That is the Question

First, a caveat: this is a post about the craft of fiction, and I don’t have the first clue about how to teach the craft of fiction.

From my years as a high school English teacher, I could teach you how to write an essay on the symbolism found in The Great Gatsby. I could teach you the joy of diagramming a sentence. I could give you some tips on what to do when you run into an iambic pentameter in a darkened alley. But teach you about the craft of fiction? Bah. No way.

So instead of trying to teach you, I’ll simply share something fiction-crafty, something about which I am very excited.

My friend, Schmidtie, does this when she discovers something life-changing (an ergonomic garlic press, Corn Salsa from Trader Joe’s, those little mini peanut butter cups, also from Trader Joe’s). She wraps these discoveries in tissue paper, puts them in a cute paper bag, and says to me, “Here’s a little something you HAVE to try.” She shares because she knows these things will change my life. And they do.

But what if once I share this life-changing, share-worthy discovery about craft, you think, “Huh? That’s not life-changing. That’s Craft 101.” Kind of like when, just last week, Schmidtie joyfully shared her latest, brand new discovery: Goodreads! Yes, Schmidtie was ten to fifteen minutes late to the party on that one.

Maybe you’ll think the same thing of me. Maybe my new discovery will leave you bored and unimpressed, and you’ll promptly email the WU Mamas and call for my demotion. Maybe in sharing my new discovery, you’ll also see I learned/stole this idea from Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story, chapter seven, pages 129-139. That’s right! I stole the idea of a fellow WU contributor!

OK, but this week I sat in church and we learned about Loving Your Neighbor. For the hundredth or thousandth time. For good reason. We humans need to be told and retold to love one another because we forget to do it. Likewise, preschoolers must be reminded, over and over, to share. Dogs must be reminded, over and over, to heel. So maybe I should share this not very original idea in case you are as forgetful as I . . . but will my ego and I look stupid? Ack! To share or not to share?

Friends, it is this tension, the emotional stress, the feeling of suppressed, palpable anxiety found in all good stories, that I’d like to share with you today.

So let’s talk tension. Actually, no. Don’t think “tension.” Don’t even think “conflict.” Instead, use Lisa Cron’s fabulous term: The Versus. The Versus (as in boxers versus briefs; dark versus milk chocolate; Palin versus Clinton) needs to be present and prevalent in our stories because versus moments force our characters to make difficult decisions. And stories are born when characters are forced to make difficult decisions.

Tension is easy to find in life’s daily dilemmas. This morning when my alarm went off, I wanted to hit the snooze button, but I also wanted to write before my kids woke up. After my kids woke up, I wanted to sit with my daughter as she practiced for her violin recital, but I also wanted to write. Ten minutes ago, I wanted to eat another handful of those Trader Joe’s mini peanut butter cups, but I also wanted my jeans to feel less tight.

Versus moments drive our lives. Versus moments drive our stories. When characters feel conflicted, that tension is communicated to the reader: Ack, Don Draper, are you really going to sleep with yet another secretary? Or, Ack, Romeo, do not stab yourself! Juliet is just sleeping! Or, Ack, Katniss, how can you choose between Peeta and Galen?

When we experience tension in the lives of literary characters, we want to see which choice they make, and we want to vicariously experience how that decision plays out. (Read Wired for Story to learn more about this. It’s fascinating.)

For some reason, however, I forget to include tension in my writing. I forget to give the character choices and dilemmas. I forget it as easily as I forget to love my neighbor. And even when I remember that my story needs tension, it’s very difficult for me to understand how to create that tension with mere words.

So instead of thinking, My story must have conflict, I need to think, My characters must feel torn. Often.

That’s right. We must create a massive game of tug-o-war within our characters by throwing choices in their direction. Even better, we might give them only lousy choices. Or, let them be torn and then let them make a wrong choice. We must make them squirm as a result of their choices. Squirming characters = engaged readers.

