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. 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
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
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.