Without Delay

PhotobucketWhile reading a well-reviewed novel, have you ever felt both awed and bored?  You know the feeling.  This is soooo beautifully written… when is something going to happen?

Authors are at high risk of provoking that feeling when they write stories that essentially rely on delay.  Novels in which the main character’s primary need is to get over it, grow, heal, hit the road or in some other way become unstuck are especially prone to this pattern.

If that sounds like much literary and women’s fiction you’re right, but genre-based and plot-driven novels can also lean on delay.  Murder mysteries that grind through suspects and clues, epic journeys that take a long time to go anywhere, romances that churn…all can spin their plot wheels at high speed while not really seeming to take us very far.

The antidote to delay is change.   In plot-driven novels that isn’t automatically generated by action.  In character-driven novels it isn’t delivered by stunning rendered reality.  Altering the story’s circumstances or a character’s direction may fulfill the requirement, technically speaking, but can still leave a novel feeling hollow and readers feeling impatient.

Gripping change is change that happens within.   That, after all, is how we mark our personal progress and measure our inner time.  Do you catalogue your life month by month, or do you think of your past in rough periods like “the bikini summer”, “my first marriage”, “when I was unemployed”, or “after Dad died”?  You see what I mean.  Time is subjective and so is change.

In terms of novel construction that means capturing Inner change as it happens scene by scene.  Why include a scene unless it changes a character in some way?  Writers of plot driven fiction need especially to pay attention here.  Keeping action going and plot twists coming is nice but the effect is shallow.  Plot is interesting but it’s the unfolding inner conflicts of characters that grips emotionally.

Writers of character-driven fiction shouldn’t necessarily relax, either.  Just because your novel is largely an inner journey doesn’t mean it’s a powerful story, especially not if your main character suffers, is a victim, lacks will, whines, is blocked from taking action or in other ways essentially stays stuck.

The easiest way to insure inner change occurs in a scene is to define for yourself both the scene’s turning point (the moment when things actually change) and the inner turning point (the accompanying change inside your character).   The inner turning point can be as small as an insight or as earth shaking as a change in self-perception.  What matters is that it’s there on the page.

Try it with the scene you’re working on right now.  What changes in this scene?  When precisely does it change?  Heighten the trigger and mark the response.  If you write warmly (writing out emotions) then make your character respond with an action.  If you write coolly (think Hemingway) then capture the shift not through an outward action or evocative images but with words alone.

How does your POV character change too?  What’s the tectonic shift?  Measure it.  Describe it.  It’s the intangible inner event that will most palpably move your story forward one step.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Wonderlane


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

    Another change, Donald, can occur when your perception of another person changes. It occurred to me when I discovered that a business partner was not a trusted ally but was embezzeling from the company. Talk about a dramatic cold shower wake up call! Did it advance my story? You bet it did.

    • says

      Yes, agreed. Many perceptions might change. For instance the protagonist’s understanding of place, or of the main problem itself. You’ve got the right idea–though I’m sorry to hear it was hard won.

  2. says

    Donald, hot cheese biscuits with gravy ~ that makes total sense and rings so true..(hmm, maybe I’m changing, too…:) How would you suggest mapping out such an arc of the entire novel. That is to say, a realization on page 10 that a character needs to change her focus, but her view is too small at that time..leads to..something like that? Merci!

    • says


      That’s an outstanding question, and a big one. It deserves a post of it’s own. Hmm, was wondering what to tackle next month. Thanks for the idea!

      • says

        Ha! So a post of its own! Looking forward to it ~ and to Story Masters in Seattle..hope by then to have worked through to page 12. Oh heck, I’m going for major enlightenment by 13.5 pages! Gonna check now..Serious big thanks Donald, and beaucoup.

  3. says

    Thanks for this perspective and the great tips. This is so timely since I am having a lot of trouble with the opening scene of my WIP. There is plenty of action there, but I need to focus more on how the main character changes as a result. Thanks again.

  4. says

    This really hits home for me. I already knew that every scene has to matter, but you’ve given us a great mechanism here to help *make* them matter. Good stuff!

    But how the hell did you know about my “bikini summer?” Hey, that was just a phase I had to work through, and it’s not like I’m proud of it or anything. And it’s certainly not something I like to talk about, but now YOU had to go and dredge up those painful memories. Thanks a lot, Don.

    • says


      In keeping with my life’s mission to make yours more work, I know EVERYTHING. Cost a bundle to get it, but worth it. Heh-heh.

      But seriously, dude, when are you going to start mining that experience in your fiction? The most powerful fiction is highly personal. Be brave. Be bold. None of us will laugh, really. Much.

    • says


      The missing link? I’m visualizing my post as a shambling, brutish hominid wandering the plains enforcing a surivival-of-the-fittest law on a population of newly hatched novels.

      Oh, wait…I’m thinking of the Kindle Book Store.

  5. says

    Thank you! I have been stymied in the current scene of my WIP, and I couldn’t figure out what the issue was.

    SuperMaass to the rescue!

    Not sure why I can so easily lose sight of the basics of writing, but I do, over and over again.

    Thank you for this reminder, Donald. Also, thanks for the thoughts about cool vs. warm writers. I know you’ve shared those before, but your adjectives are the perfect way to cement that concept in my Jell-o brain.

    • says


      I understand that Jell-o brain feeling. After a year of testing, interviews, essay angst, fearsome competition and worry, my kid today started kindergarten. Private schools in New York are brain enriching for kids, brain depleting for parents. So yeah, I’m there with you.

  6. says

    This is very helpful as I’m beginning revisions on a mystery novel. I’m also halfway through reading your “Writing the Breakout Novel” — so helpful and enlightening. Thank you!

