Home Books eBooks Articles Blog Facebook Bio Email

Writing the Breakout Novel

By Cheryl Bolen

Writing the Breakout Novel
Donald Maass
Writer’s Digest Books

If I were asked to recommend one book to a beginning novelist, it would not be Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel .

Maass, a New York literary agent the past three decades, wrote the book to help published novelists who want to break out of midlist mediocrity. Therefore, Maass’s book is predicated on the assumption that its readers have already mastered the elements of crafting a novel. That is not to say he does not touch on characterization, point of view, plot structures, and other aspects of novel writing, but his thrust here is on writing the "bigger" book.

"A truly big book," Maass writes, "is a perfect blend of inspired premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply felt themes, vivid setting and much more."


The four keys to an inspired premise, Maass says, are plausibility, inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal.

"Great novelists push themselves to find original turns of phrase, extra levels of feeling, unusual depths of character, plots that veer in unexpected directions," Maass writes.

A good story, he says, is unpredictable.

High Stakes

Often that breakout book breaks away from the pack because of its high stakes. The outcome of the book affects more people than just the protagonist or the administration of justice.

High stakes don’t have to be saving the world. They can be as simple as the hero staking his parents’ life savings on the achievement of his goal.

Maass asks, "Your protagonist wants to [insert goal here], but if he is not successful, so what?"

Maass suggests the author ask herself what would be most devastating personally, then build the novel around that.

The best novels dovetail the personal stakes with the public stakes to create a compelling, satisfying read.

Even novels with high stakes can fail, though, because of weak theme, overly familiar plot, or stereotypical characters.


Maass recommends the author determine what is the worst thing that can happen to her characters, then make it even worse. "Make you characters suffer," is Maass’s mantra, as evidenced in the following from his book:

"Who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill him. What is the one article of faith sacred to your protagonist? Undermine it. How much time does your protagonist have to solve the main problem? Shorten it."

Discomfort demands attention. Books that put the main characters in discomfort are the books readers cannot put down.

Breaking out of Category Romance

Maass said many romance writers who wish to break out of the category market mistakenly think longer books with more point-of-view characters make for a bigger book. "Romance writers who want to break out need to throw their fantasies into high gear," he said. Breakout characters need to do and say things the author would never say or do.

Jennifer Crusie’s 1999 breakout novel, Tell Me Lies, illustrates how to write a romance with mainstream elements that demand it reach a wider audience, thus becoming a breakout novel. These elements include layering several story lines, unique characters, and blistering, atypical sex scenes.

Can a beginning author "break out"? Rarely. "The novel," Maass says, "is a vastly complicated art form that takes years to master."

The breadth of Maass’s own reading provides many examples to illustrate his points. His broad, eclectic taste in books, his 30 years in publishing and the fact that he has authored 14 pseudonymous novels himself make him uniquely qualified to pen the brilliant Writing the Breakout Novel. This volume definitely earned its place on my skimpy keeper shelf.

 This article was first published in In Print, January 2008.

Home Books eBooks Articles Blog Facebook Bio Email