Can Your Story Have Too Much Tension? A Literary Agent Says No

"Colors" by Nina Fazzi

“Colors” by Nina Fazzi

There are two things about the 2012 Backspace writer-agent seminar in New York City that I won’t forget. First, I survived the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Second, I learned some critical lessons from Donald Maas’s workshop that helped me tremendously.

The seminar was held three days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast region. Against all odds, the event took place and almost everybody made it, although getting to the Midtown venue from Queens and back was nerve-racking. Just imagine catching the F train at the crack of dawn with a million other people when the train service was only partially functioning. Forget about finding a cab—there was a gas shortage in the city.

What is Micro-Tension?

The workshop conducted by Donald Maass, a top literary agent and author, more than compensated for the hassle. One of the biggest takeaways for me is the concept of micro-tension. It refers to the unease in a reader’s mind, which compels that person to keep on reading.

“When you create in your reader an unconscious apprehension, anxiety, worry, question, or uncertainty, then the reader will unconsciously seek to relieve that uneasiness. And there’s only one way to do that: Read the next thing on the page,” wrote Maass in his book, Writing the 21st Century Fiction.

He categorically said that as writers, we should strive to create reader unease line by line, page by page. There can never be too much tension. As he explained it, readers skim the parts with low tension.

He made it quite clear—micro-tension is not about explosions, violence, and other things that we typically associate with “tension.” You can create high-octane tension with danger and car chases, but also with well-written dialogue. The former makes me think of Lee Child and his action-packed Jack Reacher books. In the opening pages of One Shot, a sniper positions himself on the second level of a parking garage overlooking a plaza. He fires six shots on the crowd below, killing five people. The shooter leaves so much evidence that the cops think it’s a cut-and-dried case, but is it? Lee Child knows how to write a page turner, and that’s why I devour his books.

Degrees of Tension

Maass wrote that “tension has many degrees of temperature.” Graham Greene’s poignant 1951 novel, The End of the Affair, has the kind of simmering conflict that kept me reading late at night. The novel is about an affair between Maurice Bendrix, a novelist, and Sarah Miles, the wife of Maurice’s friend, Henry. When Henry tells Maurice about his plan to hire a detective to follow Sarah in order to identify her paramour, Maurice is filled with anxiety. Guess what? So was I. There’s no sniper or shooting or dead bodies, but the conversation is suffused with tension.

One Shot and The End of the Affair were made into movies, starring Tom Cruise in the former and Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in the latter. A coincidence? I don’t think so. Both books oozed with micro-tension.

Writing Exercise

If you’re working on a manuscript, try this tip about creating micro-tension from Writing the 21st Century Fiction:

Print out your manuscript. Randomize the pages. Examine each in isolation. Does it crackle? Are the characters on tiptoe? What question arises that the reader can’t answer? What’s going badly or wrong for your POV character? How does this page tell the whole story? Revise until the tension level is unbearable.

To learn more about Donald Maass’s writing books and eponymous literary agency, click here.

“Colors” by Nina Fazzi. Copyright © 2014 by Nina Fazzi. All Rights Reserved.

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