One of the best books I have read on the writing craft has been The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass. In the Fire in Fiction literary agent Donald Maas dives into this strange and interesting theory called micro-tension.
What is micro-tension?
Micro-tension = energy infused sentences.
How do you infuse your sentences with energy, the kind of energy that makes readers beg to turn the page?
This concept is extremely difficult. Nigh impossible. Is it truly possible to fill a story with tension and excitement in every line? The simple answer is yes. I have read dozens of stories that I could not bear to put down. Every page I read was packed with tension. People could be driving in a car and eating soup and talking about sand on a seashore and I would be salivating. How do these writers do it?
The writing community has a number of tricks they recommend to construct “engaging fiction.” I will not list these. For I feel they would distract from the curious suggestion of micro-tension.
In my many attempts at trying to write stories infused with micro-tension, I am writing this article as a guide that can serve myself and other writers as we try to conceive and execute this Mona Lisa skillset.
1) Micro-Tension is impossible without an intense Point of View
When I say Point of View I do not mean a novel’s use of first, second, third, or omniscient point of view. I wrote a book recently with all four of these Points of View. So what do I mean by an “intense Point of View?”
Whoever is narrating the story must be intensely engaged in the emotional and physical journey of the story. Be it the first person narrator, the bouncing close third person POV, or the detached omniscient, the narrator in each scene must be engaged and know what he or she wishes to accomplish with the scene and how (intuitively or cognitively) it affects the writer personally. How do your words move you? If you as the writer are yawning or breezing through sections of your own work, then how do you think your reader will feel reading it?
Different writers have said this in different ways. “I don’t move past the page until I am satisfied.” or “If I am bored of the page, I throw it out.”
These statements by New York Times Bestselling writers points the writer into himself. Does she know herself and trust herself well enough to heed the internal voice to push the scene until her heart sighs. Are you as the narrator engaged? If you are, your story should be engaging.
2) Micro-Tension is not a graphic situation
I see this all the time in Hollywood sequels. Directors and screenwriters stupidly believe that the audience wants bigger monsters, sexier skimpier actors, and lots of explosions. They pump millions into special effects and the result is a wasted multimillion dollar flop. Disney Pixar understood early on that a sequel is not made with eye candy, but with story and emotion.
The world can have only so many sexy vampires. Romance novels can fill their pages with sex and more sex, but at the end of the day once the scene is over, the reader has had his high, there is very little the storyteller can do to seduce his audience again. A murderer can only kill so many ways. We can use chainsaws, and needles, and lots of blood, but a writer can only convey death in so many ways. The result… flashy fiction is flat: uneventful story.
But the theory of micro-tension suggests that tension is built on the substance of human drama. A murder scene gets a lot more… interesting when two best friends are forced to kill one another if they are to save their families. The act of murder and the trail of bodies isn’t any different, what is different is the connection we feel to two friends hunting down the other. Could we kill our best friend? Could we find a way out?
Steven King taught me the art of terror. Now, I will admit that I am not the best, but he taught me early on that the secret to terror was to create a character so lovable and when I as the author throw that character into danger, the reader freaks. This creates micro-tension. It doesn’t matter if the monster is a billion feet tall or if vampire is the strongest deadly vampire in all the world. It’s not about that.
What would you do if I told you that a person you loved was in danger of dying in a car accident? Or that they were diagnosed with cancer and had days to live? You would turn the pages just to make sure they were okay. And every time I put a dangerous hazard in their way, be it a ghost, a pair of dead girls ready to drag them living into the sea, you are going to be terrified. You aren’t really terrified because of the situation, you are terrified because you care about the hero. This is why we gasp with action stars are in danger of falling off buidlings. What a boring way to die. The fear of falling off the building comes because we care about the cute muscled hunk we are convinced would be the love of our lives.
3: Micro-Tension Revolves Around Desire
Haven’t you ever noticed that kids become world class salesmen when they want something bad enough. I once knew a guy who tried to convince his wife that a four door Dodge Ram would be a good family car for their newborn. Oh, he would be taking the truck to work, not her.
Desire creates intense interest in the reader. We listen to that kid as he passionately tells us that he will faithfully take care of the dog, if only you will give him one… and spend thousands to keep it alive. Without desire and conflict (the withholding of desire) there is no story.
Desire creates conflict. Stories are filled with the simple method of Mirco-Tension. Nerdy boy wants hot girl. Unskilled athlete wants to win the big game. The detective wants to catch the killer. The wife wants to stop the divorce. Marco-Tension is built in the slow progession and regression of a hero toward her desire. Setting a desire before a hero immediately creates the object of potential destruction. What will the virgin boy give to be with the attractive girl? What will it cost the white boy who wants to live as a black male?