Blogging Guest: Donald Maass — It’s Not About The Cougar

We’re huge Donald Maass fans here at WITS. We’ve got all his books. Mine are dog-eared. He has a way of breaking down critical craft points and making them easy to understand. He’s graciously allowed us to repost a blog that originally appeared on a blog we’re also fans of, Writer Unboxed.

Note: If you don’t have Writer Unboxed on your ‘must read’ list – go do it now – we’ll wait. *whistling*

Okay, here’s Don:

It’s Not About The Cougar
by Donald Maass

Last month I looked at how tension emerges on the page when apparently nothing is happening. The inverse of that is when high action hits with bullets whining, cars careening and explosions mushrooming.

You’d think that high action would be the most riveting stuff in any novel, but strangely it often is easy to skim. C’mon, be honest. You’ve skimmed some action, haven’t you?

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a day with Chi-Libris, a group of published authors of Christian fiction. Late in the day we tackled micro-tension. A participant offered a paragraph from a WIP in which a cougar carried a toddler across a stream (in its mouth, in case you were wondering), pursued by the story’s protagonist.

The passage was well written, visually clear—and not particularly scary. When I asked, “What do you think will happen next?” hardly anyone was stirred to speculate. I then asked, “How can we add tension?”

As I expected, most suggestions focused on making the cougar more menacing, raising the stakes (the toddler is a Senator’s child!), changing the protagonist’s actions, etc. No improvement. The outcome still didn’t matter to most.

Then came a suggestion that held the key to increasing tension: heighten the emotions of the point-of-view character. Even better, create conflicting emotions. Bingo. Suddenly the moment sprang to life. Both the interest level and uncertainty of the outcome spiraled up…

…except for a group of a male authors, who were mostly clustered in a back row. “But what if the cougar reared up on its hind legs?” “Cougars have vicious fangs, what if its lips curled back?” The men didn’t want to let go of the idea that tension comes from guns, or in this case claws.

Finally, I improvised a version of the passage that went something like this:

The cougar splashed across the stream, the toddler limp in its jaws. Jim splashed after it, snapping off a branch. No way was he backing down. Forget it. It was man against nature. And this time man was going to win.

Simple as that was, interest increased. Someone noticed that the hero’s determination was undercut by the words this time. Another participant wondered, “What happened last time?” Exactly. It’s the contrast between bravado and fear (both implied) that creates tension and makes the outcome uncertain…

…except for the guys in the back row. “But seriously, what if the cougar…” I shook my head in despair. “It’s not the cougar,” I said, “it’s the emotions.”

Guys. Ah-yee. What are you going to do?

PhotobucketDonald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. (AAR).

His latest book, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, was published by Writers Digest Books in May 2009. He is also the author of The Career Novelist, now available as a free download from his website, Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

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29 Responses to Blogging Guest: Donald Maass — It’s Not About The Cougar

  1. timlobrien says:

    All of my Donald Maas books are highlighted in yellow marker and I constantly go back to them. Great blog. Funny how he takes something so hard and makes it seem so simple!

  2. Thank you, Mr. Maass. I also have your books, but I use bookmarks (hey fool don’t dogear pages).
    Sorry, that was a throw back to my days working in a library. I have to admit here that in the beginning I wondered how all this tension was needed. End each page with tension. End each chapter, add more, then again. I was dizzy and began to say … hey, calm down already.

    Unlike the obtuse men in your workshop, I began to read my drafts with a more critical eye. I don’t do straight romance, actually I don’t do much romance. If the characters in my mystery/suspense happen to meet and get attached to each other, I think of it more like Alex Cross and his string of misbegotten women, or Lucas Davenport and “weather” …

    However, I have learned more about pacing, keeping the reader turning pages and it has helped me add to the tenor of my work. My one jaunt into romantic comedy (no please not chick-lit) was also helped remembering your suggestions. I might not be “there” yet, but with a little help from great books like yours, I am sure to arrive :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Flo,

      I feel exactly the same way about Maass. Everytime I read one of his books, I learn more. But the first time I heard him speak and say, “Tension on every page.” I almost had a heart attack.

  3. Love Donald Maass. I got to see him years back at a conference, and would love to do a workshop with him again. Lobe Writing the Break Out Novel especially. :) Thanks for another great look at the relationship between Emotion and Tension!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  4. This was a very helpful post. I, too, have taken a one-day clinic with Donald Maass but this is information that’s new to me. I loved the example of creating tension on every page, but that it doesn’t have to be gun-shooting, fist-flying tension. I’m going to use that subtle-but-still-there tension in the examples above.
    Thank you.
    Patti

  5. I’ve read hugely popular books with no emotion on the page and they just leave me flat, bored, and shutting the book before I get to the end. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve read hugely popular books with layers emotion that have pulled me thru each page and chapter until breathless, I’ve reached the end, emotionally satisfied and wanting to read more by this author. So why are both types of books so popular? And are there hard facts to show us that books with layers of emotion are more in demand than books that rely on plot to carry the story thru to the end? Just curious and wondering out loud. :)

  6. J.A. Garland says:

    Great points. Thank you!

