PhotobucketBigness by Donald Maass

What makes a novel feel big?

It isn’t a function of length, setting or theme. Some of the smallest manuscripts I’ve read were the longest. War stories and epic sagas don’t necessarily have much to say. Universal themes—love conquers all, for instance—can be familiar and flat.

Bigness arises in other ways. A microcosmic world portrayed in detail can feel bigger than its boundaries. A less obvious insight can strike us with the force of truth. The eyes of a simpleton can show us humanity’s infinite variety.

All those things are so, yet the novels which illustrate those principles can be one time accidents. For professional novelists the challenge is to create fiction that feels big every time. For commercial novelists, that can mean every year. Are there guidelines to help?

Recently I had the privilege of co-teaching workshops with two contemporary novelists whose work embodies bigness: mystery novelist Nancy Pickard and women’s fiction author Susan Wiggs. In interviews and with in-depth analysis of a novel by each (The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy and Just Breathe by Susan) we were able to discover, at least in part, the methods of bigness.

Multiple points of view are a hallmark of big fiction, but how many? It fact, it takes only three major points of view for a story to feel like it has many windows. One POV anchors with 40-50% of the scenes. The second and third POV’s carry the rest of the story, with minor POV’s sometimes taking several scenes. The three major characters connect up, of course, their storylines inextricably woven together by circumstance or the plot.

In big fiction the main protagonist generally has several big things going on (plot layers, in my terminology), and a couple of minor problems too. One or more of the major POV characters also is on a personal journey. Think of this as an emotional sub-plot, such as a wound that needs healing. This inner need can generate as much plot as external problems.

There are other factors at work to create a sense of bigness, like parallels and reversals, recurring symbols (lots of them) and universal human moments to which many readers can relate. Add to that the elements that always are found in great fiction, like a highly developed story world, three-dimensional antagonists, hyperbole and high drama, strong voice and constant micro-tension.

Not much to ask, is it? Crafting a big novel is a big commitment. But then, who wants to write small?


Donald Maass Literary Agency
121 West 27th Street, Suite 801
New York, NY 10001 USA

Photo courtesy Flickr’s K3nna


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


  1. says

    I love this post… especially since I just began to weave a second POV into my novel. Another voice just called to me. Including her allows me to make both her and my protagonist much more finely characterized and makes the issues at play more compelling. I can’t really think of a third POV to include, so I won’t unless another one pulls at me.

    Here’s my problem: I have tried writing my novel in third person and I hate it. My characters’ subjective interpretations of the world and the intimacy of a first person voice feels crucial. To add to that, present tense just started to pull at me. I’m not concerned about the challenges of multiple first person– Barbara Kingsolver did this amazingly well– but present tense and first person are no-nos, right? Should I care? I’m curious about whether there are good reasons why I should be talked out of this.

    Btw, I’m curious about what constitutes good hyperbole… to me the word has such negative connotations!
    .-= Maya´s last blog ..A second spring… =-.

  2. says

    Provocative stuff. I’m especially captivated by your mention of recurring symbols…something I should have noticed before as I’ve studied how books work (or don’t work). Seems like the skill (or lack thereof) of symbols is one of the things that divides “big” books I love from the clunkers. Makes me want to spend more time behind my characters’ eyes, asking, “What do you see? What do you notice?”

    I’m printing out your post to hang over my desk as a reminder :)
    .-= Trish Ryan´s last blog ..Faking it ’til I make it: Holiday edition =-.

  3. says


    I don’t see anything wrong with writing multi-POV’s in present tense. It’s a bit challenging for readers, I suppose, but readers acclimate to your style if you’re telling a great story…witness Shakespeare.

    For me, the greater challenge for you, the writer, is to strongly delineate each first person voice. That is expecially true at each chapter opening.

    There’s another helpful trick: When you return to a particular POV after several chapters away, make the opening paragraph in some way a continuation of the last paragraph from that character’s prior appearance.

