The Good Seed, Part II

PhotobucketLast month we began to look at premise development. I argued that developing a premise through writing a first draft is a natural practice, one that most authors follow. Yet a bit more attention to deepening one’s premise at the beginning of the process will both enrich that first draft and avert later shortcomings.

The second way to work on a premise is to create a central conflict that’s bigger than the main character, or universal. You might think that all conflicts are, in a way, universal. Who doesn’t need to grow, heal, journey, surrender to love, enact justice or slay a bunch of big bad demons?

That’s true, but many manuscripts feel narrowly focused and small even when the fate of the world is at stake. Conversely, there are novels in which the setting is local, the protagonist isn’t anyone important and their problems are unique. Even so, those novels sometimes seem to be talking about us all.

How is it that big scale stories can seem small, while small scale stories can feel big?

Here are the relevant principles: Fate-of-the-world stakes won’t feel truly big until they’re also scaled down to affect your protagonist personally. Meanwhile, small-scale stories become bigger when they grow more particular.

In other words what truly makes global-stakes stories gigantic is not the global stakes: it’s the protagonist’s personal journey, or arc of change. Small-scale fiction achieves universal meaning through distinctive detailing of the main character’s life, times and problems. Everything’s larger under a microscope.

Is your WIP plot-driven and high stakes? Try developing your premise with these questions:

  • How does the Big Problem affect your protagonist personally, in ways that it doesn’t affect other people? What’s the ultimate cost? (It must be paid!)
  • If the Big Problem isn’t solved, what’s the worst way in which someone close to your protagonist will be hurt or destroyed? (Go there!)
  • There are big principles in play here, naturally, but what core belief of your protagonist is being challenged? (Undermine it!)

Is your WIP character-driven, with wholly personal stakes? Push your premise as follows:

  • How can your main character become more unique in three ways?
  • How can your main character’s family, friends, town, times and way of seeing each become less ordinary?
  • How can the problem he/she confronts twist in three utterly uncommon ways?

When a main problem or central conflict gets personal, it gets strong. Make it strong enough and we readers will begin to make it our own. That’s how to make a problem bigger than your protagonist—even universal.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Rakka


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.


    • says

      You’re welcome. I’ve been thinking a lot about how some novels attain that universal, speaks-to-everybody appeal. Interestingly, their characters and worlds without fail are unlike any others.

      Meanwhile, commercial thrillers (say) that hit on a deeper level, offering more than mile-a-minute thrills, do so paradoxically by “slowing down” to put the protagonist “through the wringer”, as thriller writers like to say.

      • Porter Anderson says

        Don, I’m thinking of Nevil Shute’s ON THE BEACH (1957). I haven’t been able to catch up with the old film version yet, but as I recall, when I read the book a few years ago, its effectiveness came from the fact that we don’t really see the “big problem.” The nuclear nightmare played out in the Northern Hemisphere with NATO has occurred, and we’re focused on the Australians waiting for the fallout to reach them. And we get the cataclysmic reach of the thing only in the smallest details, such as Osborne taking his government-issued suicide pill as the radiation arrives while in the Ferrari he’s restored and is so attached to.

        I remember feeling for days as if “something has happened” as I read the book. Shute really got his radioactive cloud right over me, over everything, and he did it strictly through the person-by-person effects of the situation, right?

        Are you familiar? Is this the sort of bring-it-home / scaling-down effect of, I guess, the ultimate “big problem” you’re advocating?

        Shute, you know, studied engineering at Balliol in Oxford, went into aeronautics. He dropped his last name, “Norway,” as a writer “to protect his engineering career,” his bio says. :)

        Another “big problem” brought down to rather singular size.

        And how many days do we have left, Don?

        • says


          Nevil Shute! A huge best seller in his day and now tragically forgotten. A great writer. Even his less well known novels are masterpieces.

          A favorite of mine is “An Old Captivity” about an aeroplane-borne archaeological expedition to Greenland, during which the pilot and love interest discover they’ve lived prior lives.

          Another is “Round the Bend” in which after the war a Brit builds a series of airfields across the Middle and Far East, only to find that a mechanic he employs may be a messiah.

          Thank you so much for bringing up Nevil Shute and, yes, it’s his exquisite detailing of his characters and the world of aviation that allowed his novels to touch so many earth-bound readers.

          Days left until what–?

          • Porter Anderson says

            How many days left until the cloud arrives. :)

            I was just illustrating how very badly (and I mean wonderfully) Shute got under my skin — maybe Shute under my nails, even — with the direly personal sensation of approaching doom he created in “On the Beach,” lol.

            So glad you like his work, too! I’m ordering “‘Round the Bend” right away, sounds great, thank you.

            And maybe I have a happy surprise for you (I didn’t know this, but you might have): RH Digital has put out a glorious round of his books on Kindle! Have a look:

            THIS is ebookery at its best. I’m so impressed, I might just have to mention this good work on the Ether.

            So thanks for not only getting across a brilliant point about “big problems” and how they can be worked, but also for getting me more deeply down the Shute than I thought was possible at this late date, I had no idea all these books could be had on Das BezosMachine.

            Now if I could just find a publisher to do that with Helen MacInnes’ devastatingly straight-ahead espionage books. World-whipping foreign policy brought down to the drama between two counter-agents who were never, ever kidding, no Bond shtick, just cold revolvers with silencers. Remember her work? As a kid, I never understood the Iron Curtain until I read her and got it with crashing clarity just one vulnerable, lethal spy at a time.


