If you’ve kept up with my blog, you know I’m a big fan of agent Donald Maass and his books on writing. (See “Writer’s Studio: Adding Tension to a Scene” and “Writer’s Studio: Constructing a Scene.”)
I recently finished reading his latest book, Writing the 21st Century Novel: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. At first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of questions he poses throughout and at the end of each chapter and I actually set it aside for a few months because I couldn’t wrap my pea brain around it all.
But then I picked it up again, taking notes and writing only those questions that resonated with my work-in-progress. And I was amazed at what started to happen with my story.
The Selfless Character. I’d been looking for an angle to help readers connect more easily with my down-in-the-dumps protagonist, Sheridan, in the opening pages. In Chapter 5: Standout Characters, Maass states that “[even] stronger than surprise is selfless focus…Selfless concern melts our hearts and warms us to characters…”
In the beginning of my book, Sheridan is (understandably) pretty self-focused. I started thinking about this selfless “save the cat” idea with her. I came up with and rejected a few ideas before deciding she helps out an elderly neighbor. Then suddenly this neighbor has a sad past and is a whiz gardener, which ties back to a nature element about Sheridan which ties to a scene at the end that shows Sheridan’s growth. Holy connections, Batman! I was so excited, I scribbled notes and wrote almost an entire scene within minutes.
Who is keeping a secret from your protagonist? (and/or what secret does your protagonist have?) I always love reading books where one or more secrets is revealed or there’s a crazy plot twist. But I never really thought how I might be able to do that in my story. I let my mind wander and came up with four secrets–one for Sheridan, and one each for three secondary characters. Once I identified those, my imagination ran with them, constructing scenes, confrontations, and so on because Maass also asks writers to identify the worst possible moment when a secret could be revealed. Tension, baby! I may not end up using all of them, but they really got me revved up.
Questions like these that delve into character helped me not only created richer, more interesting characters, but also compelling, tension-filled scenes. The ideas continue to pour in and I can hardly wait to sit down and write a new scene or tweak an existing one.
Thank you once again, Donald Maass!