    Why is “hyperbole” a bad word? Did music critics say to Brahms, “Oh Dude, you went way over the top in that second movement, like, tone it down, okay?” Should Dickens have made Scrooge less miserly? Exaggerating for effect is not bad writing. Poets don’t think so, so why do you?

  4. says

    Wow… thank you for responding! I’m a huge fan of Writing the Breakout Novel, so I have to admit that I just got a thrill from seeing that you actually read and responded to my comment. *Calming down now…*

    Thank you for the suggestion– I’m going to work even harder to delineate each voice. I hadn’t really thought about the need for each voice to be especially distinct at the start of each chapter and to start in a situation that connects to a character’s last appearance. I’ll think about that as I go– you’re already giving me ideas!

    And yes, point granted about hyperbole. I used to be afraid of making my writing different from real life– even to the extent of forcing my characters to spend a fair amount of time doing nothing and feeling bored– but I’ve come to realize that reality needs to be amplified in fictional worlds. Hyperbole, to me, meant “exaggerated beyond reason,” like a kid saying that he’s starving when he’s hungry. In the world of a novel, though, I guess I’d rather read about starvation than hunger!

    Thanks again!! This really made my day.
    .-= Maya´s last blog ..A second spring… =-.

  5. says

    Hyperbole is the hallmark of great fiction?! Name three great hyperbolic works and maybe I’ll believe you.

    Otherwise, I say cookie-cutter templates for writing yield formulaic books — NOT great fiction (though some of these suggestions, like interwoven multi points of view, make obvious sense).

  6. says

    Just to add a good example to help Maya: I would suggest you read ‘The Narrows’ by Michael Connelly. Even if you’re not a suspense reader, the novel employs a very interesting trick where there are two primary POV characters (and one secondary, the antagonist). The hero’s POV is in first person, and the other two are in third person. I would never have thought that would work in a mainstream novel but it does and it’s actually quite interesting.

    Don> I just wanted to say I love your posts to this blog. So much so, in fact, I picked up The Fire In Fiction over Thanksgiving and am nearly done with my first read though. I’ll be going through it a second time with my current draft to do the exercises as well.

    I like the idea in this post that one of the POV characters should be on a personal journey. I hadn’t considered creating clear delineations between the *types* of goals my principal POVs have. Every character has a personal stake in their story, of course, but I can see the advantages of making one character’s story more about personal healing/discovery than about solving an external issue. Seems like it could ease reader’s fatigue in story where one character is pretty much constantly under some form of pressure or tension.

  7. says

    What perfect timing! Having finished the first draft of my NaNo WIP, I was seriously considering if I should change my multiple, third person POV to single, first person POV. But after reading this, I think I will make more of an effort to make sure that my current POV conveys the message I want it to convey.

    I know having the two POVs beside my MCs add to the story, but I was just concerned that it didn’t convey emotions of MC as much as the first person would. But then that’s something I just need to work on.
    .-= Dolly´s last blog ..Goals for Next 10 Days =-.

  8. Katrina says

    Thank you for this post! I’m in the early stages of brainstorming an idea, and reading this helped that process more than you can know. I feel like my characters are coming alive before my very eyes, and I haven’t even written a word yet! I look forward to every one of your posts; they’re all brilliant.

  9. says

    hey, thanks for the suggestions, everyone! Btw, to be a bit more specific in case anyone is in the same position as I am, the Barbara Kingsolver book I’m thinking of is THE POISONWOOD BIBLE; it offers such distinct voices in the different first person narrations that simply the writing styles are compelling in their own right, even beyond the big issues at play in the plot. It’s probably a perfect example of many of the issues Don talks about in this post. I know some people find the very distinct voices in TPB a little cheesy (they have the feel of journal entries, and some are full of humorous malapropisms) but I love them.
    .-= Maya´s last blog ..Shop at Ikea! =-.

  10. says


    Name three novels that are hyperbolic? Okay. It’s of course easiest to talk about satires. Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe is a great contemporary example. There are many others, from the mild humor of Tom Perotta (Election) to the off-the-wall surrealism of Christopher Moore (Lamb).