  7. says

    Great post, Donald. I love the term “delay” and a big yes on the CHANGE analysis for each scene. Thank you for putting attention on the inner conflict. I do find that’s missing from a lot of subs I see. And I do find it the change is too slow, I tend to not finish reading the book. I’ll go tweet this now.

  8. says

    Thank you this was perfectly timed. Have been struggling for weeks with my present project. The wheels have been spinning but it’s been going nowhere. I think I know what the problem is now and how to fix it. Fingers crossed.

  9. Denise Willson says

    Love this, Donald. Many writers can point out a flaw in a story, but few can direct as to how to fix it. I’m sending this to writer friends.

    Yoda, appreciated much. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  10. says

    Don, don’t feel obliged to do this, but what would help me is to learn a structure which externalizes the internal journey at the scene level. (Sorry, but this is how my brain works.)

    For example, I believe it was Save the Cat which helped me understand external conflict by providing this rough template, which can be used for scene note cards:

    Character wants ____, pursues it by ____, but is opposed by ____. (And in the process generally encounters disaster or discovery.)

    I like this approach because it’s easier to see if there’s repetition of stakes and outcomes in scene after scene, thus avoiding the chugging plot.

    Can you suggest a comparable structure for internal growth? I would happily buy you a beer, though you have raised the dreaded specter of Keith in his bikini-clad days.

  11. says

    Are you saying that the protagonist needs to change in every scene, or just that *someone* needs to change in every scene? I am wondering if too much of a good thing could make your MC seem sort of erratic or inconsistent. Although I suppose you’re talking about small enough changes that they don’t always so much shake your MC’s core as tweak their perspective…

    Another great thing to think about as I do my revisions. Thanks!

    • says


      I’d suggest some sort of inner change or shift for the POV character in every scene. Per comments above, that shift certainly can be in an understanding or preception of anything or anyone, though the most powerful of all is a change in the character’s own self-perception.

  12. Carmel says

    Thanks for another great post. Your writing advice always gets me back on track. Which is why I’m currently re-reading The Breakout Novelist. But, last night, a sentence in there stopped me dead. “I’ve been working with professional novelists for thirty years.” What?! How far back? Middle school?

    • says


      I started in publishing in 1977, founded my agency in 1980. I did graduate from college before that and bummed around in London for a year or two. So we could do the math–but let’s not.

  13. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Aaaaggghhh! Finally the information I need to try to fix my novel in progress at a time when the day job(s) and start of school (firstgrader for me) leave no time or brain cells for editing.
    At least now I have a strategy at hand for when I can get back to it, and I’m starting to think of it as fixable, not hopeless, so thank you!

  14. says

    You’ve spoiled us with another fascinating post about mending plot and delving into our characters’ psychology. Have you considered being a therapist? :) I suppose you’re a book doctor at the very least!

    I love the idea of creating a structure to recognize stalled character arc! I look forward to next month’s post.

  15. says

    Simple advice is often the best. Yesterday Erika Robuck mentioned your workshop and I then asked the protagonist in my WIP what she wanted to be when she grew up (even though she’s already a grown up). It gave me my “save the farm” idea for the story, what drives the plot.

    Today I’m struck again by the simplicity here — and it resonates as did something my editor reminded me — it’s not just what happens to your characters but how they react to what happens to them. Your post today goes along with that and it’s important for me to remember the internal and external what if’s in each scene. And if nothing is happening and if no one wants anything — either change it, or delete the scene.


  16. says

    Great advice! I learned a lot about this a few years ago when working on my first novel. I had lots of pretty scenes showcasing the characters’ thoughts and feelings and interactions, but nothing else happened and the development of those internal things could be and was already shown in other scenes that also advanced the plots. I guess this was a lesson in “killing your babies” as well, because I liked the writing in those scenes and it was difficult to let them go. Once I did, though, the novel had much better pacing. Since then, I’ve been really conscious of having a goal for each scene: revealing something important about a character that can’t be revealed elsewhere, revealing the next plot point, change the momentum or obvious path the story is taking, etc. Of course, if a scene can accomplish two or more things, so much the better.

    • says

      Yes, good point Kristin. In thinking about the inner turning point it’s important not to forget the outer turning point, which is to say what actually happens. Those two elements work together. One without the other becomes either an inactive scene or empty action.

  17. says

    Love the thought of cataloguing my character’s life by times and/or rough periods. Doing this (even just in my outlining) will help get me past the rough spot in my current work – thanks!

  18. says

    Hi Don: This is a great post on bridging the micro/macro divide when making every scene count. It reminds me of something you wrote in one of your books, that you should feel free to “knock your story sideways.” The notion that your characters and story can change is exciting as a writer as you work on it — it frees you up to try really unexpected things — but it’s crucial for the reader’s experience, as well. Changes that matter to the characters in a scene make the reader think anything can happen, and I think that’s what makes a book un-put-down-able. It gives the plot real heft and therefore momentum. When it feels as though the characters are prevented from changing by the author’s need to stick to a certain plot, that’s when I as the reader want to put the book down.

  19. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I am a day late on getting to Writer Unboxed — so catching up–and this post makes me glad I stopped by.

    In real life as well as fiction a person’s internal journey changes everything, because of their change in POV.

    You post insights that give me aha! moments in my writing journey. This enhances my POV, so that I become a stronger writer for it.

    Thank you.



  1. […] While reading a well-reviewed novel, have you ever felt both awed and bored? You know the feeling. This is soooo beautifully written… when is something going to happen?   Authors are at high risk of provoking that feeling when they write stories that essentially rely on delay. Novels in which the main character’s primary need is to get over it, grow, heal, hit the road or in some other way become unstuck are especially prone to this pattern.  […]