“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
We all know those books, right? The ones that you can't put down. Sometimes it's because the premise is so big, the conflict is so enormous and original, that you are hooked by that alone. But most of the time, it has nothing to do with a huge underlying tension. It comes down to what literary agent Donald Maass, author of the must-read books Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction, calls "micro-tension."
As he puts it: "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."
Curiosity, not conflict, is the most powerful word when it comes to fiction.
Lisa Cron, the author of Wired For Story and Story Genius, explains that this is due to biology, the survival instincts that allowed human beings to develop and evolve, citing neuroscience to show that our bodies physiologically react to reading about an experience in a good story the same way that we react to experiencing the story ourselves. She explains how we are biologically driven to learn from story, and that what we perceive as a good story is one that keeps us learning.
So how do we use that to drive our stories forward?
The word why is the writer's secret weapon. If we infuse it into every page, every paragraph, it can lead our reader through the dullest backstory, draw them through periods of quiet discussion, pull them through paragraphs of beautiful description. Why is the reason we read.
As writers, there are limitless ways that we can use why on the sentence, paragraph, and page level to create the micro-tension that fuels forward momentum and builds urgency in the reader.
- Create a difference between what the characters want and what they have in the current situation.
- Provide your characters with conflicting or contrasting emotions.
- Make the characters have to hide what they really feel.
- Make the characters hide what they are really doing
- Make the characters confront the things they don't want, their fears and the secrets and truths they are desperate to protect from others and themselves.
- Focus on the fresh and unexpected.
- Sliver in unanswered questions, building curiosity about secrets, backstory, and upcoming events so that the reader must keep reading to get the answers.
Most importantly, be certain to let the reader know why characters are behaving and reacting in the ways they are, and make those reasons fresh, believable, and compelling.
What Do You Think?
Do you have a question about micro-tension or a technique that you've read about, discovered, or used to make your own work more compelling? Know an author who always writes unputdownable fiction? Share below! : )
About the AuthorMartina Boone was born in Prague and spoke several languages before learning English. She’s the award-winning author of the romantic southern gothic Heirs of Watson Island series, including Compulsion, Persuasion, and Illusion from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse and of the Celtic Legends series for adult readers beginning with Lake of Destiny.
She lives with her husband, children, and a lopsided cat, she enjoys writing contemporary fantasy set in the sorts of magical places she’d love to visit. When she isn’t writing, she’s addicted to travel, horses, skiing, chocolate flavored tea, Quality Streets, and anything with Nutella on it.