Storytelling – tips from Donald Maass

Donald Maass wrote a book quite a while ago called The Career Novelist. At one point, I borrowed a copy and printed Chapter 13 titled The Bottom Line: Storytelling and I’ve extracted a few quotes and concepts for your interest.

Maass begins this chapter on storytelling by asking why trash sells and then presents his main thesis: “What most people want from a novel is not fine writing but a good story.”

If we keep that in mind, what recommendations follow?

  • create characters to whom readers can relate and at the same time “problems we all understand.”
  • create characters that readers can see themselves in. Characters with human flaws and desires that we can identify with.
  • create “familiar characters, feelings, themes, plots, and morals.”

A second reason Maass offers is: “readers want their values and beliefs affirmed in their fiction … readers want a mirror in which to see themselves as they would like to be, not as they are, but as they hope to become.”

  • many best-selling novels tell “moral fables with tried-and-true outcomes” that are full of “time-tested observations.” Nothing wrong with that if your story is told in a fresh and exciting way.
  • such moral fables are valuable because they reflect “profound truths.” The implication being that readers are eager to read those profound truths again and again.
  • when fiction “validates our cherished ideals it will sell.”
  • create characters in such a way that a reader will see something of him or herself in that character and bond with that character
  • create characters with attributes that readers wish they had such as courage, wit, ego, brains, strength (not just physical strength but inner strength, cunning, integrity, love); characters who are principled and who are prepared to self-sacrifice; characters who have spirit

In this same chapter, Donald Maass goes on to talk about conflict and explains that more often than not, as an agent, he turns down books because they lack conflict. “The engine that drives any story: conflict.” “Conflict keeps us reading.”

  • establish conflict early. Maass recommends page one.
  • don’t begin by setting the scene
  • create intermediate conflict, or “temporary conflict that keeps the story going while it is on its way to the main source of tension.”

Donald Maass also dissects setting (think world building), twists and turns (lots), scope and scale (the bigger and more involved the better).

Lots of ‘food for thought’. I’m now stressing over the latest novel I’ve written and wondering if it would meet the Donald Maass storytelling test.

You might also be interested in Insights from Hit Lit based on James W. Hall’s book, or More Features of Hit Lit or Hit Lit – The Final Six Features.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

Share this post

About the Author

Picture of Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

All Categories

Subscribe to the Blog

Receive the latest posts on writing and reading historical fiction via email.

Join 2,210 other subscribers

Leave a Reply