Tag Archives: writing the breakout novel

Mega-popular Series: What Are the Secrets?

I just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and it got me thinking. This was one of three wildly popular series, a group that also includes the Harry Potter books and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The Harry Potter books are the best-selling series in history and the Millennium and Hunger Games trilogies have sold tens of millions each.

Writers dream of writing a series like these and publishers crave them, but what made these books in particular succeed on such a large scale when other series have enjoyed just modest success? Was it the characters? The setting? The story? It was all of these factors and more. Here are my thoughts on why these three series achieved such staggering success:

Powerful premises. A young boy who is treated cruelly by his step-parents discovers one day he is a wizard—and not just any wizard, but The Chosen One. A young girl who is abused as a child ends up in a psychiatric hospital, left to suffer more abuse, until one day a guardian ad litem takes up her case. Another teen-age girl volunteers for the hunger games, facing almost certain death, to spare her younger sister the same fate. How could one not want to delve into such books?

Main characters who rise above bleak, harrowing circumstances and overcome incredible odds. Harry Potter must face the most powerful evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen must defeat 23 rivals, including a possible lover. Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander (never could figure out which one was the main character) must surmount destroyed reputations and organized crime syndicates backed by a secret state police.

Highly imaginative and detailed settings. Hogwarts is described in wonderful, minute detail, a beautiful and scary place. There is nothing beautiful about the nation of Panem in the Hunger Games. Sweden is a real place, but the land described by Larsson doesn’t fit the tired stereotypes of a place featuring gorgeous blonde women, and people buying Ikea furniture and driving Volvos.

Complex and intriguing stories with ever-changing plot lines and growing stakes. Each series features stakes that are (paraphrasing the words of Donald Maass from his book, Writing the Breakout Novel) both personal and public. Public stakes impact large groups of people, nations or the entire world. Personal stakes impact one or more characters, but they are profound enough that the reader cares deeply what happens to the character.

Empathy. All three authors create a sense of empathy in their characters. Didn’t you feel like you knew Harry, Ron and Hermione intimately by the end of the Harry Potter series? Readers badly wanted to see Lisbeth and Katniss survive and thrive.

Themes that matter. Overcoming abuse and neglect, starvation, exploitation of women, violence against women—these three series cover important themes. These authors dealt with big subjects within the context of page-turning stories.

Extraordinarily gifted authors. J.K. Rowling is a story-teller almost without peer. Larsson was a renowned journalist in Sweden who managed to write three novels while working fulltime for a cutting-edge magazine and Collins was an established author even before she wrote her series.

These three authors have given the rest of us a dream to which to aspire. It’s not about the riches their books have generated. It’s about the work itself. Its popularity speaks for itself.

Why do you think these series have succeeded on such a large scale?

 

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Break the Rules at Your Own Risk

A couple of bloggers recently posted essays about the need for writers to be flexible in adhering to some of the rules of the craft of fiction. These posts raise a key question: when is it acceptable for writers to break the rules?

Anna Elliot, in a post on Writer Unboxed, put it this way: “When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

“I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct. I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then…instinct takes over.”

Writers should read every good craft book they can. Some of the best are: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Before they can break the rules, writers must understand them. Writers must know the various types of structures, character development, theme, tone, setting, and plotting.

Which rules should writers consider breaking?

Structure. Writers can select from a number of tried-and-true structures: three-act story, hero’s quest, journey. They’re popular because they work, but these structures may not be appropriate for the story you are writing. Examples of award-winning novels with unusual structures include Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eagan’s novel is a series of loosely related short stories with some common characters and a thematic thread that runs through the work. Niffenegger’s novel features a non-linear narrative and a main character who travels through time. It’s at first a little confusing, but the story quickly grabs the reader.

Characters. Does the narrator always have to be the main character? In William Stryon’s Sophie’s Choice, the narrator, Stingo, is not the character who undergoes the most dramatic change; he is the reliable lens through whom the story of Sophie and Nathan is told. This can work, but it’s a risky strategy.

Narrative point-of-view: Some stories have multiple point-of-view characters. This is usually done because the author needs to tell specific scenes from a specific character’s point-of-view, or when there is a complex plot involving multiple characters. Some stories alternate between first and third person. I’m not a fan of this technique, but it can work.

Genre-crossing. Some stories just don’t fit into one genre. Agents and publishers advise against mixing genres in the same story and for good reason. It’s difficult to market a book that doesn’t fall within a single, defined genre. But your story may not fit into one genre. That shouldn’t stop a writer from writing the story she needs to write.

Which rules should writers never break?

Grammar, sentence structure. Some people are fans of incomplete sentences. Use them sparingly, for dramatic effect. Bad grammar in dialogue is okay, but not in a narrative, unless it’s part of a character’s tone.

Character development. The main character must be complex, interesting and a person for whom the reader can make an emotional connection. Writers should never strive for flat, one-dimensional characters.

