Writing the Breakout Mystery: Donald Maass’ Quickie Version

How do you write the breakout mystery, the novel that transcends genre and takes your work, and perhaps your career, to the next level? Literary agent Donald Maass gave a condensed workshop on the topic at the Mystery Writers of America’s recent Edgar Symposium in New York City. I picked up lots of good pointers and I’m passing on a few of them today, along with an exercise you can use to deepen the plot of your proposed book or your work-in-progress.

I was delighted to realize that Eldercide, my suspense novel about end-of-life issues, has many “breakout” characteristics; here I’ll refer to them to illustrate some of Maass’ key points.

Higher purpose – philosophical questions: breakout novels aren’t simply about an isolated crime. (Eldercide addresses the question: When quality of life declines with age and illness, who decides if you’re better off dead? Our society is rapidly aging, our allotted life spans growing ever longer, but at what cost?)

Multiple points of view and story lines as well as more characters – breakout novels usually utilize multiple third-person voices, often including those of children, old people, or the antagonist. (Eldercide opens with the viewpoint of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient, a client of the home health care agency Compassionate Care. Several of the victims have their own points of view, as does the villain.)

The victims matter more than in the usual crime novel. (In Eldercide, we empathize with the victims, whose struggles with declining health and dignity are described in vivid detail).

There’s at least one three-dimensional, fully developed antagonist, who may or may not be the killer. (My villain, Gabriel, is  charismatic, conflicted and reasonably compassionate. He refuses to harm animals, even if it costs him his job, and he channels his obsession with the protagonist, nursing supervisor Claire Lindstrom, into passionate, expressionistic paintings.)

Here’s Maass’ exercise for creating larger, more multiply layered stories with more resonance:

Give your protagonist a life issue separate from the main story. Now complicate the problem: how does it get worse? Think of a solution – why doesn’t it work? Think of another way the issue gets worse, and the way most people would solve it. Why wouldn’t this work?

In the workshop, Maass challenged us to use this technique with our own novels. (I chose to work on the sequel to Eldercide and explore the travails of Paula Rhodes, the CEO of Compassionate Care, whose experience is inspired by my own eight tumultuous running a home care agency.) Complicate the situation still another way, he told us. Who’s going to get hurt? How does the situation cripple the protagonist? What brings the problem to a crisis?

Next, he said, give the protagonist still another problem, but a less serious one, perhaps something humorous or annoying. (I gave Paula secret problems with clutter and disorganization, topics close to my heart.) Again, envision an easy fix, why it won’t work and how it gets worse. What’s the worst-case scenario?

Maass estimated that enfolding these additional story lines into an existing plot might add an additional 30 or 40 pages for the protagonist, and suggested using the same techniques to enrich additional characters as well. There’ll be more scenes, more events, more characters, but the novel will be the richer for it.

It’s also possible to use similar techniques to develop the major themes and settings of the novel, but those are topics for another day. Maass gives intensive weekend and weeklong workshops, and you can learn about them by visiting his agency’s website, www.maassagency.com. More economically, you could buy his book Writing the Breakout Novel by going to the same site. You can even download his book The Career Novelist free of charge.

Reviewing my notes from the conference, I’m amazed how many intriguing twists and turns I came up with for Paula’s character in just a few minutes. Will I try Maass’ methods with the sequel to Eldercide? Absolutely! I’d love to write a breakout novel that actually breaks out.

Have any of you used Maass’ techniques or similar methods? How did they work for you?

3 thoughts on “Writing the Breakout Mystery: Donald Maass’ Quickie Version

  1. Julie – you manage to find such wonderful pictures for your site! Your artistic training shows. Donad Maas has been around for a long time but my question is: Do you want to write a “breakout” novel or should you write the novel that’s inside you? Two different issues here. Sure, who doesn’t want to have your books bestsellers, but who wants to follow a formula for doing it? And if you want to write popular books, there is a formula for that. You don’t even have to write — you hire a graphic artist to do a bodice-ripping cover. Maybe I’m too cynical. After all, look at Steig Larson — everything is “Steig Larson; Steig Larson,etc.” and I can hardly get into “Dragon Tatoo.” I’ll keep trying for a while longer, but…. Besides, he’s Swedish. I’m one of the few people I know who actually liked: “Smilla’s Sense of Snow.” And that was because I like winter. Marilyn the Disaffected

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