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Deconstructing Micro-Tension

micro-tension [1]

If you had to guess, what portion of the hundred-thousand-mile journey to basic fiction-writing competence would belong to the pursuit and mastery of micro-tension? Ten percent? Thirty? I personally don’t have a clue, yet I’ve been persuaded of its necessity since first being introduced to the concept by WU’s Donald Maass [2]. Accordingly, I’ve done my best to read everything he’s had to say on the subject, several times. I’ve picked apart books that demonstrate micro-tension. (How about that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which has sold a reported 6.5 million copies due to unsettling lines like this opener? When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.)

Despite this, my understanding still feels distant and intellectual. I’m like a medical student who can quote chapter and verse on state-of-the-art brain surgery, yet who walks into the OR and forgets her booties and mask.

Is there a solution for people like me? Maybe. As I was writing this article, I thought of what I already knew about tension at the experiential level and tried a reverse engineering exercise. It helped. The proof will be in my future writing, of course, but micro-tension seems closer, attainable. Care to see if the procedure works for you?

When we’re done, I’m hoping Don and/or you other craft nerds will have time to chime in with your thoughts on the process and conclusions.

First, here are a few quotes from Don to make sure we’re on the same page.

Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether: Micro-tension. That is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen-not in the story, but in the next few seconds. ~ Donald Maass from The Fire in Fiction [3]

Tension” sounds drastic, but it can be simmering under the surface, it can be questions raised or false confidence, it can be so many different things. The Fire in Fiction contains an entire discussion (Chapter 8) on building tension and how it works — how a writer can make a riveting passage when absolutely nothing is happening. ~ from an interview with Pikes Peak Writers blog [4]

Next, think back to a time in your life when you were on the edge of your seat throughout a relatively commonplace, ostensibly non-threatening activity — the more ordinary, the better. Have you got your example? Have any preliminary ideas about what made the situation so fraught?

Though I experienced an alphabet soup of emotions during my time as a family doctor, including grief and terror, I can honestly describe this “scene” as one of the tensest of my career.


1. In a sunny autumnal afternoon in my office during a series of routine check-ups and visits, I noticed my last appointment for the day was with a patient we’ll call “Ms. Brown”. The reason given for her visit? Personal.

In and of itself, that descriptor was a small red flag. It tended to signify that we’d be covering an intimate subject — worries about sexually transmitted infections, marital discord, etc. That said, a few patients used it out of a militant sense of privacy; they didn’t believe our receptionist had any right to inquire about the purpose of their visit, even if they were attending with a sprained ankle, even if that information would assist with their booking. (As you can imagine, this could signal bigger trust issues which would require ongoing negotiation in our relationship.) Yet other patients used it to guarantee a half-hour appointment with me — necessary if we were dealing with a language barrier or I was expected to do any kind of counseling.

So right off the bat, seeing that one word, I experienced a frisson of unease; I had no idea what I was walking into and it had the potential for being a challenging session.

(Micro-tension sources: A small mystery that might require an adaptable response and use of a rarer skill set.)

2. Further, I didn’t have the time or ability to manage an extended, complicated appointment.

I was running on fumes, my day having begun at 2:30 am with a delivery which left me with two hours of sleep and only enough time to shower before my hospital rounds and office. Lunch, my only food of the day, had been a greasy pizza consumed during a mandatory teaching seminar. My office was running behind, I had an hour to pick up my kids from childcare, and my backup sitter was out of town. In other words, for all our sakes, because Ms. Brown deserved a competent doc, I needed this appointment to be straightforward.

(Micro-tension sources: a ticking clock; external antagonistic forces — my brain and body’s exhaustion.)

3. Before stepping into the room, I scanned Ms. Brown’s chart, which was surprisingly thick for the few months she’d been in my practice.

She was in her mid thirties, single, and employed in a stable clerical job, but we’d already met five or six times about minor health concerns: a cold, abdominal pain, a question about over-the-counter meds for wrist pain. Though I shared an office with other doctors and my bookings were the craziest of we five, she always waited to see me. More red flags.

(Micro-tension source: an unusual pattern of health-care use for a young person.)

4. When I walked in the room and our gazes met, I recalled another source of puzzlement and unease.

Throughout our previous encounters, as we dealt with problem which ostensibly brought her to my door, she looked at me with expression which seemed to say And? Today was no exception. The personal matter she wanted to talk about was her stomach pain — the second time for the same trouble, you’ll notice — but even as we explored that issue in a medically responsible matter, she didn’t seem invested in it. I could feel the weight of that And.

It’s incredibly common for people to go to the doctor with a hidden agenda — one one they may not have acknowledged to themselves let alone be willing to share with their health-care team. Oftentimes this hidden concern is more important for health than the presenting complaint. Certainly, if it’s not specifically identified and addressed by the doctor, who is trained for such a purpose, patients leave feeling dissatisfied and will be significantly less likely to follow the treatment plan. For example, an appointment for a sore throat might be about assessing the need for antibiotics, but it might equally be about obtaining an HIV test because the individual had a recent sexual encounter and now their immune systems seems kaput. Again, the patient may or may NOT be aware of what’s truly bothering them.

(Micro-tension source: another mystery — did Ms. Smith have a hidden agenda? If so, was she aware of it?)

5. By this point in my career, with the totality of her presentation, I had a decent idea of what she’d eventually come to say, what she needed from me.

