I learned that I love paying taxes. I learned that the greatest joy is stopping by the market for lettuce. I learned that early sunsets and crisp November air make me happy, though I kind of knew that already.
Two weeks from today we’ll be home with our adopted son. Two and a half years of paperwork and dreaming are almost over. I love paying taxes because I can. I love buying lettuce because now I’m a provider. In two weeks I’ll be walking home to my family.
What I learned about myself today is that I’m ready to be a dad. The sweetest part of waiting is when it’s almost over.
What did your protagonist learn about himself or herself in the chapter you just finished? Was it something big? If so that’s good. Was it was something small? If so that’s even better.
A journey is made up of steps. So is a story. Each step in a journey brings with it a revelation. Unfortunately, not every scene in every manuscript does likewise. The meanings in many scenes are missing.
Focus on your latest chapter. At its end, what does your protagonist or point of view character know about himself that he didn’t before? What does she see about someone else that formerly was hidden? What dilemma brings defeat? What uncomfortable truth is closer to the surface? How will the reader know?
To uncover the meaning in a scene, search not for what is big but instead for what is immediate.
Character arcs are often set up and resolved in a few steps. A big reveal or cathartic climax are fine enough but a many-part unfolding holds our attention for longer. It’s the small, immediate insights that give literary fiction its air of hyper reality and lend to commercial fiction a literary weight.
Is it too much to pack personal insight into every scene? I’d say to leave it out is to do too little. Small steps add up to a journey. There’s even meaning in lettuce if you look for it. When you find it, it’s gold. Pick it up. Give it away. The journey is for sharing.
Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He’s the author of several craft books for writers, including the highly acclaimed Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction.
He’s also about to become a dad.