Monday, September 21, 2009

Writing Concept: Micro-tension

I attended a writers conference last week at which an Early Bird session was offered. Donald Maass presented an information packed workshop based on his must-have books on craft: Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook; and his newest, The Fire in Fiction.

Because it's easier for me to begin to understand a concept by sharing it with others, my plan is to write a few posts here centered around what Maass says is "the secret for making a page turner."

My notes say: Micro-tension: The line-by-line tension that carries the reader. Makes them momentarily apprehensive, anxious—enough to make them read the very next line, and then the next.

Maass says in The Fire in Fiction: 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. It is not a function of plot. This type of tension does not come from high stakes or the circumstances of a scene. Action does not generate it. Dialogue does not produce it automatically. Exposition—the interior monologue of the point-of-view character—does not necessarily raise its level.

I often hear writers talk about authors "getting away with" breaking the rules. Opening with weather or landscaping, dumping backstory when we all know it's supposed to be sprinkled like a very rare, very pungent spice throughout the story, but not before page 50!

Maass says that when you don't have micro-tension, the reader is likely to skim. Too much skimming and you've lost them forever. When you do have micro-tension, you can get away with anything.

From Fire: . . . micro-tension has its basis not in story circumstances or in words: it comes from emotions and not just any old emotions but conflicting emotions.

I hope to sort through this with you over the next few days as I learn about tension in dialogue, action and exposition, and try to apply it to my own writing.

Stepping off the cliff now . . .

CR: Identity Crisis by Debbi Mack

It's all better with friends.


  1. I'll be attending my first Donald Maass workshop before Bouchercon in October so this is a timely post for me. Since I'm trying to write a suspense novel, I'm thinking the micro-tension technique will help a lot. I'll be interested in reading more.

  2. This is one of the HUGE problems with a lot of the fantasy books I read. Of course, they get away with more of the backstory stuff because they have to build their world, but it still lends itself to skimming. I'm diving into a new 800-pager that is forcing me to skip entire pages to get to the meat.

    But, somehow, this book was published and highly acclaimed.

    On the other hand, a few fantasy authors like Phillip Pullman keep me interested with every line. So why don't they all have to do that? Why do they get away with this droning for 200 pages about the trees being purple?

    It seems like every time I hear something I think is a good rule or piece of advice, it gets shattered by something I read. Are their no rules to this industry?!


  3. I'm jealous, Patricia. I would love to attend Boucheron. And I wouldn't mind taking another Maass so I could FEEL like a was a little ahead of him (ha!) at the beginning, and no doubt glean more things to build upon.

    Tara, I've skimmed suspense novels! Aaargh! Important to remember there really are no "rules" in publication, but there are definitely preferences and biases and expectations. What one editor wouldn't touch, another will jump all over.

    One of my critique partners is amazing at writing paranormal romance. From what I've read of hers, there will be no skipping. I'm hoping she gets something together and off soon. Susan, are you reading this?

  4. Skimming. The word is skimming. But close, huh?