            • says


              Thanks, so good to know, will definitely check out the Shute editions. You’re right: this is exactly what e-books do best.


  1. says

    Sometimes I feel my Big Problem is too big. There is a culture clash and a looming war, but I feel like it could be seen as a ‘so what’ issue to readers in the early going. I think it’s perhaps too much a looming rather than an imminent Big Problem. Reading this has made me realize I need find ways to make it personal to my protagonist, and sooner in the story. Thanks, as always for providing the proper questions.

  2. says

    True, the reader doesn’t care too much about the fate of the planet. Short of recycling their garbage, there’s little they can do about it. But they care about their own fate. If our readers can bond closely with the protagonist, and his/her fate, it doesn’t matter if the opposition is Blofeld or the next-door neighbor.

    There’s no Blofeld in Virginia Woolf but a lot of opposition. And most of it is in the protagonist’s own mind…

  3. says

    Another fantastic post full of valuable advice. And I love it when I realize I’m already doing something you say — then I really know I’m on the right track! =) Interesting thoughts about universal vs. personal, as well. Thanks Don!

  4. says

    Thanks for another great set of questions for my Word document!

    I’m editing like a mad woman right now, and have been contemplating the “big picture” consequences and the personal consequences for my character. I’m feeling the big picture consequences are kind of weak, but they are definitely tied into the personal consequences, and there are big stakes to them, so I’ve been in a quandry if the big pictures consequences are the right ones. Maybe your questions will help me get a better handle on it.

    • says


      Look at some little picture consequences too. Look sideways. What other characters can suffer consequences because of what’s going on?

      • Jackie Layton says

        What a great question! I’m starting a new story today. I’ve got Breakout Novel and workbook by my side.
        Thanks for this post and for asking who all will suffer for this character’s actions.

  5. says

    Don, thanks for another insightful post. A couple of takeaways that really resonated with me were the need to make the universal more personal and to imbue the main character with unique traits. Margaret Mitchell could have written a boring tome on the Civil War and its far-reaching impacts on the Old South, but instead she chose to tell the story through a complex and highly interesting character. It is something I will keep in mind in my WIP. Thanks again, Don.

  6. says

    I think your questions are right on.

    My high school English teacher used to scrawl across my paper, “Be More Specific.” I never really knew what she meant. But now I think about it all the time!

    Sometimes I think that I have to stay “zoomed in” to the specific and not over-analyze the big themes and universality too much until I’ve gotten to a certain point. Perhaps the universal works itself out as you tell your specific story… or at least you hope it does. ; )

    • says


      I think you’ve grasped the central paradox: When you try to be “universal” you won’t. When you peer through the microscope at utterly unique characters and a hitherto unseen world, that’s when the parallels to the reader’s life and world come into focus.

  7. Sarah E.A. Fusaro says

    Thank you! : ) Your points are absolutely true – I have read many ‘thriller’ books that failed miserably to thrill me. And this is exactly why. The characters made me yawn. Can’t wait to get back to my novel later… I think I’m on the right track as far as balance goes, but we can always use improvement!

  8. says

    What’s interesting is, specificity is actually the key to universality. Saying “my mom is the best” actually inspires less feeling than saying “my mom is the best because she works two jobs seven days a week to send me and my little brother to private school, and she still helps us with her homework every night and makes us breakfast every morning.” The details are what we connect to, even if they’re different from our own details.

    And that’s what you questions are pushing us to do. To find the details in our story, the little things that readers will latch onto, and will inspire them to feel.

    • says

      Or…”My mom slings lattes and flips real estate so that my brother and me can wear plaid jackets to school and do too much homework. It’s okay. She helps with the algebra and makes blueberry pancakes for breakfast. Not every mom is a superhero like ours.”

  9. says

    Ooh, I can sense that using this approach will be very useful in the future. I feel like my current WIP has the right kind of stakes but I’m perhaps not articulating them as well as I could, and it’ll be an interesting challenge to see if the advice in this post can help me straighten them out before I get to my next draft. Thanks!

  10. says

    Fabulous! And just in time. Working through premise and theme with a novel right now and using your workbook, and shall go about answering these important questions today as well. Thanks so much for freely sharing your wisdom!

  11. says

    Thanks for these great insights. My WIP started out as a very personal journey for the heroine, and when I realized I needed to deepen the stakes, the big picture became much easier. What she’s fighting is an injustice that’s been done to many, and by defeating her personal nemesis, she’ll be helping countless others. So I think I’m on the right track, although lots of learning is still ahead of me.

  12. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Thanks for this very informative post, and the interesting discussion following, which illuminated the theme (from my understanding of it)-personal experiences when done well–resonate in a universal way, and universal themes done well–resonate in a personal way.

    I was intrigued by Porter Anderson’s description of the writing of Nevil Shute. The suicide scene he described here, had a sorta Arthur C. Clarke-ish in Childhood’s End feel, that resonated with me. Perhaps Childhood’s End is another example of a mind-blowing universal theme that resonates through the personal by the way Clarke depicts the human insight, especially the main family?

    Thanks to both Donald Maass and Porter Anderson for the insight and discussion. I went online and looked up Nevil Shute. I downloaded No Highway. I started to read it last night, and I am fast becoming a fan of Shute from this. A big hug to WU–thanks– I learn so much from this site.

  13. says

    Testing a protagonist’s core-beliefs has always been a promising theme for me; readers know that you’re not going to kill off your protagonist, nor is he/she going to fail in most fiction. So the tension lies in the prices paid along the way.