The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass


I confess to being disappointed with THE FIRE IN FICTION on my first read-through. The introduction was extremely off-putting and the rest of the book felt like a rehash of Maass’ more famous book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

However, the second time I read it, something clicked. While other books showed me how to make my fiction bigger, THE FIRE IN FICTION showed me how to make it deeper. Maass urges writers to create fully human characters, settings that ring true, and plots that are both larger-than-life and completely plausible. But beyond that, Maass taught me to put all my passion and love for my stories onto the page in such a way that readers feel it, too.

That is, once I got past the introduction. Maass divides all writers into “storytellers” and “status-seekers.” I find this a false dichotomy and the way Maass insults writers who desire a wide readership is a real turn-off. It’s especially galling since his how-to books are all about teaching writers to write big, commercial novels. His insistence that marketing has nothing to do with a novel’s success ignores the true realities of publishing. Being a literary agent, it’s a reality he knows well.

Several of my friends were so angered by the introduction that they never read the book. Which is too bad. If they had skipped ahead, they would have found a good guide to finding the true heart of their stories.

The best chapter is called “Tension All the Time.” The idea is that tension comes from emotion, specifically mixed emotion. When you add mixed feelings to a manuscript, the reader turns pages faster, desperate to discover which emotion will win out. It’s one of those simple-yet-profound lessons that once learned, can’t be unlearned. Once I understood how it’s done, I spotted this technique in other novels, and eagerly looked for ways to add it to my own manuscripts. Maass isn’t kidding about the “all the time” part. Tension via mixed feelings can be used not only in the usual places, like exposition and dialog, but also in action, description, and even backstory. Understanding this helped me see why some very simple stories have become my favorites and why some beautifully written work leaves me cold. More importantly, Maass showed me how to really use mixed emotion to better my own stories.

I still don’t know if my novels have tension all the time, but thanks to THE FIRE IN FICTION, each story I write gets closer to that ideal.


THE FIRE IN FICTION can be found here.


rating: 3 stars


This book is best for: advanced writers


I recommend this book or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglasias.

2 thoughts on “The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass

  1. Interesting and ironic at the same time. He may like to read deep fiction but he publishes commercial fiction.

    • As a literary agent, he should know better and the hypocrisy shown in the introduction bothered me. Which is really too bad because the rest of the book is good.

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