We shouldn’t protect our characters from discomfort because tension is born of discomfort, and it’s tension that keeps an audience tuned in, hoping to see how Don Draper, Romeo, and Katniss make the decisions that will alter the trajectory of their stories. Readers are curious little voyeurs; we writers must give them something about which to be curious.

Will you consider a scene you are working on, and take a minute to share how your character feels torn? Perhaps your character is as conflicted as Hamlet in the famous “To be or not to be?” soliloquy. Or perhaps, your character wonders whether to open a letter that’s not addressed to her. Whether to ask his professor out on a date. Whether Voldemort can be trusted just this once.

Please share! When you do, you illustrate ways we can inject more tension into our own characters’ lives.

Finally, if I weren’t a starving writer, I’d buy each of you a copy of Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. I’d wrap it in tissue and mail it to your doorstop with this note: Here’s a little something you HAVE to try. Because you really should.

Happy tension-making, fellow WU’ers! Now take a moment to share . . .


Photo courtesy of flickr’s Toffehoff.


About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.


  1. says

    I like the phrase switch, “My characters must feel torn.” Sometimes switching up how you put writing advice makes it sound so much more doable. Thanks for that.

    Also, I feel the same way about Wired For Story :-)

  2. says

    Thank you for this post! I really puts the nebulous concept of ‘tension’ into something which is easy to put into practice.

    I’ve been thinking about an upcoming scene where my character meets her potential in-laws. Of course, there’s tension because she wants to make a good impression but your post has got me thinking a little more.

    The ultimate ‘versus’ choice in this situation is ‘to marry or not to marry.’ Adding that layer to the scene should add an extra level of tension.

    Thanks again. I needed that thought today. :)

    • says

      Yes! That’s exactly it . . . there are so many ways we can add layers to the tension in our scenes.

      You know baklava, that Greek dessert of layers of honeyed phyllo dough? And how when you take a bite, part of the thrill is biting down on all of those crispy-flaky layers that collapse and squirt honey into your mouth?

      Yeah. Me too. That’s what we need to do in our scenes, but with words instead of phyllo dough.

      Thanks, Jessica, for the example!

      • says

        I *love* baklava! As a teenager my best friend’s mother was Greek and she used to shovel the stuff into me.

        You’re so right about the textures and layers. We want our readers to have to bite down through our pastry before they get the satisfaction of the center. Because after all, it’s that much sweeter when you have to work for it.

        I’m loving all these food metaphors. Thank goodness I’m reading this over breakfast!

  3. says

    Sometimes it’s all in the phrasing – we all know about conflict and tension but by changing it up a bit and saying versus, choices, torn, it triggers something different in our minds. Or in my mind, anyway. I love this “Squirming characters = engaged readers.”

    Oh, and check out Powerberries at Trader Joe’s. Addicting. :)

    • says

      Powerberries! Makes me feel powerful just thinking about it. Not that I need yet another TJ’s addiction . . . but OK. It’s 6:25 a.m. right now. They open at 9:00. I’ll dump the kids at school and be first in line for the POWERBERRIES! I’m so curious . . . are they chocolatey? Are they fruity?

      Isn’t it amazing how just turning a phrase around makes something make more sense? I love that. Thanks for your comment, Madeline!

        • Diane Watanabe says

          Madeline, the corn salsa is yummy with grilled salmon. :)

          And, I agree about loving “Squirming characters = engaged readers.”

          My mentor recently commented about the tension in my story. Sarah, your post is very timely and it’s got the wheels in my brain spinning about how to make my protagonist squirm more.


  4. says

    Thanks for a wonderful – and necessary – post. Yes, we all need reminded.

    The idea I try to keep in mind, which is a slightly different spin but gets me to the same point, is from a book somewhere, said by someone (I’m notorious at keeping those details in mind). The wise suggestion was this:

    – Every character in your scene should want something, from the protagonist to the doorman. They should all want something, even if only a glass of water.

