Tuesday, August 28, 2012


I've never met author/agent/blogger/speaker/teacher Donald Maass in person (though I once lured him to this blog with the mention of chocolate lava cake). But I've found his writing craft books invaluable for honing the craft of fiction writing. Especially his book The Fire in Fiction. Especially Chapter 8 of that book, Tension All The Time. Because tension is what we want to create in our readers. Not only with plot, or high stakes, or cliff-hanger chapter endings. But with every line of every scene of every chapter. That's what Maass calls micro-tension, "the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen next..."

Here are a few of the tips I learned for creating micro-tension from that Tension All The Time chapter, which alone is worth the price of the book.

Micro-tension is created through emotion. Specifically, conflicting emotions. 

In Dialogue: Look at dialogue between characters as a tug-of-war between two (or more) talkers, either when the conflict is overt and hostile, or when it's more subtle, based on one character's internal tug-of-war emotional conflict. "Find the emotional friction between the speakers.... [it] can be as polite as poison, or as messy as hatchets.... The important thing is to get away from ambling chit-chat and get right to the desire of two speakers to defeat each other."

In Action: Action in and of itself does not necessarily create tension for the reader. It's when the character(s) emotional conflict is added into a scene of action that the reader truly engages, her heart beats harder, her fingers grip those pages (or screen, I suppose). "High action immediately benefits from having torn emotions folded in.... True tension lies inside."

In Exposition: Remember that old scene/sequel pattern once taught to writers? It can still work, as long as the sequel (or reaction scene) isn't merely a rehashing of what was obvious to the reader in the preceding scene of action. "Exposition is a time for what is new: extra questions, fresh anxiety, unforeseen angles.... It's plot turns that play out in the mind."

I've (intentionally) barely scratched the surface of the wealth of tips for creating tension in every line of your writing Maass presents in this chapter. This energizing concept breathed fresh life into my writing when I first read it. I intend to keep reminding myself of it until I'm established in it.

Check out the book!

The Fire in Fiction at Amazon.

At Barnes & Noble.

~ all direct quotes are taken from The Fire in Fiction, Chapter 8 Tension All The Time, by Donald Maass, and are used here with the purpose of promoting this excellent writing craft book.


  1. I have this book and his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. I think I need to read them.

    1. Grab TFIF and read Chapter 8. It's all good, but if you're pressed for time, Chapter 8's the one. :)

  2. Anonymous10:23 PM


    Good reminders of foundational stuff. I really like the concept of a conversational tug-of-war. Sometimes I get totally bogged down when writing conversation so that's a good gauge, especially when there's conflict.


    1. I like to use this chapter as a check list for every scene. It's the conflicting emotions issue I find really adds tension, line by line. Not conflicting emotions between two characters. That's sort of a given. You have to have conflict or a story lies flat. But for the POV character to be of two minds about what they're trying to achieve in the scene, or to have a niggling doubt that it's the right thing to push for it, or a fear that what they want may also hand them something they don't want if they achieve it, or how can they achieve it without hurting someone they love in the process... that's the sort of tension that keeps me turning the pages.

  3. Lori, this was a timely reminder for me. I have that book (but haven't read it yet). I'll go have a look at chapter 8.

    The Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is also excellent, if you don't have it. I like it better than the book of the same name. It breaks everything down into digestible summaries with lots of focus questions. Just flipping through it and reading here and there can be inspiring.

    1. That's good to know. I hadn't looked at the workbook because I tend to recoil from writing exercises that have nothing to do with my WIP, but if just reading through is helpful then I'll get a copy.

      In The Fire in Fiction, each chapter ends with a summary section that's helpful in the same way, so even if you don't have time to read each chapter, you can check out those few pages to get the meat of it.