I'm Kate Risheill. Welcome to my blog on writing.

The Craft: Writing the Breakout Novel


Every writer wants their novel to break out, to be a smash success. Of course, we all know that the statistical likelihood of that happening is very small. That doesn't stop us from working towards a breakout success. Donald Maass's book Writing the Breakout Novel seeks to tell writers how to take their fiction to the next level. It doesn't guarantee a bestseller, but it does offer tips and advice on how to rise above the mundane and make your novel memorable.

Maass's book introduces the idea of breakout novels as standing out from the crowd, having a level of complexity and scale that outshines other books. Maass organizes his book into chapters that each focus on a different element of a breakout novel: premise, stakes, time and place, characters, plot, and theme.

In particular, I think this book shines in its chapter on premise. Maass identifies four key components of a breakout premise:

  • Plausibility - This is the "Could it really happen?" factor. Even sci-fi or fantasy novels can feel plausible because, as Maass says, any breakout premise just needs "a grain of truth."
  • Inherent Conflict - Is there conflict in your story that is strong and multifaceted? If not, you should build it in. Conflict keeps readers engaged and turning pages.
  • Originality - Does your story bring something new? Your story should bring a fresh take on your subject or mix in new elements to keep it from feeling predictable and tired.
  • Gut Emotional Appeal - Does your novel grip people? If not, you need to work on making your story connect with readers on an emotional level. Your novel won't break out if people forget about it as soon as they are done reading. It should stick with them.

Maass also walks readers through how to brainstorm a breakout premise, taking a story that is mundane and transforming it into something much more complex and compelling. 

This book shares some excellent advice and I do think that it is well worth the read. That said, I think this book is starting to show its age a bit. Published in 2001, it was written just at the beginning of the internet revolution and it shows. Maass mostly leaves promotion up to the marketing departments of publishers. In fact, Maass says part of the goal of writing a breakout novel is to not only revive sales, but to get publishers to invest more in the marketing budget for a breakout novel. Today, large marketing budgets have gone the way of the dinosaur, instead authors must actively market themselves and build their own author platforms.

Overall, though, this book is still a great resource for writers who are looking to create stories that are more complex and engaging. Writing the Breakout Novel is not a workhorse book on craft, carefully guiding you through plotting or characterization. Maass generally assumes that you have the basics under control and are just looking to rise to the next level. As such, I would recommend that new writers read a few other books on craft before approaching this one. 

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