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Tension, Microtension, and Keeping Your Reader Hooked


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Tiffany Yates Martin FoxPrint Editorial Tension

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Tension is the propulsive force of story—the means by which the storyteller not only spins her thread, but then holds it taut and pulls her reader steadily through the tale. Let that tension drop and the thread collapses, momentum stops, and readers put down your book.

Without tension, all you have is a pretty pile of yarn.

It sounds like a tall order—or a recipe for melodrama—but as the force that gives structure and form to the web you’re weaving, tension belongs in every single thread of your story.

Harnessing its power to pull readers into your web without risking sensationalism or soap opera involves expanding our definition of what tension is and how to incorporate it.

Tension is often defined or understood to be basically some form of opposition, friction, conflict, an obstacle. But perhaps a better way to think of it in weaving it throughout your story is that tension is anything contrary to a character’s (and reader’s) desires or expectations, however minor.

Tension Isn’t Always Obvious

Tension doesn’t always mean high drama, high conflict, or even high stakes. It can be overt and direct—an argument, a slap in the face, the killer at the door. But weaving it throughout your story often involves much subtler, indirect tension, what’s sometimes referred to as “microtension.”

  • Tension can be a no when the character wanted a yes, a frown when they hoped for a smile, silence in lieu of a response.
  • It’s the nervous rustle of a stomach amid a long-awaited kiss. The response, “Been better” to a simple, “How are you?” The possessive arm snaking around a woman’s shoulders when she and her spouse run into her ex. The momentarily forgotten name of an important customer.
  • It’s the storm brewing outside when the character is running late for a crucial appointment…the heaviness inside a house–or another character–where an inhabitant has recently passed away….the strained smile, the empty eyes, the acid laugh.

Tension can be a million little moments in every scene—even the seemingly light, happy ones. Smooth sailing may be a #lifegoal, but it’s a storytelling death knell.

Conflict may briefly relax for those “upswing” moments of your story, scenes of connection and progress and triumph, but even in your story’s high points, some form of tension should be lurking:

  • Jack and Rose gleefully practice spitting into the ocean—but even then the other Titanic passengers look on disapprovingly.
  • Buttercup and Wesley joyously reunite after she feared him dead—but even then Prince Humperdinck is in hot pursuit.
  • Julia Roberts charms Hector Elizondo and Richard Gere…but the Rodeo Drive saleswomen still won’t let her shop.

So how do you use this powerful force to weave the tapestry of your story tightly?

Use Opposition to Create Tension

Let’s dissect a snippet from the opening pages of Steven Rowley’s delightfully humorous, poignant novel The Guncle, where the only thing at stake ostensibly is two children—staying temporarily with their single gay uncle after the death of their mom—wanting to make a YouTube video.

 

Patrick hovered his finger over his phone before calmly hitting record. “Tell me something about your mother.”

Maisie and Grant turned inward, each willing the other to speak. Patrick had never witnessed such a case of debilitating stage fright in his entire career. The two children negotiated in silence, almost telepathically, the way close siblings sometimes can, and eventually Maisie, the oldest by three years, spoke first. “She was tall.”

Patrick looked out from behind his phone. “She was tall? That’s it? Giraffes are tall. Your mother’s a giraffe?”

“NO!” They were both offended by the suggestion.

“Don’t yell at me,” Patrick protested. “It’s up to you to lead with something better than her height.”

Grant took a swing. “She was strong. One time she lifted the thofa to vacuum under it.”

“CUT.” Patrick stopped recording. Of course he wanted Grant to think of his mother as strong—Sara’s treatment had robbed her of much of the resilience that defined her—and he was even willing to overlook his nephew’s lisp, even thought they’d been working on it in the quiet of late afternoons, but he wasn’t about to let Sara suffer the indignity of sharing space in this video with a Dyson upright. “You kids are terrible at telling stories.”

 

The immediate tension of the kids’ uncomfortable response creates a beat of tension, and then Patrick’s interruption to critique their commentary adds another one, as does their strenuous, “NO!” His berating and criticism of two recently bereaved children, and the adult way he talks to them, is plenty funny, but its unexpectedness and slight impropriety creates yet another little frisson of discord in readers.

Rowley uses opposition to weave in even more tension throughout. In improv the golden rule is to meet every suggestion with “yes, and.” But in scene writing, it’s often more narratively powerful for creating tension to think of it as “no, but.” Even in this brief excerpt, look at all the tiny little beats of tension in the form of denial, negation, opposition—a “no, but.”

