Guest Post: More books to Help Your Writing: Donald Maass, Shantaram and Chinua Achebe

Friends, I'm starting a series of guest posts by talented young authors who have studied widely and thought deeply about the craft of writing.

Here is the first one, by Mike Kerlin.

"Tension on every page" is what literary agent Donald Maass reminds writers new and old when he signs their copies of his book Writing the Breakout Novel.  As a non-fiction writer, I wasn't sure if his book was for me, but, the more I read Maass's book, the more I realized every reader loves tension and every writer can convey it.  That's because every life, in fact or fiction, ripples with aspiration, conflict, and obstacles.  To understand just how important tension is to the fiction author, Maass went through and analyzed years of fiction bestsellers.  What he found was that the bestsellers had one big thing in common: they combined fine literary "voice" with good old fashioned storytelling that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.

How can writers crank up the tension in our books?  First comes a breakout premise--what Maass describes as "a fictional world that exists convincingly, wholly and compellingly apart and unto itself."  It's the "big idea" of your book that has four key ingredients: plausibility, inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal.  Many new writers fall into the trap of relying on originality alone, but we need all four ingredients to make our premise work.  Then we must make sure the stakes are as high as possible. That means mixing high personal stakes for the protagonist with high public stakes, something big that humanity as a whole stands to gain or lose.  With strong premise and stakes in place, Maass moves on to time and place. Make them important, unique, and detailed, he says.

True tension springs to life in characters, though.  Maass believes our protagonists should be sympathetic, strong, likeable people, but also complex.  Antagonists must bring complex personalities to the conflict too.  To convey our characters' complexity, we can try listing a bunch of their core motives and then writing a few scenes in which they pursue reverse motives.  Conflicted characters are tense characters, so our readers read on.  But our readers also need to see their newly beloved characters endure some compelling plot twists.  Maass claims most writers shy away from the truly tense plot twists that readers crave most.  To get there, we should ask ourselves, "What is the worst that can happen?"  Then Maass tells us to make it even worse--kill our favorite supporting character, create major crises in the core plot and subplot, crank it up until we feel uncomfortable writing it.
Once our premise, setting, characters, and plot are pulsing with tension, we need to add Maass's beloved "tension on every page."  First, that means cutting any slow piece of our story.  Maass says, "How many coffee breaks does your protagonist take in your current story?  Any?  Cut them out?"  Sounds easy, right?  Just make our books big shoot-em-ups with one cliched cliffhanger after another.  Not so fast!  Maass has high standards for just what kind of tension sits on every page.  He tells writers to make their most tense scenes more compelling by breaking them into pieces, like movie stills, and then describing, for each piece, the surprisingly ordinary sights or counter-intuitive thoughts that pass through our protagonist's eyes and minds.  Even then, a reader may not love every page if they don't fall in love with the "voice," that elusive piece of writing craft that no one can define but everybody wants.  Maass says, "Voice is more than style.  It is infusing yourself in your story."  He also tells us to "become impassioned about your story" and "express convictions through your characters."
How do all of Maass's tips come to life in a real book?  Let's take Shantaram, the Bombay epic by Gregory David Roberts.  The premise has us hooked immediately: an escaped convict from Australia trying to make a life for himself along the shadier edges of Mumbai.  The stakes roll straight from the premise and easily keep us hooked: Will the protagonist turn his life around?  More broadly, is redemption possible?  We newer writers keep hearing that our characters need to go through a transformation.  So we think Roberts has it easy.  The protagonist will just go from bad to good.  But, as if he went through Maass's "reverse motive" exercise, Roberts, early on, shows his protagonist healing slumdwellers in one scene and then selling drugs to tourists in the next.  The tension escalates slowly, but we stick with Roberts because we are confident the payoff will be big.  It is, but we'll avoid spoiling the fun for anyone who has yet to read Shantaram.

Does good tension always require drugs, organized crime, slums, knives, and guns?  If we zip south and then ride the tenth parallel to West Africa, Chinua Achebe proves over and over the power of context and character to drive tension.  My favorites among his books are Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, and Anthills of the Savannah.  In all three books, the huge public stakes provide plenty of tension: creeping political and religious colonialism in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God and then the long shadow of that colonialism in Anthills of the Savannah.  Okonkwo, in Things Fall Apart, and Ezeulu, in Arrow of God, are both strong, likeable characters, and yet an inner weakness (pride, perhaps) escalates the tension.  Chris Oriko, in Anthills of the Savannah, appears weaker sooner, on the other hand.  As Achebe carries these characters through his books, he could teach a whole Donald Maass workshop on depicting "What is the worst that can happen?"  Indeed, the reader eventually learns to read on, not for quick resolutions of each plot twist but rather to get to the next turn for the worst.  Achebe could easily rely on contextual forces alone for this effect, but it is through his rich characters that he hooks us to the history lessons behind his work.

I finished How to Write the Breakout Novel and revisited Shantaram and Achebe's books determined to crank up the tension in my own writing.  I also promised myself to pause and admire the power of good stories, in real life and imagined life.

Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant and freelance writer.  He is a columnist for The Rio Times in Brazil. His writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.  Michael is currently at work on a book about Rio de Janeiro's favelas and a memoir about his father, a philosopher.