Don’t you hate it? Literary authors get to write these beautiful passages that are poison in commercial novels. You know what I mean: those achingly gorgeous paragraphs in which absolutely nothing happens.
What’s worse, sometimes those passages are riveting reading. Makes you sick, doesn’t it? How do they get away with it? Who gave them a free pass? How are they able to indulge in all those pretty words when the rest of us have to keep the action slogging along with dirt-dull prose?
Are the rules different in literary fiction? Do readers have a taste for pretty little icky-gooey passages? Why can’t commercial writers shine? Gunshots are all well and good but can’t we use the occasional metaphor?
Actually, lots of inactive passages in literary fiction fall flat. (So do acres of action in commercial fiction, but that’s a different post.) When a literary novelist pulls one off they are doing something we can’t immediately see.
They are using invisible tension.
A Donald Maass definition: Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment, line-by-line, sometimes simmering-beneath-the-surface tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of apprehension about what will happen–not in the story but in the next few seconds. It’s what makes any book a page turner.
When nothing seems to be happening and we’re reading with close attention then there still is something happening; it’s just under the surface or, to be more precise, inside the point of view character. Call it sub-text. Call it art. Whatever you name it, it’s based in conflicting or contrasting emotions. Even when “invisible” they’re still there.
Here’s a random excerpt from the middle of Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours, which is the intertwined stories of three women in contemporary New York, 1950’s New York and….well, Virginia Wolf. Here Virginia pauses before entering a social gathering. She’s been thinking about the suicide of Clarissa Dalloway in a novel she’s writing:
On the steps of Hogarth House, she pauses to remember herself. She has learned over the years that sanity involves a certain measure of impersonation, not simply for the benefit of husband and servants for the sake, first and foremost, of one’s own convictions.
Is he kidding? She pauses to remember herself? Sanity involves a certain measure of impersonation? Not only is this written in present tense but nothing the heck is happening. They give the Pulitzer to this kind of stuff?
Hold on. Take another look. What is Virginia Woolf feeling? Cunningham doesn’t say directly but underneath she’s feeling fragile, like an imposter, afraid of the insanity inside her. She’s trying to hold it together. Perhaps she will. Then again, perhaps she won’t.
What’s holding our attention here isn’t the prose on the surface but the emotions underneath. That’s how those literary novelists are getting away with it. So, how can you do that too?
Try this: In your current manuscript, pick a moment when your protagonist is at rest, has nothing to do, or is waiting. Where’s this happening? Write down some less obvious details of place and time. Next, jot down your protagonist’s principle feeling at this moment…then also a simultaneous feeling that conflicts or contrasts.
If you want to, throw in a measure of how your protagonist understands himself or herself right now…then whatever throws doubt on that self-assessment. Okay. Now craft a passage in which you capture this moment in time. The substance is the sensory details but the subject is your character’s conflicting emotions and uncertainty. Weave them together and see what you get.
How’d it go? Hopefully you’ve created a passage in which nothing is happening—and yet in which everything matters.
Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency  in New York. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He’s also the author of several craft books for writers , including the highly acclaimed Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s D’Arcy Norman