Donald Maass on Micro-tension (and a chance to win!)

Donald Maass is the president and founder of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He teaches writing workshops across the country and is the author of The Career Novelist,  Writing the Breakout Novel, and Writing 21st Century Fiction. You can find him on the web at:

Leave a comment, for a chance to win an autographed copy of Writing 21st Century Fiction.


It happens at every workshop. After the presenter explains the
methods of constant line-by-line tension and demonstrates how it’s done by
sparking up several randomly chosen manuscript pages, hands shoot up. An
anxious participant asks, “Can there be too much tension in a


Let me be clear about that.


When you think you have
overloaded a manuscript with tension, you probably have created just enough to
hang on to your reader. What feels like too much to you is barely enough. If
you don’t believe me, try this: With a pencil in hand, open any average novel
and begin to read. Put a tick in the margin when your eyes begin to skim down
the page. Draw a margin arrow at the spot where you reenter the story flow. How
much are you skimming?

The parts that you skim have low tension. When readers encounter
that in your own work, they do exactly what you do: skim. Horrifying, isn’t it?
Especially if that reader is the agent you’re hoping to land or the editor who
may give you a contract.

You want your readers to read every word, of course, but to do
that you need to make magnets of your pages. You need to run an electric
current through them. That electricity is micro-tension.

Here’s how it works. When you create in your reader an unconscious
apprehension, anxiety, worry, question, or uncertainty, then the reader will
unconsciously seek to relieve that uneasiness. And there’s only one way to do
that: Read the next thing on the page.

A constant stream of tension causes readers to read every word of
a novel. When they do, we illogically call that novel a page turner.
The term suggests rapid reading, if not skimming, but it’s really the opposite.
It means reading with close attention.

Micro-Tension Exercises

·      Pick
a passage of dialogue. Strip it down. Increase hostility between the speakers.
It can be friendly ribbing, worried questioning, polite disagreement, snide
derision, veiled threats, open hostility, or any other degree of friction.

·      Repeat
the prompt above 100 times.

·      Pick
a passage of action—anything from high violence to a stroll in the park. Freeze
the action in a sequence of three to five still snapshots. Select a detail from
each frame. For each snapshot record your POV character’s precise feelings.
Discard obvious emotions. Choose emotions that contrast or conflict. Rewrite
the passage.

·      Repeat
the prompt above 50 times.

·      Pick
a passage of exposition. List all of your POV character’s emotions. List all
ideas. Discard what’s obvious. Find emotions that conflict. Find ideas at war.
Grab what creates unease, uncertainty, fresh worry, new questions, a deeper
puzzle, or agonizing dilemma. Rewrite the passage.

·      Repeat
the prompt above 100 times. (If you are a romance writer, repeat 200 times.)

·      Pick
a moment when your protagonist is still, simply waiting or doing nothing. Look
around. List three setting details that only this character would notice.
Detail her emotions. Find those that conflict or surprise her. What’s this
moment’s personal meaning? Write a passage combining snapshot clarity and
roiling inner intensity.

·      Print
out your manuscript. Randomize the pages. Examine each one in isolation. Does
it crackle? Are the characters on tiptoe? What question arises that the reader
can’t answer? What’s going badly or wrong for your POV character? How does this
page tell the whole story? Revise until the tension level is unbearable.

·      Repeat
the prompt above for every page. Yes, seriously.

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Published on December 13, 2012 00:48
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message 1: by Hilary (new)

Hilary Mack Thank you for this. Very valuable advice.

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