Jan 12, 2011

Me and "Micro-tension"

By Melinda Carroll

Hi all,
This is my first post on the ANWA blog, so I thought I'd tell you a little about myself.  Most of what can be said about me can be told in a few bullet points, so here we go:

  • I'm thirty-six, married, and a mother of four
  • I have a BA in English from BYU
  • I served a mission in Florida (met my husband there-- that story deserves more than just a bullet point though, so I'll have to tell it another time)
  • I worked in the political arena before I had kids, including doing an internship in D.C., being a press secretary for a Congressional campaign, and working for the AZ House of Reps.  I actually wrote a speech for Senator Bennett that's on U.S. congressional record-- so technically I've already been published, right? (Don't answer that)  But if you ask me anything about politics now, don't be surprised if my eyes glaze over and I mumble nonsense.  I'm woefully uneducated at the moment.  
  • I have always loved writing, though I've not always wanted to write fiction, that desire has only come about in the last couple years.  (Another story that deserves more than a bullet point).  I strongly believe, however, that there are a million creative ideas out there and the difference between a published and unpublished idea often comes down to learning the craft of writing. 
Which brings me to micro-tension.  No, this is not a reference to what I feel at any given moment (macro-tension may be more accurate).  It's also not a microwave recipe.  It's actually a term coined by Donald Maass in The Fire In Fiction.  He uses it to describe the technique authors must use to hold their readers' attention through every word.  It 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."
Ever skimmed a paragraph of internal monologue?  So have I.  Sometimes when we're writing our character's thoughts and feelings, we use 100 words to say something that could have easily been said with ten.  Or we restate.  Or we say the same things again, just using different words (did I already say that?)
So how do we avoid these flaws and keep our internal dialogue (also called exposition) interesting and full of micro-tension?  Here are some of his tips- again in bullet points:

  • Find a passage of exposition in your manuscript.
  • Identify the primary emotion in the passage, then write down its opposite.
  • Look for what the character is thinking, summarize the main idea in her mind, and then find a conflicting idea.
  • If the passage involved mulling over something that happened earlier, find something about the prior occurrence that your character failed to notice or realize, raise an unasked question, or answer what new reasons your character has to feel uneasy, anxious, or in danger.
  • Without looking at your original draft, rewrite the exposition using conflicting emotions or warring ideas.  Make the contrast strong and add fresh questions and worries.
All right, that's about all the blog space I think I should take up for one day.  But before I finish, I have to acknowledge that I did very little (okay, none) of the research about micro-tension.  I took it almost verbatim from the lesson taught last night at our ANWA meeting (thanks Sandra).  Just one reason, among many, why I love ANWA.


  1. hey melinda! I was just given some info about ANWA and I'm thinking of joining. i looked up this blog and here you are! I love your advice about micro-tension. i definitely need to think about this more. i find my main character mulling over the same issue throughout the entire book and i need to change that. thanks!

  2. Hey Natalie, what a small world! ANWA is a great place to network and keep informed about upcoming events- in addition to helping you work on writing. I highly recommend it, and I'm sure everyone would love to have another published author like you join our ranks.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Melinda. Cool exercise to try.

  4. So many times I've seen professionally published books where the main character ponders the same points over and over again--everyone can benefit from this lesson! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Welcome aboard Melinda. Great first post. I overuse words in regular dialogue at the expense of scene setting. And yet I must confess as a reader I tend to gloss over words and just get the gist of a scene. Bad writing? Bad reading? Not sure.

  6. Great post, Melinda. I am thrilled to meet you here on the ANWA blog. I, too, am guilty of repeating the same thoughts and ideas in a manuscript. Like Terri said, I do a great deal of glossing over repetitive stuff as I read. I get very frustrated when characters rehash their feelings over and over. Thanks for your thoughts on this.


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