Sunday, February 7, 2010


In Donald Maass' book Writing the Breakout Novel workbook, he suggests pushing your character's reaction to the limit by having s/he do something outrageous, something that would be otherwise completely out-of-character. Yet believable. Heighten any scene lacking in suspense, tension or conflict by showing your protagonist saying or doing something sillier, weirder or sexier than ever expected. Something unpredictable.

In Season One, Episode 19, of television series: Veronica Mars, Veronica defends a nerdy girl from being hassled by bullies in a crowded hallway at school. Veronica gets in the bully's face and berates him in front of everyone. Not a surprising reaction, if you understand who Veronica is. But what she does next is totally out-of-character and therefore unpredictable. When Mandy rushes after her to thank Veronica for coming to her defence, (nobody has ever defended her before) Veronica turns on her. She demands to know why Mandy doesn't stick up for herself, why she lets these people treat her so poorly. She then walks away, leaving a shocked and humiliated Mandy in her wake.

In his workbook, Mr. Maass also suggests doing the opposite of making your protagonist's qualities bigger than life. Take 20+ moments in your book and tone down your character's dialogue, action, reaction or internalization. Make it smaller, quieter, understated and unpredictable
In my novel Dead Witness, protagonist Canadian Valerie McCormick witnesses the execution-murder of two FBI agents while on holidays in Seattle. Valerie is married to a high-maintenance Ed. For eighteen years, she's kept the peace in her marriage by ignoring his outbursts. That's why this scene from chapter five comes as a surprise.

  Ed rolled his eyes at her and looked back to the road. "You don't listen. I told you last week they laid off thirty management staff."
  "I'm trying to help. Stop acting like I'm your enemy." She took a deep breath, determined not to argue. "I'll ask Aidan to keep his ears open. He knows a lot of people."
  "Yeah, right. Ask your brother. The famous private eye will know where there’s a great paying job that'll lift us out of this damn recession. Of course, ask Aidan."
  "That's unfair. He always tries to be there for us."
  "You mean he's always made sure I look like a failure in front of my family."
  She opened her mouth to say something but took another deep breath instead. Arguing would prove nothing; it never did. Besides, they'd be home soon. Arguing in front of the girls was forbidden. It was a promise neither of them had ever broken.
  "Aidan's a thorn in my side," Ed added. "And always has been."
  But the girls weren't there, and Valerie couldn't let that go. "Shut up about my brother. I owe him, and so do you."
  Ed kept his eyes forward and had the good sense not to say anything else.
In chapter two of my WIP Omatiwak: Woman Who Cries, Serious Crime Investigator Danny Killian enters the kitchen of retired MP Leland Warner and his wife Sally Warner. Leland lays dead in a puddle of blood on the floor. There's blood and brain splatter across the marble island. Investigators are everywhere collecting DNA. Coroner Betsy Spenser, concentrating on the remains, has the victim's mouth open and is examining his throat and tongue. The scene would be dramatic for any layman. It's a serious situation, a tense moment, and all those involved are taking their job seriously.

Here's an example that may or may not end up in the book:

Betsy looked up at him. "Danny – good morning. Sorry, I didn’t see you.” She flung her wrist high, exposing her watch, and checked the time. “I’m a little surprised I beat you here.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “Is everything okay?"
He stuffed the tissue back into his pocket. Had he become such a creature of habit already that even the coroner saw a difference in him? But why shouldn’t he be expected to mourn the death of his wife and keep his private life private? The grief counsellor said he had to allow himself time and permission to grieve. Okay. But he'd already been doing that.  Most days he coped just fine. Today was different because it would have been his seventh wedding anniversary. Tomorrow, everything would be back to normal; or at least whatever normal meant these days.
The coroner was patiently studying him.
"Morning, Betsy. Yeah, everything’s fine. What can you tell me?"
She hesitated, then gestured toward the window and the small hole. "The victim was shot and the bullet's outside."
"Ah, good to know."
Now you give it a try. Pick 20+ scenes in your WIP and make your character unpredictable by making his dialogue, action, thoughts smaller or bigger than expected.


  1. thanks, joylene, i'm going to try this. I like how you used humor to soften an otherwise serious setting. it made both of them feel more human.

  2. I really like the idea of putting comedy in a thriller. It's unexpected and a nice surprise. There were a few humorous scenes in The Silence of the Lambs that lightened things up a little. Good examples, Joylene. I remember that scene in Dead Witness when they'd just left the bank.

  3. Dialogue can sure be mundane at times. It has to stay true to the character but adding some unpredictability to it is an excellent suggestion. I find it's easier to do when I finally get myself right into the protagonist's mind. (That's something that doesn't always happen when I'm writing, especially in first drafts. When I'm bombing along letting words spill off the top of my head too much of the dialogue can be deadly boring!)

  4. I agree, Carol. Donald Maass' book is something I wanted to use for completed books. I'm working on a new WIP with only 8 chapters so far, and it's too stressful to contemplate doing these exercises at this stage. Getting the story down is my prime objective. But using a completed novel is exciting. I can definitely see improvements.

  5. I ordered a book. It should be here in a few days. Excellent! Thanks, Joylene.

  6. Why would I buy DM's book when I can learn from your blog? Sheesh! I like your examples - & your continued bravery.

  7. LOL. Hi Dave. Yes, aren't I brave. Some people would call it something else. LOL

  8. Thanks Joylene,
    I'm going to do some of this in my WIP.

  9. I hope it's a big help, Cher'ley. Reading books like Mr. Maass has written have made a big difference in my writing.

  10. Thanks for this. I'm encouraged to go back to work on an old WIP. I think I can fix what was wrong. I'll let you know.

  11. Thanks, Tommy. Please do let me know.


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