4 Techniques to Fire Up Your Fiction

Here are some exercises to apply to your novel-in-progress. They are designed to dig up what matters in your story and infuse it in your manuscript in effective—but not obvious—ways. by Donald Maass
Publish date:

Many fiction manuscripts submitted to my literary agency feel lackluster. Much genre fiction feels tired. Many mainstream and literary novels also strike me as stale. Even when well written, too often manuscripts fail to engage and excite me.

What is missing when a manuscript hugs the wall and refuses to dance? Originality is not the key. It can’t be, otherwise no wounded detective would ever have a chance and every new vampire series would be dead on arrival. Even over-published clichés can sometimes break out and sell big. The same is true of look-alike mainstream and literary fiction.

The issue, then, is not whether a story has a cool new premise. Whether hiking a well-worn trail or blazing uncharted wilderness, when a manuscript succeeds it is invariably fired by inspiration. Passion comes through on the page.

How does that passion get there? Here are some exercises to apply to your novel-in-progress. They are designed to dig up what matters in your story and infuse it in your manuscript in effective—but not obvious—ways.


To get passion into your story, do it through your characters. What angers you can anger them. What lifts them up will inspire us in turn. Even ordinary people can be poets, prophets and saints. That’s true in life, so why not in your fiction?

Here is an exercise designed to discover and utilize what is universal in the experience of your characters, especially when they are regular folk like you and me.

Write down what comes to mind when you read the prompts below.

1. Is your story realistic? Are your characters ordinary people?
2. What in the world of your story makes you angry? What are we not seeing? What is the most important question? What puzzle has no answer? What is dangerous in this world? What causes pain?
3. Where in the world of your story is there unexpected grace? What is beautiful? Who is an unrecognized hero? What needs to be saved?
4. Give your feelings to a character. Who can stand for something? Who can turn the plot’s main problem into a cause?
5. Create a situation in which this character must defend, explain or justify his actions. How is the plot’s main problem larger than it looks? Why does it matter to us all?
6. Find places in your manuscript to incorporate the emotions, opinions and ideas generated in the prompts above.


What if your protagonist is already a genuine hero? If your hero or heroine is an above-average, courageous, principled and unstoppable doer of good, then you may believe that you don’t have a problem. Cheering will begin automatically, right?

Wrong. Perfect heroes and heroines are unrealistic. Readers know that. They will not strongly bond with
such characters. To connect, they need to feel that such
paragons are real.

That is also true for the world of your story. The rarefied stratosphere of national politics, international intrigue or any other out-of-the-ordinary milieu will not draw readers in unless there they find some way to relate to it.

The following are steps you can take to humanize your hero and make the exotic world of your story real for us ordinary mortals.

1. Is your story about uncommon events? Are your characters out of the ordinary?
2. Find for your hero a failing that is human, a universal frustration, a humbling setback or any experience that everyone has had. Add this early in the manuscript.
3. What in the world of the story is timelessly true? What cannot be changed? How is basic human nature exhibited? What is the same today as 100 years ago, and will be the same 100 years ahead?
4. What does your protagonist do the same way as everyone? What is his lucky charm? Give this character a motto. What did she learn from her mom or dad?
5. Create a situation in which your exceptional protagonist is in over his head, feels unprepared, is simply lost or in any other way must admit to himself that he’s not perfect.
6. Find places in your manuscript to incorporate the results of the steps above.


What if your novel already has a driving message? Suppose its purpose is in some way to wake us up? That’s great, but your message will harden your readers’ hearts if you lecture or preach. To avoid that, let your story itself be your lesson. The teacher is your central plot problem. The students—? Those are your characters.

Here are ways to use those elements to get across your point.

1. Is there a moral or lesson in your story?
2. When does your protagonist realize she got something wrong?
3. Who in the story can, at the end, see things in a completely different way?
4. At the end, how is your hero or heroine better off?
5. At the end, what does your hero or heroine regret?
6. Who, in the midst of the story, is certain there is no solution, nor is there any way to fully comprehend the problem?
7. Why is the problem good, timely, universal or fated?
8. Find places in your manuscript to incorporate the results of the questions above.


Did you ever get lost in the middle of writing a manuscript? Have you ever wondered, deep in revisions, if your story holds together or any longer makes sense? Have you ever lost steam?

Steal from life. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it? How often, when something bad happened to you, did you think
to yourself, at least this will be good material for a story some day?

Well, now’s your chance. What has happened to you, its details and specifics, are tools with which you can make every scene personal and powerful. Use the following prompts whenever you are stuck, or if inspiration simply is low.

1. Choose any scene that seems weak or wandering. Who is the point-of-view character?
2. Identify whatever this character feels most strongly in this scene. Fury? Futility? Betrayal? Hope? Joy? Arousal? Shame? Grief? Pride? Self-loathing? Security?
3. Recall your own life. What was the time when you most strongly felt the emotion you identified inthe last step?
4. Detail your own experience: When precisely did this happen? Who was there? What was around you? What do you remember best about the moment? What would you most like to forget? What was the quality of the light? What exactly was said? What were the smallest and largest things that were done?
5. In this experience from your life, what twisted the knife or put the icing on the cake? It would have stirred this feeling anyway, but what really provoked itwas … what?
6. What did you think to yourself as the importance of this experience struck you?
7. Give the details of your experience to your character, right now, in this very scene. 

Want your fiction to be more compelling?Consider:
The Fire in Fiction (Paperback)
The Fire in Fiction (Download it now)

Image placeholder title

Save 10% on this Book:
Become a Writer's Digest VIP and get a 1-year pass to WritersMarket.com, a 1-year subscription to Writer's Digest magazine and 10% off all WritersDigestShop.com orders!Click here to join.

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson discusses how she never gave up on her story, how she worked through internal doubts, and how research lead her out of romance and into historical fiction.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Seven New Courses, Writing Prompts, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce seven new courses, our Editorial Calendar, and more!

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Kentucky’s Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson discusses how each project has its own process and the difference between writing fiction and her new memoir, Perfect Black.

From Script

Approaching Comedy from a Personal Perspective and Tapping into Your Unique Writer’s Voice (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, interviews with masters of comedy, screenwriter Tim Long ('The Simpsons') and writer-director Dan Mazer (Borat Subsequent Movie) about their collaboration on their film 'The Exchange', and filmmaker Trent O’Donnell on his new film 'Ride the Eagle' co-written with actor Jake Johnson ('New Girl'). Plus, tips on how to tap into your unique voice and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not accepting feedback on your writing.

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Here are the top creativity websites as identified in the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Proest Dalgron: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn proest dalgron, a Welsh quatrain form.

What Is a Palindrome in Writing?

What Is a Palindrome in Writing?

In this post, we look at what a palindrome is when it comes to writing, including several examples of palindromes.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, it's time to set a trap.