    Let’s dig deeper. Wouldn’t you call most thrillers hyperbolic? Dan Brown and the collaborations of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are easily way over the top. But what would you say about Harlan Coben’s plots? Are they just like real life? What about Lee Child’s series protagonist Jack Reacher? Would you call him an everyman? Doubtful. These writers are hyperbolic.

    Let’s go beyond commercial fiction. Is The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood a piece of Southern realism? Is Like Water for Elephants a “closely observed” look at the circus world? No these novels push their characters beyond the boundaries of normal and heighten the events of the story in fantastic ways.

    Isn’t that hyperbolic?

  11. says

    I have wanted to reconnect with your wisdom. I attended your seminar when you came to Dallas years ago. And, I’ve bookmarked your blog. Looking forward to more.

  12. says

    I’m reading Jon Franklin’s “Writing for Story” at the moment, and this post dovetails nicely with that. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!

  13. Ellie says

    Do hyperbolic novels result from a writer’s voice/style? Or is it plot and character decisions?

  14. says

    Appreciate the response, Mr. Maass. Maybe we’re talking differences of opinion or merely semantics (different interpretations of the term hyperbolic) or neither of these or both. I dunno. It’s late, and I’ve just finished a 13-hour workday.

    I guess I see hyperbolic as over-the-top in a way that’s not believable or merely entertaining or childish, like tall tales (Paul Bunyan and his big-ass ox pal) or silly horror stories (Friday the 13th… where the demonic killer never dies even though he’s mortal).

    Satire, most good humor, I’d say, pushes beyond… goes over the top, but for me it’s gotta be credible to be funny. You know, it’s funny b/c it’s soooo true AND soooo wrong or whatever.

    That’s Tom Wolfe and Perotta’s Election, no? I wouldn’t call that hyperbolic. I know a lot of teachers and Election resonated for them in a huge way — not b/c it was hyperbolic (exaggerated to the point of being unbelievable) but b/c it was too true: it COULD happen to anybody… misguided choices, unforeseen blowback, cunning adversaries, no exit on the downward spiral, etc.

    Dan Brown hyperbolic? Um, I think he’s just a hack. He steals his source material, his prose is weak, his endings are a joke. I’ve got nothing more to say on him (though I do appreciate his work ethic: doing push-ups during breaks while writing).

    Haven’t read the other writers in your thriller paragraph, but it seems to me you’re arguing that there are only two ways to write — in an exaggerated form (NOT “real life,” according to you) or in an “everyman” style (“real life”) — and that seems to me like a very limited dichotomous (false, according to me) view of what a novel can do and how the world really works, aka the nature of “reality,” both in the living, breathing world we inhabit day to day and in the imaginative world of a novel, which needs to feel like it’s living and breathing to be “great,” in my opinion. So yeah. That thar’s what I would call a faulty premise.

    Re: YaYa & Watery Elephants… um… same point as above. Maybe you don’t see the world in “fantastic” ways, but I do. That’s how I live, and all I have to do is open my eyes. I see the so-called magical, the fantastical, the absurd, the ironic, the over-the-top nearly every day in so many ways. It’s not hyperbolic. It’s BIG LIFE. Much better examples: Winterson, Marquez, Calvino, Gogol… to me, these writers resonate because they’re real AND “big” — which brings me back to the more important point from my original post:

    You can’t write great novels from templates. You can merely write formulaic stories. And formulaic stories ain’t great by any stretch. Isn’t greatness, at a minimum, defined by originality? Oh wait… I remember another blog piece you wrote a month or so ago where you argued that originality was not important or overrated or not necessary or something like that. Respectfully, sir, I disagree.

  15. says

    The dictionary definition of hyperbole is “obvious and intentional exaggeration”. The scale of the exaggeration is not a factor as long as the contrast against reality is apparent.

    That includes Paul Bunyan, yes, but it also includes… lets say, Jack Ryan. Why? Because ‘everyman CIA analysts’ do not ever see that much action in real life and, if they do, they probably don’t end up being singularly victorious in the end every time (or most times).

