According to literary agent Donald Maass, “the most important technique for fiction writers to grasp” is Micro-Tension.
Now I read a lot of books about the writing craft and attend workshops whenever I can. Over the years, I’ve heard quite a bit about the need to build tension across plot, between characters, within scenes and in rising levels of suspense (which is a special type of tension). But until today, I didn’t realize there was such a thing as “Micro-Tension.”
In his latest book, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, Maass says:
[Micro-Tension] is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen–not in the story, but in the next few seconds.
Umm. I have to admit that at first glance, I’m not impressed by that definition. I don’t see how it differs from explanations of “ordinary” tension. More importantly, I can’t imagine sustaining such immediacy across a 300-page book.
In a blog interview, Maas clarified the tension he’s talking is more of an “unease” created in the reader that can only be satisfied by turning the page. (Still not clear to me, but getting my attention. Page-turning is good.) He added that with this technique a writer “can make a riveting passage when absolutely nothing is happening.”
Whoa. That sounds like magic. And now I’m a kid on the night before Christmas. I want me some magic. I want Micro-Tension.
Getting the Magic
So I read more. When Maas talks in his book about skimming through books, even thrillers with tons of action and violence, I have to admit he makes a good point. It’s a rare book I read word-by-word. But when I find one of those gems, the kind of book that holds me tight for every single sentence, I’m green with envy. I wish I knew the secret to that kind of compelling writing.
Maas claims to know what that secret is.
It’s all in the Micro-Tension.
Maass summarized the technique during his interview by saying:
To build tension, the writer works with the conflicting and contrasting emotions within [the POV] character. Whether writing action, exposition, interior monologue, or dialogue, you create discord, unbalance, or uncertainty within that character. In dialogue, you build friction or struggle–something between characters. When you do all of this consistently, line by line, you get a page-turner. You get a book that people can’t stop reading.
Line by line? Consistently?
Well, now I know what the “Micro” part of the term means, but how do I do that? Maass offers an exercise to illustrate one way.
He suggests you print out your manuscript, throw it in the air, and reassemble it in random order. Then look at every single page–out of order–and see if you can add some bit of Micro-Tension to it. Why out of order? If you’re reading it the way you wrote it in the first place…
You’ll get into the flow of your story, you’ll start enjoying the rich conflict and tension that’s in your mind but, unfortunately, not on the page. It’s important to look at each page outside of its context and concentrate upon it in isolation.
Of course Maass’ book has lots more ideas about how to incorporate Micro-Tension. The more I read, the more I like this idea. I see how it could really improve my editing technique.
So here’s a challenge. I’ll throw my manuscript in the air if you will, too. Who wants to give this “most important” technique a try?
He’s president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency which sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers. He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. (AAR). The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, was published by Writers Digest Books in May 2009. He is also the author of The Career Novelist, now available as a free download from his website. I also love his popular book Writing the Breakout Novel and the accompanying Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.
P.S. If you haven’t heard by now, my first book for teens is out. Celia and the Wolf is available for Kindle and in paperback. Check out the latest five-star review: “…This is the kind of book that you can’t stop reading. When you reach the end, you close the book, sit back with a grin and say, ‘THAT was a great adventure.’ “