PPWC: Donald Maass on Micro-Tension

If you don’t know who Donald Maass is, and you are a speculative fiction writer looking for a literary agent…well, shame on you, I suppose. For two reasons. First, Donald Maass is one of those “rock stars” of literary agents with a super-successful agency based in New York. He and his agents represent authors such as Jim Butcher, Elizabeth Bear, Kay Kenyon and C.E. Murphy. He also has written a number of incredible books to help writers break in with their debut novel, including The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel. Writers love his advice so much, they will gladly pay upwards of 200-400$ extra to attend a 4 hour workshop based on The Fire in Fiction, like they did at the conference this year.

Oh, and he’s just a cool, fun guy. So, a third reason.
Anyways, Maass ran a workshop during this year’s Pike’s Peak Writer’s Conference based on the topic of micro-tension. What is micro-tension, you ask? As you might’ve guessed, it’s a smaller form of tension. I know. Deep stuff.
Tension ranges in size throughout your novel, did you know that? It could be the nail-biting tension of a chase scene strung out through a chapter (or two). It could be an overarching tension that starts with a murder on the first page and isn’t released until the revealing of the serial killer on the last page. It could be two characters glaring at each other over a cup of tea because one of them refuses to shower and the other won’t stop spitting watermelon seeds.
We tend to think of tension as a “big” thing. It’s the question whether the villain will get away with his scheme. Will the princess rescue the knight from the dragon? Will the super-intelligent kittens take over the world? Will…you get the idea. Each scene should have tension in it, because tension is what forces readers to turn from one page to the next. Tension creates that burning desire in their mind to see what happens next. It is, according to Maass, one of the most vital elements in bestselling books.
So…micro-tension. Where does it fit in?
Let’s say you have a novel that has tension. Great. But what you have to do is now take a magnifying glass to each page on its own and see if it has tension on it. Each. Page. It’s not good enough to have an overall tense scene. What if there are pages composing that scene that don’t have it? You don’t want to give up any opportunity to hook your reader harder along, and every single page gives you just that opportunity.
How to do this then? Maass gave a few examples by taking random pages from audience members at the workshop, reading a paragraph or two out loud, and then taking shouted suggestions from the audience on how to increase the tension in different ways.
First, dialogue. You can add micro-tension in dialogue in two ways.
1. Escalate the language. This doesn’t mean tossing in a bunch of F-bombs or otherwise. That’s just trying to be edgy and failing. But don’t let characters use wussy words or vague phrasing. Make their statements direct and strong. Use harsher, more meaningful words.
2. Have the dialogue create friction. Besides the composure of the dialogue, consider the content as well. Are people pussyfooting around the issue when they talk to each other? Get them to call each other out. Perhaps one character uses a word the other might consider blasphemous or insulting. Don’t let them become so diplomatic (unless it’s that vitriolic diplomacy where tension is simmering below every nicety).
Second, exposition (also considered the interior point of view).
Exposition is where (hopefully) you are seeing the world through a character’s eyes and hearing their thoughts and feelings about the situation they’re in. It gives you a window into their emotional turmoil. So while you can have strong feelings on the page already, how to ramp up the tension even more?
Mainly by seeing if you can add in conflicting and opposite emotions at the same time. If a character is feeling pride, how can you make them struggle with shame as well? If they’re feeling afraid, can they also have some boldness lurking about? These minor emotional clashes not only heighten the tension but also add characterization.
Third is action. Action can be divided into High Action, such as chase scenes or shoot-em-ups, etc., and Small Action, such as a character’s body language or general movements around a scene. High action provides inherent tension by virtue of fast pacing, violence and the usual.
The way to add micro-tension into action is to find the less-expected emotions that play off the action in conflicting or unexpected ways. If a character sees someone get hit by a car, and instead of gasping in horror like you might expect, they break into a joyful dance number, that is more likely to snag your reader’s attention and also give your character a more unique presence. Basically, you’re playing mind games with your readers. You’re setting them up to expect one thing, then giving them something very different and making them want to read on to figure out why it’s different.
Lastly, Maass gave everyone an exercise to try. Print out your manuscript in full, he said. Then take the pages and throw them all up into the air at once and let them flutter to the floor. Then pick them all up in a totally random order, shuffle them back together, and set the pile on your desk. Now, go through each page, in that random order, and read that page to see if it has even the slightest bit of tension on it. If it does, set it in one pile. If it doesn’t, set it in another. Once you’re done, take the pages without tension on them and go back to revise each one until they do. This way, you can analyze for micro-tension without being caught up in the overarching tension your manuscript might contain as a whole.
For me, I did this a little differently. In true geek fashion, I went online and found a Random Sequence Generator. I plugged in the number of pages in my manuscript and had it spit out a random list of those numbers. Then I went through the manuscript on my computer, going to each page according to the list. I know some folks say revising is different (or better) when the page is printed out, but so far I haven’t found it to feel any different. Plus this saves on quite a bit of paper and ink.