It was almost certainly going to have big implications for her health-care and, if mishandled, could drive her back underground, potentially forever. Here are a few of the possible explanations I entertained, though if I had to pick the most likely, it would be the first:

Of course it could also have been none of these things. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I might be thrown because we had different communication styles or she might simply not trust easily.

Whatever the case, as we went about discussing her physical symptoms, I was entertaining different diagnostic possibilities (also known as STORIES) to explain her physical symptoms and the red flags.

(Micro-tension source: potential for significant stakes depending on the true narrative.)

6. As each story’s primacy fluctuated, according to our interaction, I found myself in the grip of different emotions, different desires. For instance (and I’m not proud of some of these but they’re truthful and real), I felt:

As exhausted as I was, it was a challenge to keep a lid on my emotions. I felt like a one-armed chef in charge of a twenty-burner stove, each station occupied by an old-fashioned jiggle-top pressure cooker, the gas stuck permanently on high.

(Micro-tension source: HUGE internal conflict about how to feel, how to act.)

7. If I was feeling overwhelmed by internal battles, could she be any different?

Look at the list above. Can you imagine any reason why she might feel compassion towards me? How about a sense of shame or honor? When two people are connected emotionally, there is a natural tendency for them to mirror each other’s feelings in quality, even if the quantity of the emotions and their relative proportions differ.

(Micro-tension source: my “antagonist” in this scene was in as much internal conflict as me, so as her idea of reality shifted, mine would need to do so accordingly.)

8. What followed was a period dominated by subtext.

The atmosphere was so thick with it that, had my exam room been exposed to natural light in the form of a sunbeam, I imagine I’d have seen dancing subtext motes.

I was all-in now. We’d had a lightning-quick moment of communication back when I glimpsed her hidden agenda. She’d glimpsed that acknowledgment. Then she’d recognized my recognition of her recognition, if you can follow my drift, so my part in our interaction was sealed. (On her end, this was probably still unconscious.) Now, if I were to do anything to signal disinterest, such as yawn with fatigue or take too long on the phone call which interrupted us — because of course, yes, I had a sick patient in hospital requiring urgent management — it would be interpreted as a rejection and she’d be my Gone Girl.

So as she told me about her bowel movements, she was asking silently, and perhaps unconsciously, Can I trust you?

I’d ask a follow-up question and telegraph back, just as hard as I might, I’m here and ready to help.

(Micro-tension source: external conflict — sanctity of exam room disturbed by outside forces, my body; subtext meant every movement or sigh had the potential for multiple meanings.)

The Ending to the Story

Whatever I was selling that day, Ms. Brown didn’t care to buy. She left the office with a treatment plan which addressed the official reason for her visit and nothing more. I don’t know whether she’d been thrown off by the phone call or a macro-bone-headed move on my part. I don’t know if the timing was bad for her; perhaps she had to leave and present a composed face to the world, so she couldn’t give herself permission to fall apart.

Yes, I was late to pick up my children.

I never caught up on my sleep which was, in part, why I left practice a few months later, before Ms. Brown and I ever got to a deeper level. But to this day, I’d bet my very life on her And’s existence.

I hope she gave her confidence to someone worthy.

Putting It All Together — What Ingredients Might Go into a Micro-Tension Recipe?

1. Multiple tiny mysteries and atypical patterns, signaling the potential for significant danger to someone we care for.

2. When a point-of-view character is in the throes of internal conflict, we’re less certain of their ability to handle potential danger. When things go south, which version of the protagonist will show up? Assuming the antagonist has a similar degree of emotional complexity, there’s an exponential rise in the number of potential outcomes for any single encounter.

3. Threats can only be interpreted properly within context, requiring the reader and participants to consume the story line-by-line, sometimes word-by word. As in an Ebola de-gowning protocol, no detail is too small to overlook.

4. Internal conflicts are subconscious or there are obstacles to giving them direct expression, so subtext becomes a key method of communication. Again, this will require a contextual interpretation to accurately decode threats.

5. Few assumptions are safe. We must constantly revisit the past in light of new information. We’re kept engaged by this sense of shifting reality. (I’d argue this is why a chase scene with life-and-death stakes can feel boring and unnecessary. The activities deal with basic laws of physics and contain nothing disorienting, nothing which would cause us to revise our understanding of the story’s reality.)

6. While the story’s landscape might be full of misty obstacles and ambiguity, it’s not so confusing as to leave the reader without a compass. There are multiple narratives which would provide a map, any of which could be plausible, feel familiar (even archetypal), and psychologically true. We’ll learn which story — and therefore which meaning — has won out when we reach its conclusion and put it in context.

For instance, suppose Ms. Brown had chosen to confide in me that day. Off the top of my head, I can think of three scenarios which would make the ending look and sound identical, yet leave the reader with very different messages.

In the end, in a story rife with micro-tension, if we are to understand the takeaway message of the story that will protect us in our real lives, we can’t just skip to the ending. The micro-tense story must be consumed and interpreted in a holistic way, the meaning earned through diligence or not at all. We sense this, which is why we’ll give up our sleep, go without food, maybe even enrage our babysitters to read one.

What say you, Unboxeders? When you consider your own stories of personal tension, does this make sense? What elements of micro-tension have I missed?

About Jan O'Hara [5]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [6] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen [7]; Cold and Hottie [8]) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.