Tension and conflict: Boredom and tranquility are never a good substitute for tension and conflict, which are essential for propelling the story forward.

Clarity. As a reader, I don’t want to work to figure out where the story is in terms of time and place. Unclear, muddled writing and overly complicated plots will cause me to put down a book every time.

Anna Elliot’s advises writers to read all genres and “with a critical eye. Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did. Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.”

While writers can bend some rules, they should always be mindful of them. Writers can experiment during the drafting process, but when it comes to the editing process, get those craft books out.

What kind of rules should writers break? What are the rules that should never be broken?

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The Breakthrough Moment

It was one of those special moments that make it all worthwhile. I was working on my NaNoWriMo novel a couple of weeks ago. My story was far along, headed toward its climax, but I only had 20,000 words written. I had to get to 50,000 words. That’s the deal: a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I was stuck. I did what I always do when facing such a dilemma. I took a step back. I got away from my laptop. I did some intensive brainstorming.

What else could happen to jump-start the story? A new subplot? Add a new character? The story needed something else to happen, but I wasn’t sure what that was. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Did the story need more action? Yes, that was it. How about another murder? Yes, that would work. After all, I was writing a murder-mystery and the first murder occurred way back in Chapter 1.

So the second murder was the kernel, but it couldn’t just be a gratuitous killing. There had to be a link between the second murder and the first one. This got my mind going. What was the connection? Ah, the same person committed both murders and both times for the same reason. So what was the reason? Once I figured that part out, I decided I needed to write the ending first. I guessed it would gain for me about 3,000 words. As of today, the ending scene has turned into several scenes and has clocked in at more than 7,000 words.

Once I developed the basic sequence of the “whodunit” part, I went back to the point where I got stuck and started filling in scenes. The milestones fell quickly: 25,000 words, 30,000, 35,000, 40,000, etc.

I reached 50,000 words on Friday, November 25, but I needed to keep going. The story wasn’t done yet. I’m at nearly 52,000 words today.

What’s the lesson? Let’s look at what I did when I got stuck:

  • Take a step back.
  • Get away from my work space.
  • Do some intensive brainstorming.
  • Consider all the possibilities.
  • Identify the best solution to breathe life into the story.
  • Develop the structure girding this new plotline.
  • Work on the ending first.

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass wrote about how to brainstorm a “breakout premise.” His advice was to “steer away from the obvious, seek inherent conflict, find gut emotional appeal, and ask, ‘What if…'” That’s great advice for any writer.

It doesn’t happen every day, but that breakthrough moment was magical. I felt giddy. Writers suffer a lot of angst and loneliness. Breakthrough moments make it all worthwhile.

Have you experienced a breakthrough moment in your work in progress or earlier works? What was it? What did you do to make it happen? 

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Thoughts on Theme

Developing a theme is one of the most crucial aspects of fiction writing. It’s not enough to write a story that grabs the reader, moves at a brisk pace, features rising action, and ends with a bang. Readers expect a story to do more. Readers remember stories that tackle larger issues: good and evil, love and hate, justice and injustice. Novels must be about something. That something is called the “theme.”

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass puts it this way, “When [readers] run across a novel that has nothing to say, they snap it closed and slap it down—or perhaps hurl it across the room.”

Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, acknowledged that writing classes can become preoccupied by theme. “If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered—why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what’s it all about, Alfie?”

King went on to make an important point. “Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know) but it seems to me that every book—at least every one worth reading—is about something. Your job in the first draft is to decide
what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear.”

Larry Brooks of www.storyfix.com put it this way: “Theme is what your story means. What it’s about. It’s the story’s real-life relevance and its commentary on the human experience…Theme is love and hate, crime and punishment, good and evil, chaos versus order, natural versus synthetic, old versus new. Theme is the pursuit of something good, the consequences of something bad, and how the results come to pass in the lives of the characters in the story.”

I stumbled upon Holly Lisle’s blog post on theme and she wrote eloquently about it: “When you’re creating fiction, at heart you are searching for ways to create order in the universe…You are digging into your core beliefs on how the world works, and running imaginary people through
a trial universe built on these believes to see how the people and the beliefs stand under pressure.”

So how does a writer go about developing a theme?

  • Ask yourself: what are the larger issues your story is about? Some writers identify a theme before they begin writing a novel. Others figure it out as they go along.
  • When your theme becomes apparent, every element of the story—setting, characters, action—should work in support of your theme.
  • Themes are about moral issues or larger truths about the human condition.
  • The main character should buttress and embody your theme.
  • The action should re-enforce and advance the theme.
  • The resolution of the main character’s dilemma should validate your theme.
  • Your theme should emerge organically and grow out of the story. Writers should not have to get preachy to make the theme
    apparent to the reader.
  • Develop and hone your theme during the revision process.

How do you develop themes in your novel? Do you start with the theme or does it emerge as you write?

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