    Some of the fun I have in writing is interjecting an otherwise fringe character into a scene to shift the flow a nudge, to knock the protagonist off his path, merely from a new presence and voice. Just as that man chattering on his cell phone at the adjacent table can trip up your evening, you’ll be surprised what characters end up doing when disturbed from their rout existence in your prose.

      • says

        Thanks, John. I love this reminder. We humans are a funny bunch . . . always wanting, wanting, wanting, even when we don’t realize it. Wanting to be accepted, to be loved, to be published, to be made whole, to have justice, to be heard . . . no wonder we like to read about characters with desires!

        Thanks for the Vonnegut reminder, too! Happy conflicting.

  5. Carmel says

    My protagonist is looking in a neighbor’s desk drawer for a scrap of paper to write a note to him and finds an old photograph. Should she take the photograph out so she can see the young couple better? Is it her reclusive neighbor when he was younger? Curiosity versus manners.

    Wonderful post. I also love “My characters must feel torn” and Lisa Cron.

    • says

      I LOVE the curiosity versus manners concept. I have this struggle so often . . . maybe all we writers do? I’d imagine more than a few of us are chronic eavesdroppers, and eavesdropping is probably not all that mannerly.

      Thanks for the idea, Carmel.

  6. says

    I like the versus idea because it can be people, places, or things. In my current WIP my characters have a history of ruining each other’s lives. Now to make nice, they have to forget the past. Even in fiction, it’s not easy.

  7. says

    Yes, Mary Jo. I am so glad you mentioned this . . . versus moments can be internal and/or external; they can be born of our own doing, or they can come from things that are beyond our control.

    So versatile!

    I love your words, “My characters have a history of ruining each other’s lives.” Fabulous. :)

  8. says

    Shoot, I thought you were going to buy us those peanut butter thingies from Trader Joes… but Lisa’s book sounds awesome too!

    One of my characters just discovered (on a Google search for something else entirely) an obituary for her sister, whom she thought was alive. She’s afraid to share this news with her husband (or anyone) because she thinks she could be losing her mind (the obit was years old). And if she’s going crazy, she could lose everything important to her, namely, her family.

    It just goes downhill from there for her… poor thing.

    Thanks for this great post. I love the idea of throwing choices at your characters. Lousy choices.

    • says

      Yes, poor thing! What a great premise, Eva. Our characters must be terrified about losing that which matters most.

      Thank you for sharing your example!

  9. says

    Your life was changed by an ergonomic garlic press? Man, I gotta get one of those.

    I can tell you you’re not alone. Not, I mean, with regard to the life-altering effect of Trader Joe’s Corn Salsa…you may in fact be alone in that…but with respect to what Lisa calls The Versus. I call it micro-tension.

    It’s one of the two main reasons that manuscripts fail. (The other is characters for whom we have too little reason to care.) It’s the line by line unease that causes readers to read every next thing on the page. It’s what makes some novels–even ones you don’t like–page turners.

    Craft is my passion, as you know, so you’ll forgive me if I add something here that I believe is critical to understand. You can make a character torn by their immediate circumstances (Lisa is fascinating on the psychological effect on readers) but you can also create mighty tension when there’s nothing at all happening.

    Did you ever read one of those long interior passages in some huge literary success…you know, one of those nothing-is-happening-but-everything-is-electric passages…and wonder how the author got away with that?

    The basis of micro-tension in exposition, and in action too, is a character’s conflicting and contrasting emotions. Action by itself doesn’t create tension in the reader. You’d think, but no. Nor does the mere fact of a character being emotionally torn create in readers the unease that keeps them glued to the page.

    Stop on that last point. It’s important. When a moment of inner conflict merely echoes what is already obvious…hit snooze or get up?…then there is no tension. It’s only when the dilemma, the emotional tug of war, surprises the reader with something fresh that it twists the reader enough to cause him or her to read avidly.

    That’s why in my workshops I teach a method of digging out of any story moment layers of feeling. I have students work with the third or fourth layer, building and detailing it, then create a contrast or conflict to *that*.

    Students find that they can instantly create those inactive but electric passages you find in great novels. In fact, once you realize that under the surface tension can come from more than just story circumstances, you can break any rule. You can open with the weather, indulge in aftermath and capture what is truly life changing in a garlic press.

    I’m glad you shared your discovery today because I don’t think there’s anything more important for WU writers to master. Micro-tension is a powerful and infinitely flexible tool. It’s the secret of best sellers, no matter what their category, style or literary intent. It makes you a story god.

    In addition to Lisa’s outstanding book, there’s a 90 page discussion of micro-tension and its applications in The Fire in Fiction. The methods are known. It’s up to you to find them and use them on every page. I look forward to reading today everyone’s examples.

    I’d especially like to know how WU followers are using inner tension in the scene they’re working on right now, today.

    Thanks again for opening the topic, Sarah.

    • says

      Man, I love WU.

      First things first: I like to make little quesadillas using cotija cheese, corn salsa, regular salsa, and a dollop of sour cream. You all can thank me for that very fancy recipe later.

      Second, thank you for your wisdom on this topic. Yes, I own your book (you signed it for me at PNWA) and I believe it’s Chapter Eight, Tension all the Time, that you are talking about. Thank you for that reminder. I don’t know if it’s because I am still a newbie OR because I spend too much time eating corn salsa, but I find this topic unwieldy. I understand it, but I don’t understand it. I feel it, but I can’t articulate it very well. So yes, your point about “conflicting emotions” is brilliant (page 190, friends).

      OK, so our characters must be torn between conflicting emotions, and they have those conflicting emotions because they WANT something and yet they FEAR something. Is that right? Or maybe I’ve over-simplified. If so, I again blame the corn salsa. Gosh, I am so excited.

      I am so glad you reminded me of this section, Donald. When I sell my book, I will send everyone a gift basket containing The Fire in Fiction, Wired for Story, and obviously, corn salsa.

      Thank you for taking the time to share this comment.

      • says


        Okay, okay…you got me. I’ll get on board with corn salsa. There’s a Trader Joe’s down Sixth Avenue near my office. I’ll go today. That quesadilla recipe has my mouth watering.

        Wanting something and fearing it at the same time is a solid example of how to create truly effective micro-tension. But again, if one restates the obvious it won’t work. Here’s a way I get writers to practice it in workshops…

        Pick any scene. What’s the POV character’s strongest emotion? What’s a feeling underneath that…and underneath *that*? Focus on the third layer of feeling. How is it different in this moment than at any other time? Have the POV character give it a name. What’s it’s specific color, sound or texture? Is the feeling welcome or unwelcome, good or bad to feel right now? Why? What is it like to feel this feeling? Compare the experience to something.

        Now…here comes the micro-tension…take that feeling and add the feeling that this character believes he or she should be feeling instead. Mix up all the above in a paragraph of inner conflict. Voila. Try it. No, really. Try it right now in the scene that’s on your screen this morning.

        Does the above make it tastier? We’ve all gotta try something new once in a while, even if it means a trip to Trader Joe’s. We could come up with a new recipe that will change our dinners forever.

        • says

          Wow, Sarah and Donald, you have created a Versus and a Micro-tension mélange today, and it’s not simply in trying to decide who wins between mini-peanut butter cups and corn salsa. Thank you for examining issues of conflict with a finer comb.

          One question, for both of you: do you suggest that these more subtle aspects of scene- and character-building be done during later drafts of a work? I read a fair number of advocates of “get your shitty draft done” before you shave and sculpt. So, if your fingers are flying at the keyboard, would you insert “mt here” or “versus here” in parens for a scene that you knew needed more corn salsa added later, or organically work on those subtleties in the foundation building?

          • says

            Oh I SO love this post, and the brewing discussion. Thank you Sarah (and Donald) for getting my gears turning!

            A couple people have mentioned Kurt Vonnegut’s awesome advice as well. Thanks for that!

