? Yeah, maybe someone writes it off as petty sniping but when you look at Durrell’s poems you’ll see that Eliot was right. Durrell knew it too and that’s why he left it behind and went for writing novels instead. Some might argue that his scale was still small, but it was definitely broader than the work he was doing in poetry.

I can’t stress how important it is to get your head around this idea. When I read this chapter, the whole problem with my work became clear. (at least the structural problem)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *