The Rose City Romance Writers hosted Donald Maas’ Writing 21st Century Fiction workshop last weekend. Despite a certain reluctance and skepticism, I let my wife talk me into going and I’m glad she did.
After several decades, on and off, of learning about writing from books and work-shops, I’ve found that while most speakers touch on a lot of useful topics, there’s usually just one or two take-aways that really seem to stick with me, no matter how many years pass.
For Donald Maas’ workshop, there were two:
- Readers crave the unexpected (this I always knew). But unexpected emotion is at least as powerful as unexpected plot twists. There’s nothing wrong with the “obvious” emotional response but it can be more powerful to go with a secondary emotional response.
- Conflicting emotions can be very powerful. Donald said something along the lines of “between two conflicting emotions lies real drama,” something that really clicked for me.
For the first item, I think most writers understand that you have to keep the reader guessing. A mystery writer who has the obvious suspect turn out to be the culprit is probably not going to please too many readers. But unexpected emotion can be equally surprising.
In my current project, one character wants to fly griffins above all else but gets himself kicked out of the griffn order. The obvious emotion is despair at the loss of his dreams and that can’t be ignored. But the reader would find that the expected response and therefore it has the potential to be tedious. So what if instead, I focus more on the regret: the action that caused him to get kicked out also caused his father to lose his position and get tossed into jail. This emotion is probably not as expected by the reader and has the virtue of showing a more sympathetic, less self-centered side to the character.
But what about turning it around? Maybe the character still wants to fly but perhaps circumstances cause him to start considering a life of not flying. Maybe there is some appeal to a different life, one that offers the comfort of family? Now there’s an additional conflict in the story: the character is torn, an additional facet that is probably at least a bit of a surprise for a reader.
Much of Donald’s workshop was motivated by an analysis he did over the last decade or so. He is a very successful agent with earlier books on how to write blockbuster novels. What caught his attention is how commercial fiction fares at the top of the best seller list versus literary fiction. The former tends to shoot to the top but then drop off the list in 2-4 months. But literary fiction can stay at the top of the best seller lists for years. I think he glossed over the fact that the median literary author is probably less successful than the median commercial author, but that aside, there’s something at least some literary authors are doing right that connects at a core level to readers, much more so that even most very successful commercial fiction.
There were a number of other things Donald touched on (like the use of secrets in a character’s pasts and the plot-twist around a reveal that puts that secret in a different light) but the ones that touched closest to home for me were the two things above: using emotion to connect and working with emotional surprises, conflicts, and different layers of emotions by plumbing secondary ones.
I’m sure it is less of a surprise for many, but for me, this is an “aha” moment: there’s a whole dimension of my characters that I don’t think I was fulling utilizing.
I’d recommend catching one of his workshops if you can. Great material. Oh, and he is also a top-notch speaker: moving and funny.
- Emotional Elements of Plot (scriptmag.com)
- Plot Twist. (ridgwaydanielle.wordpress.com)
- Emotions Anyone? (jenowenby.wordpress.com)