            Versus: the old classic, in which Character A is about to tell Character B that they love them for the very first time. Interruptions of all kinds then intervene, from comedic to dramatic: a bird poops on the hero, a phone rings, the waiter spills soup on someone, an earthquake, tornado, alien invasion. Or something mundane like the heroine gets a speck of dust in her eye just as the hero is about to express his undying love. The moment is broken as her eyes water and she blinks repeatedly, trying to clear the mote. Drat. Motes have a way of ruining things.

            Choices: from my current WIP. Get a promotion from the boss by hurting someone, or forego the promotion and spare that person’s feelings.

            Tom Bentley asked the question of Sarah and Donald:

            “do you suggest that these more subtle aspects of scene- and character-building be done during later drafts of a work?”

            I’m neither Sarah nor Donald, but I’ll offer the following advice from my career as an illustrator:

            Work from BIG to small.

            In art, this means you make a decision such as: Am I going to draw, sculpt, or paint a person or plant? A person. Ok, will the person be male or female?. Male. Tall or short? Short.

            You get the idea.

            When you do NOT work from BIG to small, you end up doing things like drawing the most beautiful pair of eyes you’ve ever drawn, then you step back from your work and realize “Wow, those eyes I just drew are really WAY to big for the face I’ve drawn around it. There’s not enough room on the paper to draw the mouth. But, gosh, the eyes are SO well drawn, I don’t want to erase them and start over.” (This brings to mind the old saying ‘Kill you darlings.”) So you put the drawing of the big eyes in your stack of unfinished work, and start a new drawing. This time you rough in the head, the eyes, the lips. And when you go in for the details, you know everything will fit nicely on your page.

            In writing terms: work from OUTLINE (BIG) to Scenes (Medium) to sentences (small).

            I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s done plenty of seat-of-the-pants writing who’s gone back and laboriously changed things in order to restructure a larger aspect of the story.

            But if efficiency is of no concern, work whatever way is the most fun.

            • says

              Fantastic ideas, David. Thank you! I agree totally. We have to revise a scene (each scene) about a billion times because we can’t possibly get the more nuanced stuff down (e.g. tension) until we get the foundation of the scene down.

              And sometimes polishing ad nauseum is a waste of time because we realize we don’t ultimately even need the scene! Ack!

              Writing’s hard. Did you notice? :)

              • says

                Ah yes, the pain of cutting a hyper-polished scene you’ve worked to death. There’s a reason why it’s called killing your darling.

                “After raising his child to the age of eighteen, he realized the poor kid wasn’t a good fit, and had to go. He didn’t kick him out the front door and tell the boy to get a job, he simply killed the poor lad.”

                Avoid murder. Rather than kill darlings, don’t write them in the first place!


          • says


            See Leslie’s comment below. She’s doing a micro-tension draft. This is a great idea. I also like drafts that focus exclusively on scene turning points, bringing change to secondary relationships and so on.

            But here’s the thing: If you’re going to work on micro-tension alone, randomize your manuscript pages. Look at each one discretely. If you go in order you’ll get into the flow and start to enjoy all the tension that’s already there… *in your mind*.

            The more you practice micro-tension the less you’ll need to work on it. It becomes second nature. You’ll feel when it’s missing, and see when it’s missing in the work of others. You’ll know why you skim where you skim published novels. It will also transform the response you get from critique groups, agents and editors.

            Have at it.

            • says

              “But here’s the thing: If you’re going to work on micro-tension alone, randomize your manuscript pages. Look at each one discretely. If you go in order you’ll get into the flow and start to enjoy all the tension that’s already there… *in your mind*”

              Donald, zowee, a micro-tension coda! Compelling thought, that you are better served going after micro-tension (or Versus) draft edits out of the narrative sequence. I very much get you that you can be lulled by your own authorial voice (by virtue of your own agreement with the narrative flow) so that you could miss opportunities to up the ante. But I’d never considered that in a scene-building context.

              Great stuff in this discussion!

            • says

              Great tip Donald!

