Insights Into Advanced Fiction Structure, by Donald Maass

From PNWA Master Class, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, via DeeAnna Galbraith

All about building layers and surprising the reader with something they didn’t expect

Character Work/Openings

Is your protagonist:

  • An everyman? What quality in the life of the author can be shown in this type of character almost immediately? Are they in control, too busy, boring job?
  • Already a hero or heroine? What is this character’s everyday human quality? Put this quality in your character right away. IN THE OPENING SCENE.
  • Dark? Fallen angels, etc. How would they like to become more healed, whole, or human? Have them feel this need on THE OPENING PAGE.

Opening has to bond protagonist with the reader emotionally – this quality must make the reader meet, like, care about them. This connection must be maintained throughout the book.

Action openings can be old news – keeps reader’s attention for only short periods of time. Even heroes have to emotionally connect.

Miserable and suffering characters need the story promise to become happy – e.g., in Gone Girl most readers kept waiting for husband or wife characters to reach peace – very disappointing as it never happened. Most readers are drawn toward HOPE and CHANGE.

What is the TIME in this character’s life? Does he or she see change coming? Do they want change? Are they ready for it? Are they fearful of something?

What is the exact moment the protagonist realizes they cannot go back to SOP in their life? Identify the factor or inner event very early in the manuscript if not at the beginning. This is important.


  • Plot: Events, circumstances, things that happen.
  • Story: human beings changing, transforming, and overcoming.

Story starts when change (NOT ACTION) begins. Literally on the first page. Absolutely need to hook the reader’s heart.

Ways to enhance inner journey of the protagonist:

  • What do they most want or need?
    • Is it a plot goal or an inner need?
    • Is it as big as a better world or as small as a better self – be specific
  • What or who is the opposite?
    • Does the character have conflicting wants? E.g., his or her best friend and confidante gets a dream job offer across the country. Character is in emotional crisis and needs them NOW.
  • Whatever conflicting want or need is opposite, make it more work than the protagonist expected.

Get to the point where protagonist is frustrated that change is not happening. What can they say or do to decide they may no longer pursue what they want.

Now deepen the conflict by making the opposite of what character wants very attractive. “My friend is so excited about her new job I can’t bring her down or make her feel guilty.”

Does someone else give up on the protagonist? Do they walk or talk about walking away?

Climactic conclusion of inner journey

At some point does protagonist feel defeated or angry—and just quits? Is it inevitable? Is it public? In protagonist’s struggle with self; from good to bad and back to good, what do they wind up with? E.g., healing, self-discovery, personal growth.

Even if plot is called off, the story still needs to happen in order for reader to stay hooked and satisfied.

Middle of plot

  • Remind of protagonist’s problem, conflict and goal.
  • Find a way to make the problem even worse. Who can the problem affect that we haven’t seen so far?
  • How is the antagonist involved at this point? Can he or she confront the protagonist?
  • Does protagonist’s primary support character act against story goal? Why have they become a doubter?

General Mid-lecture Notes

Storytelling is NOT about pulling punches.

No editor or publishing house has ever rejected a manuscript because of too much well-done story depth. NEVER, so keep the emotional layers coming.

Since readers are looking for hope and change (over 90% of the time), worst moments excite readers’ hope of better outcome.

Consider the stage of life of your characters. How many generational, lifestyle, etc., issues can make things go wrong?

Characters that cross storylines and events bring depth—it’s called reincorporation. Adding depth and layers will get you to your goal faster. Great for pacing.


What is/are goal(s) of antagonist(s)? How can he/she advance (add success) to their goal? Give them a win.

Is there anything right and philosophically good about their goal? Why are they doing that? If so, make this inconvenient for the protagonist. Does he/she hear about the antagonist’s goal from more than one source?

Outline the antagonist’s story. Find 3, 4, 5, ways in which he/she can succeed. DO NOT use the antagonist just to inject villainy into the plot.

Bring the antagonist on stage more. Do they have an antagonist in addition to protagonist against them?

Secondary Character(s)

How does protagonist see them? Is secondary character invested in protagonist’s goal? Do they have goals of his or her own? Are they compatible with protagonist’s goals? How about insecurities? How do they share these with protagonist? Finally, can secondary character help protagonist solve his or her issues?


Where does climactic scene unfold? Stop the clock. Does final scene happen in place with which protagonist is familiar? Why? Does this mean something? It should. And here is final hard left turn. One more reveal, one more level down before layered confrontation when protagonist finds out . . .

Where is place in story where protagonist feels most afraid? Most happy? Now make fear worse or happiness better.

Revisit cast of characters. Can any of them be similar in personality as another famous character? Who is King Arthur? Cinderella? Marilyn Monroe? Wylie Coyote? The Trickster? Thor? Cat in the Hat? What one way can the character become one degree more that way?

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