Friday, September 25, 2009

Writing Concept: Micro-tension in Action

You know that old axiom, "I know what I like when I see it." Well, when Donald Maass is actually reading examples and fixing them off the cuff, I can see it. I can hear it. The shift from mundane to intriguing.

But then I look at the page in front of me. One that I've written. It either looks just fine (and don't I know that is gonna bite me in the butt later on), or I can't figure out how to fix it. Is it really either of those things, or is it that I'm afraid it's going to require a lot more of me than I'm willing to give at this moment?

Whoa. That's bears repeating.

Is it really that I can't figure out how to fix something I've written, or is it that I'm going to have to invest more time, more thought, more struggle?

From The Fire in Fiction: . . . tension in action comes not from the action itself but from inside the point-of-view character experiencing it.

Here is a short section of a scene I recently revised. Hopefully, you'll be able to see a difference. Both of my critique partners had been in favor of cutting this paragraph. I decided to see if infusing it with a little bit of micro-tension changed their minds.

Bond (my co-protag) had gone for a walk with the family dog, a little bichon named McKenzie. The bad guys sent a message to the family by booting the small dog like a football. She's taking him to the vet.

First Draft:

Bond cradled him as best she could and took off at a fast trot down the remainder of the trail. She entered the code to open the garage and ducked under the door as it opened. Grabbed one of the blankets in her Jeep she always kept for emergencies and wrapped McKenzie. She hated letting him out of her grasp, but knew that laying him on the passenger seat would be better than him feeling her movements every time she moved her feet to drive. The garage door was barely up before she’d clamored into the Jeep and put her key in the ignition. Flying down the driveway, she punched a speed-dial number in her cell.

Revised draft:

Bond cradled him as best she could and sped off at a fast pace down the rocky, now dangerous, trail. Damn. What’s the code for the garage door? She forced her mind to focus. Two attempts and she ducked under the door as it opened. Grabbed one of the blankets in her Jeep she always kept for emergencies and swaddled McKenzie. The garage door was barely up before she’d clamored into the Jeep and twisted her key in the ignition. Firing down the driveway, she punched a speed-dial number in her cell.

What would make this better? More tension could be infused if Bond has some conflicting emotions. Any ideas?

CR: Identity Crisis by Debbi Mack.

It's all better with friends.


  1. I think when I'm editing something and I think it's "finished," then I've just been staring at it for too long. Eventually, it's so stuck in your head that you can't imagine it being any other way. I try to walk away from it and come back later, or have someone else give me their thoughts like you have here.

    I like the second version of this paragraph a lot better! I love the questioning at the garage door, gives the reader a good sense of the rush in Bond's mind and her actions.

    Only sentence I might look at is
    "Grabbed one of the blankets in her Jeep she always kept for emergencies and swaddled McKenzie."

    I think it might read better without the middle part. Something like this:
    "She grabbed a blanket from the Jeep and swaddled the little dog, placing him carefully in the passenger seat."

    I think the part about it being for emergencies slows down the pace of the paragraph. However, I like the detail in the first one because I can keep an image of things in my mind.

    That's just my opinion though. :)


  2. I think you're right about that sentence. Love your suggestion!

  3. Peg, I love the way you're keeping us up to date with your process. And the little hints make me so intrigued to see your novel!

    I like the way in para #2 we're more in Bond's head--it's more showing than telling versus #1. I agree with Tara about striking "for emergencies" but then "placing carefully" seems to slow things down a bit (sorry, to disagree, Tara!) Now of course, she can't thrown down a cute little dog...but even something like, "She kept the little dog with her, trying not to squeeze him too hard in her haste, while concentrating on the garage door, now rising as if stuck in mud." (Changed to reflect your own style, of course!) I just feel the urge to have you keep the action ratcheted up in this short section, not let it ebb for a second.

    Finally, I'd fiddle with "firing" down the driveway. I don't quite get the image--cars don't really fire. Maybe you want to avoid the cliche--"flying"--which is good...but is there some other word that gets at how a Jeep bucks out of the garage, tries to pick up speed?

    Great job, Peg--did I ever mention Zuckerman's WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL? I learned so much from that book about sentences that sing...

  4. Excellent suggestions, Jenny!

    What I learned from Maass (but man, is it hard to implement) is that there are degrees of tension and conflict. It's not all blood or dark basements or saving the world.

    Writing suspense is, in many ways, easier than writing in other genres. We're hard-wired for tension. The trick is to find subtle ways to indicate it in every (or almost every) line.

    Maass suggests that we not only get into the heads of our POV characters, but into the heads of every character in the scene. Not in a surface kind of way, but DEEP. Knowing the backstory of each character in our hearts helps us to understand their motivation. And, if we're doing our job write, their motiviation is in direct conflict with our POV character.

    Okay. Gonna go buy the Zuckerman now.

  5. Okay, I haven't actually read your blog post yet, but I just needed to say something. WE WERE BOTH AT ACFW CONF AND DIDN'T MEET!!!! I'm astounded. :) I just got back from my sisters and am reviewing everyone's blog posts. I'm a little late!

  6. It was a big conference. When you get 500+ people together who are in workshops and appointments and different classes, it's easy to miss people. And I ducked out on a few things to write down a new idea for a novel and do some serious brainstorming with a girlfriend.

    Was it everything you'd hoped and more?