              That’s exactly what I do with illustration, as do many other artists. You work on one part of the illustration for awhile, then jump around to another part. That way, the whole thing is slowly brought to a finish, and every decision is made in such a way that supports the whole piece.

              The main struggle with prose is that it’s impossible to “take in” a book at a glance. Hence, skimming your own manuscript. Better yet, skim your OUTLINE while peppering micro-tension throughout the scenes randomly.

        • says

          A word of caution! My husband does NOT embrace the corn salsa in the same way I do. Perhaps it’s more of a girl salsa?

          I am so excited to do your assignment, Donald. Thank you for your generous posts each month AND great comments like these. That generosity is one of many reasons I love WU. And yes, let me know how you like the cotija quesadillas!

        • Ronda Roaring says

          I offered to read someone’s manuscript recently. After I finished it and had thought about the way it was written, I suggested that the writer change the POV from the omniscient third person to first person. I felt this would create more tension. So, I think there are many ways of creating tension in a story.

          In addition, I think it’s fairly normal to have tension in our lives. We call it stress. But one way or the other, it’s a very real thing. For writers who avoid conflict, tension and stress in their lives, I can see how this would make writing a novel a serious challenge.

        • says

          Perfect timing, Don — and Sarah! I’m in the middle of my “micro-tension draft,” and this just helped me deepen the tension in the scene where my protagonist realizes three people had a motive to kill the victim, and they are currently battling it out — with her young nephew charging into the fray. Thanks!!!

  10. says

    Thanks, Sarah, for the post and for recommending Wired for Story. Checked it out and bought it. I need this tension as a reader and, of course, want to deliver a page-turner as a writer. I look forward to learning new things from Lisa’s book.

    • says

      Fabulous, Charlena. I know you will get a TON out of it. Add The Fire in Fiction to your reading list, too, specifically chapter 8!

      Happy writing. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  11. says

    Thanks for the reminder. We do indeed need them.

    One bit of advice that helps me has a bit of a different spin but gets me to the same place. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that every character in your scene should want something, even if only a glass of water.

    I’ve noted with amusement in my own writing that an outsider character can often change the dynamic, merely by their presence. Just as the chattering man at the adjoining table can throw off your romantic notions about dinner, you and your readers may be surprised at how your characters react when challenged by another presence, another force in the story.

    I like the discussion of micro-tension, that’s exactly what works and something I believe is sometimes lost in today’s writing. With increasing demands for action, action, action we as writers may ourselves sometimes forget the tension that can hover over a silent breakfast table. It can be as heartbreaking as the argument the night before.

    • says

      So true, John. And thanks for the idea about adding another character to the scene. It’s interesting to note how we perform differently, depending on who is in the room with us. Our characters do too . . . I love this reminder.

  12. says

    I’d not heard the term “micro-tension” but I do see how it works in some of the stories I’m reading now. In The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1899), you can find micro-tension on every page of this short story. This is a woman locked in her bedroom and the “versus” is between going mad or seeing ghosts, and other elements. A well-constructed shortie and one that you can’t stop reading.

    This post and comments here have been very helpful. I will not only write with micro-tension in mind, but I will read to observe how the master writers accomplish it as well. Thanks!

    • says

      I am so glad you mentioned that novella, Paula! It absolutely oozes with tension, yet there’s very little action. I get a creepy feeling just thinking about it.

      Yes, I’m grateful for Donald’s wisdom, too. Bring on the micro-tension!

  13. says

    I’d share a moment from a scene I’m working on, but I’m not working on anything at the moment. My conflict is: Should I start writing something new, versus Should I try to find some mini peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s online?

    But you are so spot on about all of this, Sarah, and I love the easy question we can ask ourselves at any given moment in a scene: What will make my characters squirm right now?

    By the way, what DO you do when you run into an iambic pentameter in a darkened alley? Because I want to be prepared.

    • says

      I was wondering when someone would ask! Yes, when you run into an iambic pentameter, especially in a dark alley, ESPECIALLY if he’s been drinking (as they often have been) the best thing to do is say: “Hello, my friend, I’m glad to see you here. I only wonder why you’re drinking beer? Wine’s a much more sumptuous drink to me. Please let me pour a glass so you can see.”

