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S2/E30: The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Don Maass

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

It’s our August writing craft episode! I’ll be reviewing The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Don Maass

Don Maass is the founder of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, which specializes in representation for novelists. The agency is comprised of agents Jennifer Jackson, Katie Shea Boutillier, Cameron McClure, Michael Curry, Caitlin McDonald, Paul Stevens, and Jennie Goloboy — and Don Maass himself, of course. The team sells more than 100 novels annually to both American and international publishers and represents around 150 novelists. I first learned about Don Maass through his work with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. He offers two intensive workshops annually (with feedback) to members of that organization. In those workshops, he addresses similar topics to the ones found in his book.

Let’s get right to my…


1. Another Writing Contiuum. You’ve heard about the Pantser/Plotter continuum and the Literary/Genre continuum. People will sometimes ask Maass and others “What’s the right balance between showing and telling?” Maass suggests that the type of story you write will in large part determine where your strategy’s balance between showing/telling may fall on this continuum. For instance, romance fiction is more likely to rely more heavily on inner mode (telling of feelings) than a thriller novel, which will likely rely more heavily on the outer mode (showing of feelings through actions). The norms within your genre will dictate a lot of what works for your story to connect with your readers and evoke the kinds of emotions they are seeking when they pick up your book.

2. Connect the Inner and Outer Journey. Maass urges you to think of the inner (emotional arc) and outer (plot) journeys within your novel like an architect. The plot (AKA outer journey), which “holds up the novel’s structure” serve as the columns. The emotional arc (AKA inner journey) serves as the crossbeams. They give “a feeling of depth, perspective, and movement across space.” For the best effect, “a novel needs both of those things working together.”

3. The Three Paths. Maass suggests that there are “three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers.” He lists them as:

  • REPORTING – Give a rendering of the character’s emotions so well that readers feel something alongside the characters. He calls this the “inner mode” or the telling of emotions.

  • PROVOKING – This is the “outer mode” or the showing mode that you’re always hearing about. Imply the character’s feelings through their actions and the reader, according to this theory, will be made to feel the feelings with “equal force.” Feelings aren’t described here, we instead “roll with” the action and the underlying feelings they represent.

  • CAUSING – In this, the “other mode,” the author strives to make the reader feel something that the characters themselves may not feel. The bulk of the book seeks to answer the question of how to best utilize this approach, which Maass describes as “vast array of elements,” which when they work together “transport us to a realm of wonder.”

HACK: Me, Me, Me!

Keep your reader a little suspicious and/or off-balance when you’re writing an “I am” passage.” Make them question whether what they’re being told is the whole story or even true at all. As Maass puts it: “When the ‘me’ in the scene is a mystery, a moving target, a dynamic force, and a taut trampoline off of which we can bounce, well then, we bounce. When characters show us that they are complex, we feel complex, too. We chew on them, and ourselves, as well. And isn’t that the effect you want?”

Bonus Hack: “Our secret ingredient behind effective showing an be summed up in this word: subtext.”


“When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it.” Donald Maass

I hope this was helpful! Next episode (September 10, 2020) I’ll bring you my three things (and a hack!) from Joanna Penn’s Audio for Authors: Audiobooks, Podcasting, and Voice Technologies.



Fellow author Robin Knabel and I recently posted a new episode of our podcast, Unsettling Reads. Come check out our spoiler-free review of Wonderland by Jennifer Hillier. Visit www.UnsettlingReads.com to browse our other reviews of books from the crime, fantasy, horror, literary, mystery, sci-fi, suspense, and thriller genres. And a reminder to look for Robin’s short story in the summer issue of The Raven Review!

Until then. . .

Happy writing, people!


Books by Donald Maass

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