and Inner Journey
BY JENNA KERNAN
This was a craft workshop presented by Agent Donald Maass featuring exercises from his new release
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.
Maass began by prefacing his exercises with the observation that commercial fiction books of all forms are
spending less and less time on the New York Times Bestsellers list. However, he further noted that a group
of stories spends months and sometimes years on the trade paperback lists. He asked himself why these
books are such a success, and after analysis he hypothesized that these novels endure because they merge
genres, combining the engaging plotting of commercial fiction with the beautiful writing of literary fiction.
These stories, dubbed ”Lit. Lite,” contain great writing, fabulous plots, and are doing wonderfully. Examples of
these titles include such novels as The Help and The Night Circus.
How can we use this information? There is a gulf or divide between trade and commercial fiction. Literary
fiction writers do not generally dwell on plot or strong story events. Commercial fiction writers don’t like to
talk about beautiful writing. The magic, in Maass’s opinion, comes from the blending of genres. This is what
readers want and they will pay for it even in a recession.
In addition to this blending, authors need to offer a story with a compelling inner journey for our hero.
We need to open up our character’s emotional world.
Maass then took the audience through a series of writing exercises from his current release. These drills
are designed to help evoke emotions and focus on the protagonist’s inner journey. What follows is an
abridgement of these exercises.
Write the one thing you are afraid to say or put in your story or afraid to let happen in the story you are
crafting. What do you want to have happen, but it feels like too much? What events or occurrence feels too
wrong or too forbidden? What is the secret desire you can’t say? What is wrong in the world? What do we
need that we don’t talk about? What do you need that you can’t ask for? Now write down when this or
something analogous will happen to your protagonist in your current story?
Maass noted a shift in body language in the audience at this point and made the following observation. If
you feel resistance, use this as a gauge that will indicate where you need to do the most work.
He next asked the audience to write out why your story matters? What is it saying that we need to hear?
What are the problems of your protagonists that are urgent and need to be heard?
After the audience had a chance to answer that question, Maass observed that readers remember a
book’s emotions, not plot twists. What readers talk about is their connection to characters. To open the
character’s emotions, we need to open them up within ourselves. If we do so, we have something powerful.
This emotional journey is the theme or intention of your voice. Once you know why this story is important
to you, then you can use that information to create a great story.
Maass next asked attendees to think back to the last scene they’d worked on. Jot down the character,
and then think of the action that occurs. Write down the strongest emotion the character feels in this scene.
Example: anger. Next, Maass asked the audience to write down two additional emotions that this character
feels. Example: worried and powerless.
Then he asked us to choose the third emotion and consider if this feeling is good or bad, welcome or unwelcome,
freeing or frightening. Is this emotion empowering or does it reveal something mean or dark? Does
the character feel larger or smaller for feeling this? What color is this feeling? What kind of animal is this feeling?
Give it qualities. How does it feel to have the feeling? Is it like surfing in Hawaii, or is it like falling under
that crashing wave? Is it the balance of a tightrope walk or the imbalance of falling? What does this feeling say
to the character about who they are?
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