So far this week, we've been talking about tension on a macro-level: The Macguffin. Emotional and sexual tension. External tension, such as the ticking clock.
I'd like to bring the discussion of tension down to the line by line level--defined by agent Donald Maass as micro-tension. Maass has a well-known exercise that he suggests to his students to learn about micro-tension. Here it is:
Print out your manuscript. (Yes, all of it.)
Stand in the middle of a room and throw it in the air. Woo hoo! (Duck and cover if you have to)
Then scoop the pages up and return them to a stack, keeping them in random order
Now, go through one page at a time, skimming to see if you feel tension
Do you? What do you see, now that you're reading your pages out of order? Are you succeeding, page by page in creating tension?
While the macro-level tension is an important part of the propulsion of a book, our reading experience actually happens line by line. A page-turner is a book that succeeds on both counts, macro and micro.
If you do the above exercise, here are some of the things you may notice that add tension:
- Disagreements (most dialogue, if done right, adds pace.)
- Unanswered questions/contradictions (Character thinks, I love him, and says, "I hate you.")
- One a technical level, short, pacey sentences can feel tense
- Setting/Descriptions that are surprising, concise and emotional or that foreshadow can add tension
Here are the things you'll notice deplete tension:
- Big, solid blocks of description
- No dialogue
- Telling statements/summary
- Characters who are alone and/or lost in their thoughts
- Characters hanging out with friends, having a good old time yukking it up
These are generalities. Of course you can have a scene with no dialogue that still feels tense (although it would be harder to do.) There are plenty of exceptions to the above, but I think you'll see that the central difference is that tension arises from a state of imperfection. The reader reads because they want to answer the question of whether order will be restored or not.
Now to gather those manuscript pages up....