The Elements of Awe, Part II by Donald Maass


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

Part One of this series sprang from research at the University of Pennsylvania into what causes online readers of The New York Times to e-mail articles to friends. Those researchers have done fiction writers a huge favor. They have decoded what generates word of mouth.

The most important finding regards what inspires in the reader a feeling of awe. The researchers defined awe as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Stories that inspire awe have two important dimensions: 1) Their scale is large, and 2) they require of readers “mental accommodation”, meaning they force the reader to view the world in a different way.

Now, I know that some of you right now are racing to congratulate yourselves. My book is long! It’s multi-POV! I’m good on that scale thing. And hey, I rock my readers’ world view! They’ll be shaken to the core!

Oh yeah? When was the last time you read a manuscript or published novel that left you literally shaken to the core? Some time ago?

My point.

Let’s first talk about the reality of scale. High story impact does not come from length alone. It occurs when every character in a novel embarks on a profound journey and every plot layer and sub-plot becomes a novel unto itself. Most novelists don’t work that hard. How do I know? Same way you do. I read the results.

To write on an awe-inspiring scale demands not supreme commitment (everyone with a complete manuscript has that) but the commitment to craft every piece of a novel’s thousands of components with high artistry. That’s work. And that’s the easy part.

The greater challenge is to pull readers into alternate ways of looking at things. This can only be accomplished through characters. First, the reader must bond with them. Next, the character must himself or herself have a unique way of looking at the world.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many commercially successful protagonists are forensic experts, snipers, underwater salvage specialists, surgeons, scientists or vampires. Even a made-up profession like symbologist can involve us in an alternate world view. See the current New York Times best seller list.

But it’s not just about a protagonist with a cool job. Plenty of ordinary people also can capture us. Again, look on the current Times list. There are best sellers about suburban parents, a Southern daughter, a front line soldier in Vietnam, and a seventeen-year-old. Okay, I’ll admit that there’s also Abraham Lincoln (hunting vampires) but you see my point.

Any protagonist with strong opinions, deep convictions, tidal emotions and profound self-regard can transport us out of ourselves as effectively as a Nephilim-fighting nun. But again, it’s work. How to do it? Here are practical tools to help. Ready?

Answer the following questions and apply the answers in your current manuscript:

What happens in your story that makes your protagonist the most angry? Anticipate that anger three times in the story before the big event.

What does your protagonist believe beyond all else? Create a story event that forces him or her to accept the opposite.

What does your hero or heroine see about people that no one else does? Find three times when he or she will notice that thing at work.

Why does your protagonist’s life matter? At the moment when that’s most true, allow your protagonist to humbly grasp their importance to someone else or to the great scheme of things.

As I’m sure you can see that’s just the beginning. Inspiring awe requires building awesome characters. Is it lots of work? Sure but so is building a house, growing a business or raising a child. We all do that stuff. Why slack off, take shortcuts or merely hope for a passing grade for our fiction?


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’s also the author of several craft books for writers, including the highly acclaimed Writing the Breakout Novel, The Fire in Fiction, and his newest: Writing 21st Century Fiction.

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