Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tension and How to Get Some

(Side Note: The post is late because Blogger broke yesterday)

I have previously touched upon the subject of tension, but today I’m going to try and discuss it more directly.

Tension is the thing that keeps people reading. It’s anticipation for a future event that remains unsure. Thus, dangling an uncertain future (or a past that remains undisclosed) in front of readers and delaying the revelation of it is how you achieve tension and subsequently reading readers.

Maass, in his book, The Fire in Fiction, refers to the term microfiction, explained as tension all the time. What this means is that theoretically, you can have tension in every one of the sentences you write. I will admit that this sounds ludicrous, but I’m pretty sure Maass only meant that every sentence has the potential to contain tension, and not that every sentence should have it.

Let me quote an example from his book. (I might have quoted this before, I’m not sure. But it’s a good example.) “He crossed the room” as opposed to “He drifted across the room. Was he dreaming? Was he dead?”. Just a small hint of tension can create a big difference.

Adding tension is a simple process of making something uncertain. If a pacifist hero has to decide whether to execute a man or not, don’t make the man an innocent farmer. Make him a evil warlord who killed a million people. That way, your character will have to be in conflict with himself. Should he break his vow to preserve life to save lives? The internal conflict will eat him up and consequently let your readers eat the novel up.

Is your hero dashing after a kidnapped heroine? Let his father fall ill and unable to tend to the farm, which would lead to the farm’s demise and probably his father’s death. No matter what decision he makes, the other will always haunt him where he goes, as he will wonder if he made the right choice. Conflict is the key to tension. Not so much external conflict, but more often internal.

This is a very loose explanation, I know. If you want to master this, the best advice I can give is to read Maass’s books. He knows his stuff.

Do you agree with Maass? Do you have other ways to create tension?

Edit : Do yourself a favour and read here and here.  The links were provided by Mooderino in the comments, and they're worth a read.  As mentioned, micro-tension is a pretty hard subject, so many views are useful.  Maybe I'll take a crack at specifically micro-tension explaining. (I shrunk in embarrassment of how sparse my post was against those two.)


  1. The whole micro-tension idea is an interesting but tricky subject. The Maass book is better at giving a broad overview than showing how to use it in your own wip, I think. I tried explaining it (as best I could) here and Margo at Writing at High Altitude also had a crack at it here.

    Perhaps between us we can help people get the gist of it.

  2. Thanks for the links. I put them up in the post so people can find them easier. The more different views on the subject, the better.