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What a Cathedral is Not

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Have you ever walked into a Medieval cathedral? Architecturally speaking, they are engineering marvels.  Heavy stone buttresses support soaring vault arches of many types: barrel, groin, rib, fan.

Cathedrals have many parts, each offering a different experience of the divine.  There is the narthex in which to grow quiet and prepare.  There is the nave in which to sit and kneel in common with others.  There is the choir from which celestial music emanates.  There are the altar and the communion rail.  Around the cathedral’s perimeter are little alcoves where one may venerate the Madonna or saints.  There is a baptismal font and a little curtained booth, partitioned inside with a tiny window between the halves, where one may confess sins and be forgiven.  Various notables may be entombed around the place.  In some cathedrals you may walk the Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross, a darkly gruesome but ultimately redemptive story told in serial fashion.

When you enter such a Cathedral, though, what is the first thing that you feel?  Is it admiration of the way in which the load of the roof is distributed down to the ground?  Is it pleasure in the acoustics?  Do you intently study the map available in a wooden stand near the entrance, planning your tour around the interior?  If you are like most people, those are not the first things that you experience.  If you are like most people, the first thing that you experience is one gigantic and simple emotion.  You raise your eyes upward and feel…


That is the way that the Church and its architects wanted you to feel.  The whole design of the cathedral is meant to give one the experience of faith, to grasp God’s cosmology, to reflect the tenants of Christianity and teach it precepts.  Above all, it is an emotional experience.  There are lots of little rooms inside the building in which to have more focused experiences, but the overall intent is for you to be blasted by awe.

When we talk about writing novels, why do we talk first and primarily about the buttresses and vaulted arches of the story?  Why do we rush to decorate the radiant chapels and alcoves, hurry the choir into song, zip to the baptismal font and scurry to the confessional booth before any sins have even been committed?

I have nothing against plot.  There is nothing wrong with scene structure.  Sparkling style, protagonist back story and arc are all fine.  And yet we labor to quickly put those elements into place, thinking that that if we get them just right then our readers will get religion.  But a cathedral by itself is not faith, it only contains it.  Faith is not a building but a feeling.  By the same token, for readers a novel is not the plot but the feelings that the novel evokes, which in aggregate produce (we hope) an experience of awe.

Therefore, in creating a novel I recommend giving thought early on not just to its architecture but also to its effect.  Not that I m against plot, shapely scenes, fine prose, back story wounds, redemptive arc or anything else.  Obviously not.  But I do think that the emotional effect of fiction is oftentimes the last consideration instead of the first.

In thinking about the emotional effect of one’s fiction*, there are big and obvious story components to consider: dark moment, catharsis, climax and so on.  Nothing wrong with paying attention to those big events.  However, there are many more opportunities in a story to stir readers.  These smaller, and often lost, opportunities are what we can call marker moments.

Fiction writers who eschew outlining may be familiar with this idea.  While pantsers may not wish to closely plan their manuscripts, it’s not uncommon for them to have scenes or story moments that they know must be included.  Like blue trail markers nailed to trees in a forest, they’re reassuring signs that one is on a path that leads somewhere.

Marker moments are not plot points.  They are emotional points, though events and emotions inevitably entwine.  The point is to create places on the page in wherein there are shifts in inner perception, understanding, certainty, security, or any other internal state.  When a market moment occurs it’s as if an anchor has pulled up from the sea floor in a storm, or conversely like when a steel piton is driven into a cliff face during a rock climb.  Characters—and readers–become in those moments unmoored or newly secure.

To create marker moments, try out a few of the following prompts:

Plot events have emotional impact.  Emotional changes, in turn, can suggest plot situations.  As I said, events and emotion entwine.  We readers cannot help but feel things when there are plot surprises, setbacks, disasters, reveals, and triumphs.  Similarly, we experience a sense of movement—without moving—when a story hits us with sharp points of self-reproach, fury, illumination, despair, resolve or reward.

What is therefore important and worth working on, ask me, is not only the plot architecture but also what cannot be built out of stone: the many moments of recognition, understanding and empathy that for readers sum up to a profound and transforming experience of awe.

(*Discussed at length in my book The Emotional Craft of Fiction.)

Tell us about a marker moment in your WIP.  What is one thing that’s essential for your protagonist to go through—and for us to experience, too?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].