Writing the Breakout Novel, Chapter 5: Heightening Larger-than-Life Qualities

by RS on November 4, 2015

This year I decided I would participate in NANOWRIMO, but instead of working on a new story, I am in the throes of revising and adding new material gleaned via the exercises of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

I’ve added more layers to the story and I’m happy to note that I think I have what could be the very last revision. Well, we’ve heard that before, but it’s time that I put this baby to bed and move on to Kiraly, which I had put aside after my malady (I’m fine, by the way).

In the previous lesson I had to dial up Corinne’s qualities, making her larger-than-life, the next step is…making them even sharper. Great and how do I do that?

Maass says to take the small opportunities and take advantage of those. He writes:

Larger-than-life opportunities can crop us anywhere; it only takes being alert to the possibility of sending your protagonist or point-of-view character beyond what is possible.

In this chapter’s exercises, Maass asks to randomly choose in the middle of your manuscript a scene and heighten what your protagonist thinks, says, or does. You can make it funnier, bigger, shocking, vulgar, out of bounds, over the top, more insightful, and so on.

In Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the story centers on four young men who met in college and ultimately move to New York for their careers. The story follows them until they reach their mid-fifties. Jude is the protagonist and what he experiences in his life from a foundling raised by Monks to his intellect to his physical ailments, Yanagihara heightens, sharpens to the point that it’s over-the-top, but it works. You’re never left thinking it’s cartoonish. Instead, you’re hoping that poor Jude will get a moment’s peace.

The next step is to do the opposite. Tone the scene down; understate it, make it quieter, more internal, more ironic, more offhand, maybe even barely noticeable.

Most people who know the story the ancient story of the Golem know they are violent and create havoc. In The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker provides a quiet time for Chana, the Golem, and uses to describe the meticulous and understated manner of how Chana sews and reconstructs a dress to pass the night.

What’s next? Go back and see where out-of-bounds fit, but also find sections where quiet reflective moments parlay something bigger in the story.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t be afraid to make your characters act in an over-the-top manner.
  • Subtle and quiet actions also tell much about the character. Remember the expression of Still waters.
  • Ultimately it’s about finding the right balance. You don’t want to put your readers to sleep with too understated characters, but you also want to avoid characters that are just too cartoonish.
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