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?
Donald 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.