Infusing Microtension in Your Novel

Last week we started looking into tension in novels, and we’ll wrap up this topic in this post so we can move on to our last few pillars of novel construction before the year is over.

I discussed how there are different kinds of tension: the tension in the plot and tension the characters feel, as opposed to the tension we want readers to feel as they read our scenes. Let’s review a bit.

What Creates Tension?

  1. Caring about the characters and what happens to them! This is the biggest source of tension. You can have all kinds of blow-up action and visual excitement, but if the reader does not care about your characters, they won’t feel any concern for them. Tension is all about characters. I’ve said this repeatedly, but everything hinges on the characters you create—making them empathetic, putting them in jeopardy and unfortunate situations, giving them qualities that make them admirable.
  2. High stakes. Go back to those posts and really get that high stakes are about what the character cares passionately about. This is the key. To create tension, then, you need your very empathetic characters, and particularly your protagonist, to be facing trouble with high stakes.

How to Ramp Up That Tension

Now, there are technical things you can do to help tighten the pacing and ramp up tension, but those two things need to be foundational and present for tension. And then, to ramp tension to the max, you want to focus on microtension. I introduced microtension last week, and now we’re going to look at this more in depth.

Just what is microtension? Just as the prefix suggests, it’s tension on a micro level, or in small, barely noticeable increments. Your big plot twists and reversals and surprises are macro-tension items. But microtension is achieved on a line-by-line basis.

For example, anytime a character has conflicting feelings, you have microtension. Microtension can be small, simmering, subtext, subtle. Even the choice of words or the turn of a phrase can produce microtension by its freshness or unexpected usage.

A sudden change in emotion can create tension. A character struggling between two opposite emotions creates tension. Odd contradictory emotions and reactions can create microtension.

Examples of Seeming Contradictions

Donald Maass, in his Breakout Novel workshop, had us participants thinking about how people often cry at weddings and feel a strange sadness. There can be a sense of loss at a wedding (a mother feeling as if her daughter is no longer her baby, for example). It seems contradictory to cry and be sad at such a joyous occasion. (Now, if the mother hates the guy her daughter is marrying, she may cry justifiably, but that isn’t microtension. If she struggles with trying to let go and trust her daughter will make it work amid her dislike of the guy, that is.)

Then, Maass had us think how people often laugh at funerals or wakes. In honoring the recently departed, they will often recount humorous anecdotes to make the mourners laugh and to remember funny moments in the deceased’s life. Isn’t it odd? To laugh in joy over someone who is dead and whom we loved. It seems a contradiction, and it’s curious, so it intrigues us.

At any given moment, we are feeling a number of different emotions, and they often clash. By going deep into your characters and drawing out that type of inner conflict as often as possible, you can bring microtension into your scenes. Again, you will have outer conflict as well (hopefully a lot of it). But by adding the inner conflict in such a way, you can ramp up the microtension. Try to avoid common expressions we’ve all heard before. Think past the obvious first emotion and find something deeper, something submerged and underlying the superficial emotion. Strive for the unexpected.

Three Areas in Which You Can Add Microtension

Here are three areas and ways you can add microtension to your scenes:

  1. Dialog: examine each line of dialog. Take out boring and unnecessary words, and trivial matters. Go for clever. Find a way to give each speaker a unique voice and style of speaking (read my previous post on word whiskers). Keep in mind the tension is in the relationship between the characters speaking, not in the information presented.
  2. Action (physical): This can be with any kind of action—high or low. Even a gesture is action. So think about how to make an action incongruous. What does that mean? I’ve said repeatedly that real people are conflicted all the time. Real people are complex, inconsistent. So by having a character react in an incongruent manner, and having incongruent developments in the storyline, that will add microtension. Have things happen and characters react in ways the reader does not expect. And most important, show everything through the POV character’s emotions. Action will not be tense unless the character is experiencing it and emotionally reacting to it.
  3. Exposition:Exposition is the prose, your writing. It is the way you explain what is happening as you show it. It includes internal monologue. Find ways to add those conflicted emotions and create dissonance. Show ideas at war with one another. Use word choices that can feel contradictory or imply subtext. Find fresh, different ways to describe common things.

Here’s a random passage I grabbed out of Kathryn Megendie’s amazing novel Tender Graces:

When Grandmother Laudine drove up in her shiny black Chevrolet pickup truck with her umpteenth husband she’d asked us to call Uncle Runt, the rain had turned into the skinny stinging kind. I watched out the open door as Grandmother blobbered towards me. She hollered back to Runt and the storm took her words out of her mouth and scattered them to faraway places. Runt went back to the truck while Grandmother barreled into our living room. We kids lined up to get a good look at her.

She wore a pink pantsuit with pockets the size of my head, tissues sticking up in one and a bottle of Milk of Magnesia in the other. Her britches stopped above her ankles, and she had on pink bobby socks with lace, and white tenny shoes with pink shoelaces. Her hair wasn’t hers at all, but a big poofy wig that held raindrops like sparkly diamonds. When she hugged on me, she smelled like Vicks VapoRub.

Megendie could have written all that in a very expected, common, boring way. But look at how she twists words in new ways, all the while giving such insight into her POV character with a unique voice and way of looking at her world. Not all of us are such gifted wordsmiths as she, but we can all take time to rework our exposition to be so much more interesting, and that will generate microtension. I find her books almost impossible to put down because of the originality and genuineness of her exposition (among many other things!).

How Much Is Too Much?

Can you have too much tension or microtension? Too much conflict? If it’s done well and it’s meaningful, I would say no. Examine every page of your novel. In fact, one suggestion Maass gave us was to throw our pages in the air and randomly pick them up, then work on adding microtension to each page, out of order. This is a line-by-line tension, and if you can infuse each page with it, adding to the overall tension of your story and the tension your characters are feeling due to inner conflict, you will have a page-turner.

Any thoughts on tension and microtension? Ready for your new checklist? Be sure to go over all the groups of questions to make sure you’ve ramped your tension to the max. next week: Dialog—compressed and essential.

Inspection Checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Inspection Checklist 5-Plots and Subplots in a String of Scenes

Inspection Checklist 6-Secondary Characters with Their Own Needs

Inspection Checklist 7-Setting with a Purpose

Inspection Checklist 8-Tension Ramped to the Max

Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

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One Comment

  1. As ever – a very timely blog. This afternoon I will be adding microtension, as I work through the chapters in one of my projects. The book extract is just brilliant – never mind the grandmother who is as bizarre as they get, but the description of the rain is just so ‘wet’.

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