      And then you have a glass of wine with him (the ones who hang out in alleys are always males) and by the time the bottle’s gone, you’ll be the best of friends. And you’ll both be drunk.

      Next time, I’ll share what to do when an anapestic tetrameter is bullying your kid on the playground. It’s not at all what you might think.


  14. says

    Truly fabulous, applicable stuff here! I so appreciate the timeliness of it, as I hack out the last 1/3 of the current MS I’m working on–you’ve no idea. Or, maybe you do. :) Thank you so very much!!!

    • says

      Ugh, Amy. I WISH that I didn’t know that feeling, but I do. It’s exhausting. But keep pruning . . . there’s some lovely growth and beauty after something gets a good pruning.

  15. says

    LOVED your post, Sarah!!
    Loved the discussion of micro-tension with Donald in the comments, too, and will reread that section in The Fire in Fiction today. Adding Wired for Story to my to-buy list.
    Also, I am clearly suffering from a lack of mini peanut butter cups in my life, and you know how I love chocolate…
    Thank you for so much inspiration today :).

    • says

      Marilyn! Yes, I am so glad Donald chimed in with that fabulous reminder. I’m going to re-read that section this afternoon.

      Let me know if you can’t find the TJ’s peanut butter cups and I’ll overnight you a few packs.


  16. says

    I love it…two posts for the price of one. (Thanks Sarah! Thanks Don!)
    Just what I needed today.

    (And, here’s a plug for TJ’s dark chocolate-covered almonds sprinkled with turbinado sugar and sea salt…oh baby…)

    • says

      Oh Cindy. You had me at sea salt. And because there are almonds in there, it might be healthy!

      We should all share our favorite TJ’s items. I’m also a sucker for the Vanana Yogurt. It’s like comfort food somehow.

      Thanks for the heads up!

  17. Jeanne Kisacky says

    I think your writing could make me smile even if you were writing about the world’s most boring topic, which of course, tension is not. Thanks for making me grin!

  18. says

    Loved this post and Donald’s micro-tension lesson. Got to have it on every page. Yes, like being good to my neighbor, I have to be reminded of this every day … especially when I revise.

    I’m revising an expository scene in which the MC wears faded clothes. By itself, uninteresting. But I used that moment to let her take a jibe at her older sister because these are her hand-me-downs. MC needs them, yet resents them/her sister. Ungrateful to the core.

  19. Jennifer Vaughn says

    Great post! Tension is something I’m just getting a handle on and tend to do more accidentally than on purpose.

    Currently my character is torn as to whether or not she should help a friend film an amateur ghost hunting documentary because she was “haunted” as a child and fears a recurrence of the haunting. Add to that, she has just lost her job and now her affluent older brothers are planning an anniversary trip for their parents 40th, and my character doesn’t have the money to attend. Should she write off the older brothers she’s been chasing her whole life? Or try to make the extra money to be a part of the family celebration? Will that push her to face her fears and join the ghost hunt?

    Tension doesn’t have to be a choice between two things a character wants, but also what could drive a character to choose to do something they don’t want to do.

  20. Lee Collins says

    I really liked your post. As someone who avoids conflict, I find it hard to write about it. But I relate to “versus” as a good idea. Thanks for posting.

    • says

      Lee, I am SO glad you brought up this idea. I’ve never thought of that before . . . those of us who avoid conflict in real life would, yes, likely also be adverse to it in our fiction.

      Such a smart idea!

  21. says

    Great topic, great discussion. I had the pleasure of attending Don’s workshop this past weekend, so this is fresh in my mind, but despite his mad skillz, it’s a slippery principle. I’m not sure I’ve got it yet.

    For instance, for me, the closer experience would be of episodic disharmony. You know how they say the most commercially viable music contains periods of conflicting tones, and then periods of resolution? Microtension *seems* like that to me, where each beat or chord can cause a nerve to twang, or alternatively to hum.