    But in any case, it seems like a few people are being hung up on semantics while missing the point. Real life often has a lot of down time in it, or times when very little happens. Dramatic events rarely stack up the way they do in exciting novels and different people’s lives almost never reach resolution on their inner or external conflict simultaneously.

    I think what Don is suggesting here is using hyperbole to increase the number and improve the timing of dramatic events to slightly unrealistic levels in order to give the reader the sensation of being involved in something ‘larger than life.’

    Or perhaps I’m also missing the point…

    (I suppose Paul Bunyan is also ‘larger than life,’ but not all hyperbole has to extend into absurdity to be effective.)

  16. says

    Interesting discussion going on here!

    JesusAngelGarcia, when you say that hyperbolic means to you exaggeration in a way that’s not believable, you make a useful point. When exaggeration works, *why* does it work? Because it has a basis in truth–it just exaggerates that for effect.

    So, I think we may be agreeing. I recommend hyperbole to fiction writers in part because so many manuscripts are drab, flat, humdrum, unstimulating, safe. They’re like static on the radio; not annoying, exactly, but not getting any meaning through. Both their language and story events need more oomph.

    I think we also agree on originality. Who doesn’t want that in a novel? Now, you point to Marquez and Calvino as authors who find the magical, fantastic, absurb and ironic in life itself. (“BIG LIFE”–love that.) True enough.

    Consider this, though: There are plenty of novels that observe life closely yet tell us nothing insightful and furthermore speak in a barely audible murmur. On the other hand, there are genre novels that roar, move us deeply and change our thinking.

    How do genre novels do that when they are following a formula? Because the author brings to the story what is original, personal and passionate even if the story pattern is familiar.

    In my post on “bigness” I pointed out some factors that big-feeling novels often have in common. Obviously, if one takes that as a template and merely fills in the blanks, that by itself won’t produce a great novel–or much of a novel at all.

    Whether a novel is walking down a well worn city sidewalk or blazing a trail across the Gobi Desert, what makes us pay attention is what the author has to say that catches us with the force of the new.

    A little hyperbole might not hurt in that regard, either.

  17. Marcia Wunsch says

    Perhaps what’s meant by ‘big’ would be better cast as ‘lit’: not as in ‘literature,’ rather as in ‘lit up.’ Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is told from multiple points of view but each character has a different opinion of each of the other characters, which creates an intriguing read. For example, we see Anna from Levin’s POV but Kitty has a different opinion of Anna all together, and Vronsky’s view of Anna is not the same as Levin’s or Kitty’s. Add to that what the character thinks of himself, and the ways in which the character misinterprets what others think of him, and you have a complexity and density that propels the reader straight through the novel. Each character is lit by many spotlights, so to speak. And it’s all hyperbole, for in real life we’re not privy to what others think of us; we glean (some of) it from their behavior but as to their deepest thoughts, we’re fairly clueless. Yet in Anna Karenina,we see it all and it’s glorious.

  18. says

    Bigness. I always described it as meaty or having depth, but I like the bigness appellation. I’m working towards it in my first effort and it’s something you have to want. A writer must really be in love with their story to achieve it. I can tell almost right away when the book I’m reading is lacking the “bigness”. Sometimes I’ll read on and regret the choice. Most times I’ll put it down in favor of something else. I’ve found Ludlum’s thrillers to have that bigness, as opposed to, say, Clive Cussler (My opinion, of course). I could never put my finger on it exactly, but I knew it when I read it. Thanks for the post!
    .-= Jonathan´s last blog ..First Draft is a Snot Rocket. =-.

  19. says

    I enjoyed the dialogue here. Sorry I didn’t have time for a final response, but I’m about to leave town for two weeks, and I’m buried under pre-trip work.

    Thanks very much for kick-starting a fun debate, Mr. Maass. I see your points more clearly now, agree w/ a few, disagree w/ others. That’s the beauty of blog talk, eh? I’m sure we’ll see each other around.