Tension drives fiction. “Conflict is story…What many do not grasp, though, including many published novelists, is that what keeps us turning hundreds of pages is not a central conflict, main problem or primary goal.” Although those are important, author Donald Maass says that “Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether. Micro-tension.”
“Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds. It is not a function of the plot. This type of tension does not come from high-stakes or the circumstances of a scene. Action does not generate it. Dialogue does not produce it automatically. Exposition–the interior monologue of the point-of-view character – does not necessarily raise its level.” Pg. 189
Tension in Dialogue
So how do we create that moment-to-moment friction? Conflicting emotions, pure and simple, written in such a way that the emotions are evident and real, the emotions are internal, yet we see them. Here are some questions to ask yourself: Where is the tension in your dialogue? Is it present in every line? Why not undertake a dialogue draft? Check every conversation in your story. Are you relying on the circumstances or the topic itself to make it important for us to listen in?
Exercise: 1) find any passage in your work in progress (WIP); 2) Create antipathy between the speakers. Set them against each other. Use simple disagreement, a clash of personalities, a struggle over status, competing egos, plain loathing, or any other conflict. 3) Without looking at the original draft, rewrite the dialogue so the conflict between the speakers themselves is impossible to miss.
“Conflict in dialogue can be as polite as poison, or as messy as hatchets. The approach is up to you.” Pg. 226
Tension in Action
You can have a high-action, heart-stopping, pulse-pounding scene with a lot of action in it, but is there tension? Not necessarily. You could have a lazy, seemingly dull scene with a lot of tension in it. One story that comes to mind is in the Bible. A young woman of a hated race becomes queen. She has the gall to go to her husband, the king, uninvited. That was a no-no during that culture and time. She could have been instantly executed for that. Miraculously, the king extends his scepter to her. That means she didn’t die. On top of all that, when asked what she wanted, she asked for a banquet, to which she invited her husband the king, and his right-hand man, the man who wanted to destroy her race.
Just remember, if she says things the wrong way, she could still be executed. Yet, when she’s asked what she wants, she requests another banquet. Can you imagine what’s going through Esther’s head, the king’s head? And more amazingly, it’s a true story. The second banquet begins, and I’ll bet Queen Esther was about ready to jump out of her skin. She’s strung the king along with her, and he has no clue what she’s going to say, only she knows, and she’s probably given a lot of thought how to phrase it, what tone to use, what attitudes to express. She could still be killed at any moment her answers don’t please the king.
Exercise: 1) Find any action in your manuscript, incidental, small, or high action. 2) From whose POV do we experience the action? What are they feeling? 3) Note visual details of the action which are not obvious, only found on a second look. “High action immediately benefits from having torn emotions folded in.”
Tension in Exposition
Dig deep into the character’s feelings, express his conflicting emotions. What is she thinking? How does she think he’ll react? How does she feel about what just happened? If we can keep up the conflict, in emotions, feelings, and ideas, we make the reader richer and show more of human nature in our characters. An example would be: a pastor in his seventies wonders if he’s made a difference in the lives of others. He ponders all his failures, and forgets that he’s had success with a lot of people. His conflict comes out in his expressed thoughts and feelings.
Here’s a great quote from this section: “To put it another way, exposition is an opportunity not to enhance the dangers of the plot (exposition doesn’t do that) but to put your characters’ hearts and mind in peril. Remember, though that true tension in exposition comes not from circular worry or repetitive turmoil, it springs from emotions in conflict and ideas at war.”
Exercise: 1) Find a passage of exposition, such as interior monologue (character’s thoughts and feelings) 2) Identify the primary emotion, then write down the opposite. 3) Summarize what the character is thinking, then find a conflicting idea. 4) Look for any other reasons for the character to feel uneasy, anxious, or in danger.
Next time, we’ll look at how to bring tension to low-tension scenes and insert tension where there is none. What about you? Do you have trouble putting or keeping tension in your writing. Leave a comment and let me know.