Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Finding the Heart of Your Story: A Tip from Donald Maass

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
~ George Orwell

If you've read any of my previous posts, you'll probably have noticed that I frequently recommend literary agent Donald Maass' books among the best resources for a wide variety of techniques. That's why when I came across a teleseminar workshop opportunity with him, I jumped on it. And he didn't disappoint. Of course he shed new light on the subject of microtension, which is a whole other topic in itself, but he also came up with the best tip I have ever heard on theme. I sat down and thought about it, and here it is--embellished a bit, of course, because I'm a drama queen and Donald Maass isn't.

Are you ready? Are you sitting down all cozy with your cup of tea and your WIP?


Now think of one scene in your WIP, just one. The one scene that you would keep if someone locked you in a room with a shredder and withheld food and water and the new season of Vampire Diaries until you shredded every other scene in the only existing copy of your manuscript.

Have you got it? Excellent.

Next, consider what you adore about that scene. Why does it speak to you? What emotion, phrase, or idea do you take away or want your reader to take away?

Chances are, THAT'S the emotional heart of your book, the glimpse of life truth your story is really all about.

Theme is a nebulous thing. It's much easier to define plot, the cause and effect that connects events into a pattern. As writers, it's our job to show plot in a way that the reader sees and understands. But theme in fiction, the meaning behind that pattern, is different for every reader.

By its nature, theme can't be obvious. At its best, it's open for interpretation, thought, and discussion, an echo left to resonate long after the book itself is read. We can't present theme directly. Sometimes we have trouble grasping it ourselves. We know what our characters want and the obstacles that may keep them from achieving their goals. We know they must struggle with conflict on every page, from their antagonists and within themselves. We know their life histories, their thoughts, their emotions in every scene. But do we know what they take away once the last word is written? What they will do when the story action is over? What philosophy or life view will carry them through whatever will come next?

Discovering that truth, that echo, is the part of writing that I love best. Once I know it, I can start layering in the richness and complexity that makes me fall back in love with my book after all the months of wanting to hurl the computer across the room. The minute I grasp that, I can go back and follow the trail of symbols and clues my subconscious left scattered in the manuscript like breadcrumbs, and see where I need to add something, or delete something, or sharpen something. It all comes down to knowing the heart of my story.

And that, just as Donald Maass said, is in that one scene that I would never, ever cut.

What about you? Can you think of a scene like that in your WIP? Past WIPs? How do you develop theme? And is it your favorite part of the story?

Let me know your thoughts! I've got a copy of Jennifer Brown's BITTER END for a random winner.

Happy plotting,


P.S. -- Want more on theme? Here are some good resources:

Deepening Your Novel with Symbolism, Imagery, and Figurative Language
Know Your Selling Point
Does Your Novel Have a Theme (Had to edit the title, but the post is worth reading!)
Fiction that Wows: Theme vs. Plot
Strengthening a Thematic Motif Through Repetition
Thematic Significance
How Do I Plot the Thematic Significance of a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay?
Character Emotion and Thematic Significance
If You Can't Describe Your Story, There Probably Isn't a Story

Theme and Strategy: How to Build a Strong, Narrative Structure to Help Your Fiction Stand Tall, Run Fast, Hit Hard, and Soar to Success (Elements of Fiction Writing)
Writing the Breakout Novel
The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers

Want to know about future teleseminars? Check Bruce Hale's site.


  1. What a great tip. Though it wouldn't be something I could decide too quickly even though I do know my theme. I love Donald Mass' books. He always has such good advice.

  2. Fantastic tip, I'll be looking at my work today with this in mind :-) And thanks for the additional links on theme. All kinds of good stuff here!

  3. Repressing my gut reaction ("The scene I would never shred in a million years? The one I'm currently working on!"), that makes a lot of sense. What I'm currently discovering in my WIP is the interesting tension involved in how this emotional core echoes and mirrors itself from scene to scene (and how to keep that balanced between resonant and intrusively repetitive!)

  4. Love this idea, too. And yes, I know exactly what that scene is in my WIP. And it's the scene I can't wait to write. Maybe I will today!

  5. Natalie,

    His books are fantastic, aren't they? And just out of curiousity, I went back to think if I could isolate a scene in my favorite books that gets to the emotional heart of the story. So, starting with my favorite THE HUNGER GAMES -- immediately, my heart went to the scene of Katniss saying farewell to Rue. It's a great scene visually and emotionally, and it perfectly illustrates the theme of needing to keep your humanity and dignity while you survive, which Peta had already stated by then. Of course this scene becomes pivotal for many additional reasons, later in the book and it subsequent books. It's absolutely perfect.

    Can anyone else think of another example?

    Kenda, I hope they help! Theme is so important, but it's one of the things that we writers overlook too often as a "planned" element.

    Dadwhowrites -- Yes. YES! That's the art to theme, isn't it. Have you read SAVE THE CAT? It has a little bit of a theory about where to start setting theme up and some of the beats where it needs to be reinforced.

  6. Karen,

    Good luck with it! Hope you'll let me know how it goes!!!


  7. Great ideas and resources here! Theme is one of those more trickier elements for me. Often time it simply emerges at some point when writing, and I have to go back and thread it throughout the rest of the story. The idea of using theme as a story building block is a good one, making it more intentional than emergent. Thanks.

  8. I'm a huge Donald Maass groupie. So jealous you had the chance to meet him in person.

  9. Me, too, Anne! I've attended two of his workshops and they helped me take quantum leaps forward in writing skill because of the exercises that he gives you, which make the writing process a conscious employment of skill rather than a hopeful stab in the dark. This post is a great example of that. I love this blog - it's truly one of my top five "must-reads" every week.

  10. Bluestocking, it took me a long time to realize that it was theme that made me love a story, and when Donald Maass said this during the teleseminar, it was like a lightbulb--that's so cliche, but it is true.

    Anne, I know, right? His books are amazing. I learn more every time I go through them. Another twenty or thirty years and I may have it all.

    Lia, you are too awesome. ((((HUGS)))) Thank you!!!!!! And yes--I love that phrase: conscious employment of skill rather than a hopeful stab in the dark. LOVE it.


  11. Love this advice - although I don't want to shred all those other scenes!! :)

    I couldn't decide between 2 scenes when you told me to choose one (rebel, I know!). Once I read the rest of the post, I realized one of those scenes is the beginning of the development of the theme, and the other is where the MC is the culmination of it all. Yay!

  12. Once I figured ot the heart of my story, it was amazing the difference it made.

    You've gotta love Donald.

    Thanks, Martina, for the great post!

  13. I actually bought a copy of WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL! (but I haven't gotten a chance to read it yet--excited to do so, however). Well, I hate to shred ANY scene, but then, maybe those are more like my little darlings that I'm supposed to kill off, rather than being the theme or core of my story! ;o)

    Very interesting about microtension. I will have to ponder that as it relates to my novel...thanks for the thought-provoking post!!

  14. Thanks! That's a great tip. You've got me pondering my wip, thinking about that one scene.... :)

  15. Jemi, you rebel! I love that -- and it's great that those are your two favorite scenes! I bet that means they really tie together beautifully and are deeply woven into the fiber of the story. That's great!

    Stina, I know, right? His books keep giving me those AHA moments.

    Carol, see above. You'll love it :D

    Shari, hope you'll let me know what you decide once you've pondered :D.

    Hugs, everyone!



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