The Elements of Awe by Donald Maass


 Donald Maass will present “Writing 21st Century Fiction,” at the 2013 Backspace Writers Conference.

Who spreads stories and why? Sociologists at the University of Pennsylvania have been studying data provided by The New York Times showing which of the paper’s articles are the most often e-mailed.

Their conclusions have some relevance for fiction writers because they reveal what it is about stories that probably generate word of mouth. This month and next I’m going to discuss these elements and show how you can apply them in your novels.

The first element is one that will be obvious to most of us, so let’s cover it right away. Positive articles are e-mailed more often than negative ones. What does that mean for novelists? It means that excitement is more likely to be stirred by characters with positive qualities and by stories with happy endings.

No big surprise, like I said. If your characters are dark, miserable and self-loathing you can’t expect readers to be enthusiastic. Qualities of strength, especially when we see them right away, inspire readers to care. Downer endings also narrow a novel’s appeal. But you already knew that, right?

The next element identified by researchers is a little harder to appropriate. More frequently e-mailed stories tend to be emotional.

Stop. I know exactly what you’re thinking. All riiight! My novel-in-progress is highly emotional! Best-seller list here I come!

Not so fast. Every author thinks his or her novel is packed with emotion. Naturally they do. As they write, they feel tons of emotion. But that is not to stay that those emotions are getting through to readers, or in ways that move readers deeply.

What’s the strongest emotion that your protagonist feels: anger, disgust, shame, betrayal, terror, frustration, elation, arousal, love? Yawn. Sorry, not feeling it.

Here’s the point: You can’t expect your reader to feel what your protagonist feels just because they feel it. Only when that emotion is provoked through the circumstances of the story will your reader feel what you want them to.

Describing grief is fine but not as effective as your protagonist saying goodbye to her dying mother…and even that is not as good as saying goodbye after a rich experience of mother-daughter love…and even that is not as good as if that love was hard won. Welcome home is another heart grabber but only when it seems like it will never happen.

In other words, emotions aren’t gold. A story situation that provokes strong emotions is.

So, now to the practical application: What is the strongest emotion you want your reader to feel? Search and delete that word everywhere it occurs in your manuscript. Now, how will you provoke that emotion through action alone? Got it? Good. Next write down three ways to heighten that action. (Remember that underplaying can also heighten.) When you’ve built a story situation that will force the emotion you want-make it happen.

Next month I’ll delve into the element that makes characters fascinating and also creates a sense of awe as your story is read.

P.S. If you’d like to read the Times article in which the research is discussed, check it out here.


A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass’s agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2002), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

This article was originally posted on Writer Unboxed.

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