  7. Darcy Crowder says:

    I’ve had the pleasure of taking one of Donald Maass’ workshops at national and he is terrific! I’ve also read Fire in Fiction – which is my “go to” book. Kudos, ladies, on getting the chance to reprint one of his marvelous posts. He does make it look so easy. :)

  8. Karen Duvall says:

    Then again there are the books that try too hard to get emotion in there that appears forced and fake. This is a good reminder of how to convey emotion believably. :)

    I agree about Donald Maass. He’s been my hero for years now. I swear he’s helped me make a huge difference to how I write.

  9. Mary George says:

    I finally heard the clue phone ringing on my flat scene. The wave of tension was there all the time, I was too busy looking for the tsunami when the ripetide was dragging me under.
    Great post.

    Mary George

  10. Sophia Chang says:

    I’m a huge Donald Maass fan too! If I was stranded on an island with just my WIP, I could rewrite the whole thing using just one of his books.

  11. Donald Maass books on craft? Yup. I have them all. I tote them with me to and from writing sessions at Starbucks. They are essential when I plot, write character sketches, and when I hit inevitable speed bumps. My voice is light and carries heavy humor hits (and, a fair dose of Margie Lawson rhetorical devices) so I questioned whether “tension on every page” could be achieved. With help from Margie and Donald, I found it can be. When my character invests emotionally in the scene, my reader will. Even if I’ve elected to put him/her in an amusing, awkward or embarrassing situation. POWERFUL advice between the covers of his books.

  12. I feel left out. I’ve never had the opportunity to attend a Donald Maass workshop. Although one of my classmates in Kristen Lamb’s WANA1011 class is at this very moment in the middle of one in Texas. I have a feeling we all will be hearing a lot from her when she gets back.

    I felt relieved to know that you can show tension without feeling like your going to have a heart attack at the turn of every page. It can get pretty wary from time to time. Emotional tension sucks us right into the story, it enables us to become involved and attached to the character and root for him.

    I can see I’m going to have to break down and buy his latest book. Always plenty of room for improvement. Thanks for sharing this post!

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  14. Piper Bayard says:

    Excellent advice, and more timely than you know. I was just going to have my cougar . . . Just kidding. But seriously. Thanks for articulating that.

  15. Sharla Rae says:

    Great blog. Most of us have heard these things from Donald, but blogs like this bonk us on the head and say: “Hello, this a reminder grilfriend and don’t you forget it! I need that bonk on the head once in a while when I get too bogged down with story problems that wouldn’t be problems if I applied all I’ve learned. :)

  16. MonaKarel says:

    I was fortunate enough to attend a Donald Maass workshop in California, and now LERA is having Margie Lawson this month. Sometimes the luck does flow my direction! Thanks for the glass of cold water in the face wake up call

  17. So nice to read Donald Maass’s thoughts on emotion as a source of tension. I, too, am a fan. I use Writing the Breakout Novel as the text in my UCI Advanced Novel Writing course. Love the common-sense craft tips, the insights into layered best-sellers, and the checklists at the end of each chapter. My students rave about his book and workbook.

    He’s a wonderful speaker, too. I recall one year at a national RWA conference, at a gathering of some 250 published authors, he asked us to make a list of all the characters in our current novel project; then make another list of the main trait or role of each character. After some authors had been writing for more than ten minutes, he directed us to merge half the characters, giving the traits of the deleted characters to the remaining ones. Voila! More layered, interesting characters! I thought the idea was genius.

    http://louellanelson.wordpress.com/

    • Your students are fortunate to have you as a teacher and Writing the Breakout Novel as their textbook, Louella. I remember attending a special full-day workshop at OCC-RWA with Donald Maass all day. I was a “newbie” then and didn’t know who he was. Of course it was a long time ago, when his book first came out. I think I skipped some experience steps that day. Wonderful craft tips.
      Fae-

      • Thanks Fae. I remember that workshop, too. I found him to be kind to everybody, tactful when he needed to be, and generous about receiving manuscripts.
        Lou

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  19. Terry Wright says:

    Tension on every page, something I’ve not forgotten from Donal Maass. And what good is tension if the reader is not emotionally invested? It’s our job as writers to evoke emotion in our readers. They’ll soon forget what happened, but they’ll never forget how they felt about what happened.
    Happy writing everyone.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Dead on, Terry. Love that line – I’m taping it on my monitor!
      “They’ll soon forget what happened, but they’ll never forget how they felt about what happened.”

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  21. mE says:

    Know this is late, but just wanted to add my thots re Donald Maass…have his books too and this idea of tension on every page just gave my novel a fresh start!!!! THANK YOU.

    mE

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