Monday, March 3, 2014

Lessons from Writing the Breakout Novel

When I reviewed this book, I promised to give you a brief on what I learned, so here it is.

What I found most helpful in Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas was the advice on public stakes, layers and subplots.
Public stakes is the notion that the story problem is so big it affects an entire group. And because the problem is so huge and affects so many people, the reader wants the main character to succeed, because the he fears he could be in the same situation. Maass uses thrillers where whole towns or communities are being threatened as an example of this, but he goes on to say that personal stakes can be so high they become public stakes like in The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby has so much to lose when he loses we all feel we’ve lost. Earlier this year I released a book originally pitched as Romeo and Juliet meets a military cover up featuring an Iraq war refugee and the son of a fallen soldier. It did not do as well as I expected and I found myself wondering why. When I read the section on public stakes, I knew that if I had found a way to make the plot more universal so it threatened more than just my main character’s romance, the book would have done better.
Something else I found useful was the use of “layers” to build a more intricate story. A writer can add layers by developing a well-rounded cast where each character has their own backstory and issues or adding values in addition to the main theme of the story. The example Maas used was how closely the country followed Columbine. There were multiple victims, all high-school kids each with his or her own individual story and new details came out for weeks. There were the issues of school security and gun control, and the story of the trench coat mafia. A good example of a layered story in YA is Twilight. The secondary characters all had their own struggles to deal with and there were strong themes of temptation and self-control in addition to the coming of age/first love story.
But the thing I found most helpful was the discussion of subplots. In my view adding subplots will make for well-developed characters and add layers to your story. Subplots can be accomplished by giving the main character a secondary problem or giving minor characters their own problem to deal with. The breakout example Maas gave was Where There Is Smoke. He said many characters had their own problems in this story, but the author only neatly tied up ones that added to the main plot. Pushing the Limits is a good example of a useful subplot. While the main plot is the romance, the “bad boy” hero, Noah, has two younger brothers in foster care he’s determined to rescue. This helps us see the good guy inside.

I found this book helpful for intermediate writers and plan to use Maass’ advice on public stakes, layers and subplots.


  1. Very helpful, Beth, especially since I'm working on this in my WIP now. Thanks so much for summarizing a part of this great book for me! Any future hints would be appreciated too. :)

  2. This is one I've never read, but I've heard a lot of good things about it.