Some of you have probably seen Donald Maass’ writing prompts on his twitter account. (And if you haven’t or don’t follow him, scurry your little fingers across the keyboard to do so here.) Followed him? Good.
For the last few weeks, Don Maass has been including writing prompts from his Writing the Breakout Novel book. These are not to be missed, and whether you use them all in your current WIP or not, I think they seriously open up the mind for areas you can improve in your writing. They make you think about something you might be missing, ways to deepen, darken and intensify your scenes.
On his website, he’s also been including his prompts, so there are two ways to find them. And now there’s a third, as I shamelessly cut and paste to be sure you see his prompts:
This spring Don’s been Tweeting (@DonMaass) a series of Breakout Novel prompts. You can search #Maass on Twitter…or just look here. Below are the prompts in reverse order. A new one is added weekly. Use them to power your WIP to Breakout level–and then keep us in mind when you’re done.
(WIP = work in progress, MC = main character, POV = point of view)
34 In your current scene, what’s the strongest emotion? Why is it welcome? Why not? What’s good about it? What’s utterly wrong?
33 Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it.
32 Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.
31 What’s the very worst aspect of the main problem your MC faces? Find one way to make it still worse.
30 What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding.
29 What’s the emotion or experience you’re most afraid to put your MC through? Go there. Do it. Now.
28 Set off fireworks between two characters. What’s the biggest skyrocket you can explode for the finale? Go ahead…kaboom!
27 What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time.
26 Whom is your MC afraid to let down? What is the sacred trust between them? What would cause your MC to break it? Break it.
25 Before a new character debuts, give your MC an expectation or fear. Make the reality three times better or worse.
24 Find a strong emotion and replace it with a secondary one; find a throw-away moment and infuse it with rich feelings.
23 What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others.
22 In the last inner monologue you wrote insert one insight, question or worry that hasn’t hit you (or your MC) before now.
21 In the last dialogue passage you wrote double the friction, disagreement, overt hostility or hidden agenda.
20 Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words.
19 What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times.
18 Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.
17 Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end.
16 What’s the precise turning point in your current scene? Make its trigger more dramatic—or less obvious.
15 What’s one thing your MC hates as the story opens? By the end have your MC love that same thing. (Or vice versa.)
14 In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.
13 For your MC, what are the best things about these times? The worst? Create a passage of his/her take on this era.
12 During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again?
11 Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that.
10 In your current scene, what’s a setting detail that delights or disgusts your POV character? Why? Elaborate & add.
09 What’s a place in your story where something significant happens? Switch two other story events to that location too.
08 Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right?
07 What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it.
06 How does your POV character change in your current scene? Work backwards. Make that change unlikely, a surprise or impossible.
05 What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways.
04 Choose a middle scene: What does POV character feel most strongly? Evoke that feeling without naming it, through actions alone.
03 Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.
02 What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in.
01 – What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.
I thought we could use these prompts to delve into our own writing here over the next few weeks and share with each other how to work through them, how to find the places in our novels they can help. Some of these are not easy to evaluate. So let’s start with #1: – What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.
An easy answer didn’t just pop in my head. I thought of my current historical WIP and realized that to work through these prompts, you have to start somewhere and slowly connect the dots. So here I go…
My heroine leads the plot in ways, just by nature of her goals for the story, so I’ll look at her for this prompt. She acts impetuously. She’s strong-willed, doesn’t listen well and tends to be more impulsive than thoughtful. A lot of her choices have gotten her (and others) into trouble. Her most impulsive act – which I will consider the WORST thing she does — already results in a life-altering consequence for her and others. But going with his prompt, that might not be enough if the emotional impact isn’t as powerful as it can be. Don’s word choice is very specific — make it hurt more.
I remember something Don Maass said in a workshop once. Find everything your MC counts on and find a way a way to take it all away from him/her. So maybe I can look for ways to combine those two together. Her worst act changes her life, changes other lives. But how does it HURT? Thinking through the aftermath of this scene, pain and hurt isn’t something they faced. If this “worst act” changed her life, how does that hurt her? To me, that means pain. It means regret, sadness, something she has to work through to overcome the residuals of. And yes, in those terms, there is much more I can do to show how it hurts and to amp up her pain. The consequences of her actions put her on a path she never wanted for herself. It takes her choice away from her, and her freedom is something she values above a lot of other things. This worst act takes that freedom away.
Just from that little bit of thought, I know I can make a few tweaks in the chapters before this “worst act” and I can better show how much her freedom means to her. I can show how painful it becomes for her to consider her future, newly created and not at all what she wanted. And because of that, those she has intertwined in that future will be more hurt by her words, her actions as she reacts to the new news. The groundwork of all of this is there already in the story, but I see small changes I can make here and there that will just amp up the power of this choice.
So your turn… What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.
And my questions: Does this result in a big change in your story, or is the groundwork already laid? Sometimes, these prompts can just encourage you to dig a LOT deeper or even a little deeper for that extra emotional punch. I can visually see moments in my story that with just small changes, will be more powerful in the story because of this. Thanks, Don. 😉