Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass was a recommendation from a writer friend shortly after I started attending my first formal critique groups. The novel Writing the Breakout Novel is basically the same as the workbook, from what I’ve been told, but I really like the workbook aspect of the presentation. This book is set up in such a way to ask questions that compel you to think about your stories and characters in a critical but particular way. And that’s what I enjoy best about Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. I am so grateful to my friend for suggesting that I purchase this book because it’s helped me grow significantly as a storyteller. This is on my list of favorite writing books.

A WriterAlina Book Review

Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Hands-On Help for Making Your Novel Stand Out and SucceedWriting the Breakout Novel Workbook: Hands-On Help for Making Your Novel Stand Out and Succeed by Donald Maass
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is written by Donald Maass, a big time NY literary agent, who has not only spent his time representing hundreds of authors in the publishing world but also spends his time analyzing what makes some books/stories stand out more than others. The novel version of Writing the Breakout Novel was first published in 2001 and the workbook in 2004. Through these books, Maass gives concrete examples of what is more likely to help your story stand out, not only for agents and publishers but audiences in general.

Maass’s book is broken down into three parts: part one deals with character development, in part two the focus is plot development, and part three guides the writer through various story techniques that help one’s manuscript stand out. The best part is that Maass uses many examples from published fiction and movie of different genres to explain the points he is making and trying to help you, as an author, understand about compelling storytelling.

Character Development

Part one of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is all about character development. Maass discusses how can you make your protagonist into a hero, not a superhero but the type of person that your audience can root for and see them as being a heroic person. There are exercises on how to identify the inner and outer conflicts of your characters and how to dig deep for who your character is. These topics apply to more than just your main character but your secondary characters and your protagonist. There is a lot of emphasis on not brainstorming to the nth degree and analyzing every angle of a situation to provide a unique and emotionally compelling, and sometimes heartbreaking, challenges for your characters to face.

Plot Development

Part two of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is all about plot development. There is a big emphasis on stakes and what your characters have to lose in each situation they find themselves in. If there’s nothing to lose, you should rethink why your scene is in the story. There is some repetition about inner and outer conflict, but in part two, Maass focuses on how to use what you’ve learned in part one and applying it to weaving these details into your story to create a compelling plot. We don’t just want our characters to go from point A to point B because, well that’s just what happens, we want there to be a good — character driven — reason. Maass explains how the turning points and high moments are supposed to fall in the arc of the character’s development. He also points out common traps that many writers fall into that lower the tension in stories. There is a time and place to lower the tension of course, but not when you want your character to get from the beginning to the end of his/her story.

General Story Techniques

The General Story Techniques discussed in part three of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook vary from actual writing tips, such as creating the first and last lines of your story, to the more abstract concepts of your story, such as your story’s themes and symbolism. The neat thing about part three is that you can go through many of the exercises before reading through parts one and two. Knowing your setting and whether or not you are going to use your setting as a character is nice to know at the beginning of your development process. Deciding on a point-of-view for your story can happen either at the beginning or during the middle of story development. But the main idea is that part three of this book contains supplementary development questions and techniques.

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook Appendixes

In the Appendixes of the book, Maass gives a brief suggestion on what to include in a novel outline and goes through a checklist that highlights the relevant contents of the workbook to review during story planning and editing. If you are looking for outlining guidance, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook was not written for that; Maass assumes that each writer already has an outlining practice that they are comfortable with, so when he discusses outlining it’s in general terms and not in a step-by-step manner.

WriterAlina’s Take On Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook

I’ve read through Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook countless times; the very first time I did, I tried to apply each chapter consecutively to the story I was working on at the time. This approach didn’t work for me. I found it overwhelming and felt like I needed to have my story written before going through a lot of the questions. Honestly, at the time, I was hoping for a step-by-step how to develop and plot my stories. That was a pretty naive expectation about real writing.

After overcoming my initial disappointment of not finding a story writing road map and reading through Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook from beginning to end, I realized the gem that I had in my hands. As I skimmed the book a second time, it dawned on me that I could use this book to plan, execute, and edit my stories. It became apparent that some chapters were perfect for brainstorming character or plot ideas before starting your story, where as others were ideal for the editing process. There are even a few sections geared toward what to do after you’ve finished your novel (tips on how to pitch your story to an agent or editor for example).

The exercises in this book have inspired me so much that I transcribed many of the exercises into my Scrivener outlining templates so that I can use them for brainstorming, outlining, and editing. I go through the list of character, plot, and other story questions before and after completing every story. It’s cool to see where my brain takes me when I go through the exercises.

  • Oh, I need to show how my heroine’s strength and weakness at the beginning to show her potential growth.
  • This subplot needs to be woven into the story differently.
  • What are the antagonist’s real motivations at this point in the story?
  • The stakes need to be even higher during the climax to make any emotional impact.

For me, it was worth while to put the exercises into Scrivener because now I have the questions at my fingertips instead of having to carry the book around with me everywhere.

WriterAlina’s Recommendation

I highly recommend Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass for any writer who is just starting out and wants to learn more about the craft of storytelling. It’s highly educational and, again, the examples are clear and thorough. There are direct quotes from books along with detailed descriptions of what the purpose of reading them is.

I also suggest this workbook for seasoned writers who already have a good grasp of technique and storytelling. I think that the exercises in the workbook are worthwhile for anyone who wants to improve their skills as a storyteller. You never know when the right question or proper exercise will throw your imagination into a realm it’s never been to before.

What are Your Thoughts?

Have you ever read Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook or Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass? Perhaps you’ve picked up one of his newer books like The Fire in Fiction or The Breakout Novelist? I haven’t gotten around to either of those, but they are on my to-reading list, and I’d be interested to know your thoughts on either of those. I would love to hear from you; feel free to leave a comment below.

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