For Writers — Microtension
I’ve decided to start a thread on this blog for writers. I used to write a monthly craft-of-writing article for the Romance Writers of Australia magazine, but after five years I stepped down. But I enjoy pondering aspects of writing craft, and find I miss it. So rather than go back, I’ve decided to pop an occasional writing post onto my blog, and have it open to anyone who’s interested. I’m really just musing about various aspects of the writing craft, rather than creating instructional posts. But if you’re not interested, just skip them — I’ll still be writing more personal posts and posts about my books as usual.
I’m also planning to put those previous writing articles up on my website to add to the others on my “about writing” page.
So here’s the first of my dedicated craft-of-writing blog posts. It came to me when I was going through a small scene I’d written the day before and was thinking it felt a bit flat. And then I realized why . . .
Tension and Micro-tension
Many years ago I was in a masterclass for writers conducted by literary agent and writing guru, Donald Maass.
We were asked to bring a finished novel in manuscript form — the idea was that the participants had to have finished a novel, that this was an editing/rewriting class rather than a class for beginner writers. My manuscript was only three-quarters finished, but I’d had a number of books published by then.
I brought my stack of printed off pages (hole-punched and tied with a shoelace if I recall correctly). I was worried I might drop it and pages would go everywhere, even though they were numbered.
I learned a heap in that workshop — if ever you get a chance to do a workshop with Donald Maas take it. (See below for an on-line opportunity.)
One of the things he taught in that workshop was the importance of micro-tension.
In his own words micro-tension is “the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in a constant state of suspense over what will happen—not in the (overall) story, but in the next few seconds.“
It’s not the kind of tension that comes from the high stakes story, or the circumstances of a scene, it comes from emotions — conflicting emotions.
One of the various exercises he gave us in that workshop seemed incredibly simple: he got us to open to a random page, and “make it worse” — i.e. find a way to increase the tension on that particular page.
At first it felt impossible — I’d worked hard on those scenes — but then I saw a way of doing it, and then I was crossing out bits and writing in new bits, and getting a whole other layer of tension into that page and that scene.
We did that exercise a few times on different pages, and I was amazed at what a difference it made. Scenes that had one main purpose, through just a few small changes, gained more complexity and intrigue. And added tension.
I wish now I’d kept that printed off manuscript with all the scribbles I made over it as a result of that masterclass, but I didn’t. The final book was called The Stolen Princess and it was the winner of Romance Writer of Australia’s Romantic Book of the Year.
In the scene that I reworked the other day, the hero was investigating the heroine’s background. In the first draft, that was all he did — ask a few questions and get some answers. Simple and straightforward. In terms of the plot, it did the job it needed to do. But when I revised it, by going deeper into his character and adding in a few sentences here and there to increase microtension, I was able to show that he had mixed feelings about what he was doing. And that by the end of the (very short) scene he had the answers to his questions, but also a few more questions, and his feelings were even more mixed.
And that coffee cup above? That was the trademark saying of the late Emma Darcy and, way back when, Trish Morey had it printed on a mug for a conference she was organizing. I still treasure it. It’s a great reminder.
Do you mind me including craft-of-writing posts in this blog, or would you prefer I put them elsewhere. Let me know.