  • “She was tall.” / “That’s it?”
  • “Your mother’s a giraffe?” / “NO!” / “Don’t yell at me.”
  • “CUT!”
  • Of course he wanted Grant to think of his mother as strong…but he wasn’t about to let Sara suffer the indignity of sharing space in this video with a Dyson upright.

By weaving these microtension elements all throughout this scene, Rowley keeps readers deliciously on edge, uncertain about the dynamics among these three and whether everything is going to be okay—questions we keep turning pages to find out.

Layer Different Types of Tension

In the very first lines of Jess Montgomery’s recently released The Echoes, book four of her marvelous Kinship series about a female sheriff in a small 1920s Ohio town (based on a real woman!), a young girl traveling to America from France wants only to see the Statue of Liberty as the ship comes into port—ostensibly not pulse-pounding stakes. But Montgomery threads various types of tension throughout nearly every sentence:

 

Esmé nearly escapes.

She’s just shoved her tweed-covered suitcase under the thick chain link and is about to duck under, grab the suitcase, and dash up the metal stairs. But the ship official—the man Esmé thinks of as a gendarme—appears three steps up. He glares down at Esmé, crosses his arms over the straining buttons of his blue uniform. Then he pulls out his baton, gripping it so hard in one hand that his knuckles go white and whacking it ever so slightly into the palm of the other.

Esmé quickly halts, with one foot under the chain, and her boots almost slide out from under her on the slick floor. Oh, why did she have to be spotted by this gendarme—the one who’d nearly caught her two days before, sneaking around outside of steerage?

She tries to turn around, but suddenly she’s shoved forward. The chain, waist-high for most adults, strikes petite nine-year-old Esmé Chambeau across her neck. She gasps, tries to push away from the chain. Her eyes water.

Even as her vision blurs, Esmé makes out that the gendarme is grinning at her predicament: either get trampled or escape the crowd by ducking under the chain, only for him to catch her. And then will she ever be let off the ship? Will he throw her in the ship’s jail—as he’d screamed at her when he’d tried to chase her down? Or will she be sent back to France?

The crowd shouts questions at the smugly silent gendarme about when they will be able to disembark. Esmé is overwhelmed by their strident voices, by festering human smells churned over four days of choppy ocean crossing. Sparkles dance before her eyes. A sudden lurch of the SS Île de France sends the crowd tumbling forward. The chain cuts into Esmé’s neck.

 

From that initial line–the first in the story—Montgomery introduces tension: The girl nearly escapes… implying that she does not. We don’t need to know what she’s trying to escape from to feel the menace, that tasty narrative slither of unease that keeps us reading.

Then Montgomery keeps layering in tension elements:

  • Verbiage: the threatening, even violent connotations of gendarme, whacking, shoved, strikes, trampled, screamed, shouts, overwhelmed, festering, churned, lurch, tumbling, cuts.
  • Beats of opposition, conflict, or threat: the ship official’s glare, crossed arms, straining buttons, white-knuckled grip and whacking baton; the crowd shoving her forward; the chain across her neck and her choking while the gendarme grins and the oblivious crowd screams.
  • Uncertainty and danger: Esmé nearly wiping out on the slick floor, her fear at being spotted by the same official who almost caught her trying to escape once before, the crucible of risking being either trampled or caught, and the consequences she fears: jail…deportment.

Some of the tension is overt, external, direct—but much of it is also subtle, internal, indirect. This might have been a pretty static, low-key opening—a girl from steerage tries to run up on deck. But Montgomery layers in multiple types of tension throughout the scene that hooks readers from the beginning—despite that nothing big actually happens in this excerpt.

Sustain Tension Throughout Your Story

Tension is a dynamic, powerful force in story that props up nearly every other aspect of it. Master editor Sol Stein put so much importance in this potent storytelling tool that he suggested marking every single page of your manuscript as you revise with a “T” when it includes elements of tension, and then going back and adding those elements anywhere it does not.

I go one step further and say that if you want propulsive, irresistible stories, tension belongs in every paragraph—in almost every line of every story in every genre.

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How about you, authors—are you mindful of consciously keeping tension taut throughout your story, regardless of genre? What techniques do you use to weave it in without overwhelming or hijacking the story into melodrama? Do you struggle with certain types of tension, or weaving it even into scenes that aren’t seemingly high-stakes or high drama? When your engagement flags in other people’s stories, do you notice whether it’s because tension has lapsed?

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About Tiffany Yates Martin

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and NYTimes, WaPo, WSJ, and USA Today bestselling, award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the Amazon bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She leads workshops and seminars for conferences and writers' groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers' sites and publications. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels.

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