Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Got Tension?

Tension. We wade through it every day. It’s in the smallest moment of conflict and (of course) the rip-the-hair-out-the-head melt down. If someone asked me on any given day if I would like another helping of tension, I’d back away screaming “Noooo!” But give me a novel that lacks tension, big or small, and I’ll scream the same.

Without tension, the novel becomes a kind of sleeping pill, right? That’s why these statements from The Fire In Fiction, by the amazing Donald Maass fascinated me:

“What many do not grasp, though, including many published novelists, is that what keeps us turning hundreds of pages is not a central conflict, main problem, or primary goal.”

“Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether. Micro-tension.

“Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story, but in the next few seconds.”

Wow, these statements resonated with me. When I start reading a book and emotional conflict happens on the first page, I’m in. Maybe there is a rivalry between characters or a misunderstanding that can’t be ignored. Suddenly the dialogue between these characters has snap and crackle and pop. There is friction as a result of animosity, jealousy, passion, or other churning emotions. What is going on inside them is intriguing. This, it seems to me, could be an example of micro-tension--a moment of tension that keeps me reading and anxious for what is going to happen next, as in immediately next. It isn’t necessarily about the overall plot or even the stakes of the scene. It’s more focused on the conflicting emotions of the characters.

Of course a writer needs to pay attention to how to build the loud tension of the main character’s struggle for the ultimate goal, and all the opportunities for big tension in the story’s plot, characters, and setting. In between these building blocks of story, though, it makes sense that there can and should be the smaller conflicts called micro-tension. The mortar between the building blocks that holds them together.

What do you think?

For all your writers out there: Have you considered the concept of micro-tension? Do you incorporate it into your writing?

For you readers: When has micro-tension had you flipping pages while reading?

Last but miles away from least: A huge thank you to Ashley at and to Nutschell at for gifting me lovely blog awards (and nice words about this blog). Big smile. : )


  1. I enjoyed reading this today because it's EXACTLY what I've been thinking about. Creating more tension.

    I mean, come on, in real life, I HATE DRAMA. I run from it without turning back. But if I don't write it, I don't have a story. I have a very, very boring monologue *shudders*

    Thanks for the reminder, and I also never heard the term micro-tension!

  2. Yes, I really need to take a look at the microtension in my novel. Of course there always should be a big conflict, but little conflicts matter too! I've heard even a conversation between friends should have an edge, a bit of conflict or tension. Interesting. :)

  3. Great advice. I know as a writer I tend to be so focused on the big issues in my novel that I sometimes forget that some microtension along the way will keep things moving along. I'm filing this piece of advice away for future use.

  4. Way to cut the the meat of it:) Tension is def what everything revolves around. Cool blog:)

  5. Awesome reminder! It's true. It has to be on every page. Poor characters, we torture them so.

  6. I love this book! :)

    Micro-tension is the perfect word. This is what I love when I'm reading, not the theme, but what is gonna happen in the next *moment*.

    Great post.

  7. I've never heard of the term "micro-tension"! Thanks for the enlightenment!! So much to learn! Yay!

    Take care

  8. Tension is important. And I hadn't heard of micro-tension!
    Carrie Ryan knows how to load her books with tension. And I keep turning the pages to find out what happens next because of it!

  9. Half the time I don't think we even realize that for some books it's not the major plot points, but the smaller issues/conflicts that keep the story ticking along.

  10. I feel the same way, Barbara. I hate drama and conflict in my life, but when writing, it's a different game.

    I've heard that, too, Carol. And I sometimes wonder if there can be too much tension. As in so many aspects of writing, it's about balance I suppose.

    Yes, Karen, The Fire in Fiction is awesome! I love it, too.

    Too true, Old Kitty! : )

    Thanks for the reminder, Kelly. I keep meaning to read her novels!

    Absolutely, J.L. I think your comment gets to the heart of the matter.

  11. Not sure what Blogger just did, but. . .

    Alissa--Thanks for the comment. It's easy to get carried away with the big picture, isn't it?

    Thanks, Marc, and welcome. Thanks for following and commenting.

    So true, Lisa. It's not always fun tormenting them, is it?

  12. I've been paying attention to the micro tension in my wip. But since I own a copy of The Fire in Fiction, I don't have an excuse not to. I still find it tricky to do in some scenes.

    I'm reading a book right now and the tension just isn't enough for me. If I hadn't bought the book, I wouldn't be still reading it. Of course for someone else, they might find the pages dripping with tension.

  13. Yes, micro tension is so important. I've not heard it termed that way before, but it works so well.

  14. I like that word, microtension. And yes, I do write conflict that way. I think it's good to have lots of little threads that add up to one big conflict.
    Great post!

  15. Excellent advice! And I could definitely stand to work on that. Donald Maass is brilliant.

  16. Microtension is important! I forgot all about this word but I try to remember how important it is to have every scene with that bit of discomfort for the characters. Great post!

  17. This is a new concept for me. And it looks like there's another book I need read!

  18. That's great, Stina. I keep a copy of The Fire in Fiction on my desk, but I still have to remind myself to get in that micro-tension. Also, that's a great point about tension being subjective.

    True, Lynda. : )

    Thanks, E.R.!

    Donald Maass IS brilliant, Janet. I am pretty sure I own most of his books.

    Thanks, Lydia. There is so much to remember when writing, isn't there?

    Bish, The Fire in Fiction is a must read, in my opinion. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

  19. It can be hard for me to create tension in my writing when I dislike it so much in real life. Maass's book is great. I learned a lot from it.

  20. Oh, Cynthia, I love this book. I've read it through once, dipped into it many more times, and it's either on my desk or nightstand at all times. That and JS Bell's The Art of War for Writers.

  21. Oops, I forgot to tell you "This is Marcia Hoehne." :)

  22. ohhh...I think the hard part is realizing, as a writer, if you created tension. lol. We all know what's going on while we're reading/writing. This may be because I don't consciously think about these things while I write. I agree though...tension keeps you might even make you skip a few pages just to make sure everything's okay and then skip back.

  23. Wow, I've never heard of this, but it makes perfect sense. Now I need to be sure I've included it!

  24. Micro-tension? Have I been doing it right all along and didn't know it?

  25. Love this post and I am going to get that book this weekend.

  26. I know exactly what you mean, MG. I HATE tension in real life, not that this matters much. ; )

    Marcia, I am also a huge fan of J.S. Bell. Thanks for mentioning The Art of War for Writers. I'll have to check that out.

    Good point, Ashley. Tension can be subjective, and therefore more challenging to write.

    Julie and Alex, I bet you guys have all kinds of micro-tension in your writing.

    I think you'll like The Fire in Fiction, Maeve. I love it. Happy reading!

  27. I'm all for tension. Certainly helps keep the readers turning pages!

    Happy weekend!


  28. I love, love, love micro tension! Everything can be used in a way to maximize tension. The setting we choose, the amount of lighting in the scene, the symbols we include, the opposing goals of everyone involved, the fears, biases and baggage people all creates bite-sized tension that keeps us turning pages. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  29. True, Nutschell.

    What a great comment, Angela! There are many opportunities for "bite-sized tension." P.S. Love that. : )

  30. If it weren't for tension, I'd never be able to write a book. :)