    I’m thinking of Gillian Flynn, whom I think is a master of this technique. There’s always something a little “off” in what she writes. Here’s the opening lines from Gone Girl: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with.”

    Awesome, right?

    Anyway, thanks to Don’s workshop, I discovered a character, who thought she was bereft about a selfless choice, is delivering her lines while half-smiling. Dun-dun-dun-DUN. And that provided a clue which provided a motivation for the next scene.

    • says

      I love your thoughts about music, Jan. Isn’t it interesting how our brains crave that conflict in story and in other art forms, too? Man I love brain science stuff.

      Yes, I kept thinking of Gone Girl while writing this post . . . such a brilliant first line to introduce such page-turning fiction.

      I LOVE the reminder that things much be just a little off. Just a little out of sync. Just a little, “Huh?” Thank you for bringing that up, you smart woman!

    • says


      It was so great to chat with you out in Calgary.

      Your understanding of micro-tension is on the cusp of what I understand it to be. The effect it produces in the reader I’ve sometimes described as “cognitive dissonance.”

      Dis-ease, discomfort, uneasiness, puzzlement, worry, apprehension, anticipation, off balance…there are as many words to apply to it as there are ways to create micro-tension.

      Robert Olen Butler describes in the writer a feeling of “thrum.” You could call that rightness, aptness, hitting the nail on the head or any number of other things. But it also means a harmonious discord, an anticipation such as one feels at the end of a bridge in a song when the next verse is just about to begin, you can just about hear it, but not yet. It’s a yearning (Bob’s word), a reaching, an urgent anticipation.

      Mirco-tension. You’ll find your own word for it. And you’ll know when you’ve got it on the page.

  22. says

    I kept wanting to get over here all day. In fact, I was tense about not finding the time for it. I am so glad I came here this morning, Sarah. In fact, I’ll venture to say it’s more important that I came here today versus yesterday. Your post, the exchange with Don, all of it… Exactly what I needed, at this very moment. Thanks to you and to all of our wonderful tribe of commenters (and Lisa, whose post I’m heading to next!).

  23. says

    Sarah, I so loved your post that this morning I came back to it and it inspired me to whip up the following example that touches on both tension and choices (when I do exercises like this, I allow myself to be entirely melodramatic in a Saturday-Morning Serial sort of way):

    Bill held his knife over the main rope supporting the dusty rope bridge that spanned the canyon. Hector sprinted across the bridge, toward Bill. If Bill cut the rope now, Hector would fall to his death. But Linda was hanging from the cliff’s edge, about to slip and fall to her death. Bill had time to cut the rope or save Linda. Not both. He loved Linda. But Linda had slept with Hector.

    Screw it. Linda was a bitch anyway. Bill sawed away at the rope. The bridge fell dramatically.

    “No!” Hector shouted as he fell to his death.

    “No!” Linda screamed as she fell to her death.

    “Yes!” Bill said, satisfied.

    More like Saturday-Morning Serial-Killer. I do write horror, after all.


  24. says

    Has someone alerted the marketing department of Trader Joe’s? They should send cartons of goodies to WU Central in thanks for all these genuine, heartfelt plugs.

    Aside: I’ve been a loyal TJ shopper from back when there was an actual Joe, and his few stores in So. Cal. were rather adventurous. Never knew what you’d find (outside of cheap wine) and if you liked something, you had to grab it, ‘cuz it would not be coming back. Now days, with its steady brands, TJ stores display a distinct lack of tension.

  25. says

    Oooh, there IS tension in the Trader Joe’s brand. Have you seen the news about the State of California suing TJ (and others) over lead in their ginger candies? Google it. These ginger chunks are my favorite snack while I write. Lead! This could explain some problems in my plot structures.

  26. says

    I love your writing style. I wish mine were a good. I read most of the other blogs listed at the bottom of your article. Your sense of humor shines. Your quirky way of looking at things is brilliant.