Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Donald Maass on Micro-tension (and a chance to win!)



Donald Maass is the president and founder of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He teaches writing workshops across the country and is the author of The Career Novelist,  Writing the Breakout Novel, and Writing 21st Century Fiction. You can find him on the web at: http://www.maassagency.com/


Leave a comment, for a chance to win an autographed copy of Writing 21st Century Fiction.


Micro-Tension

It happens at every workshop. After the presenter explains the methods of constant line-by-line tension and demonstrates how it’s done by sparking up several randomly chosen manuscript pages, hands shoot up. An anxious participant asks, “Can there be too much tension in a manuscript?”

No.

Let me be clear about that.

No.

When you think you have overloaded a manuscript with tension, you probably have created just enough to hang on to your reader. What feels like too much to you is barely enough. If you don’t believe me, try this: With a pencil in hand, open any average novel and begin to read. Put a tick in the margin when your eyes begin to skim down the page. Draw a margin arrow at the spot where you reenter the story flow. How much are you skimming?

The parts that you skim have low tension. When readers encounter that in your own work, they do exactly what you do: skim. Horrifying, isn’t it? Especially if that reader is the agent you’re hoping to land or the editor who may give you a contract.

You want your readers to read every word, of course, but to do that you need to make magnets of your pages. You need to run an electric current through them. That electricity is micro-tension.
Here’s how it works. 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.

A constant stream of tension causes readers to read every word of a novel. When they do, we illogically call that novel a page turner. The term suggests rapid reading, if not skimming, but it’s really the opposite. It means reading with close attention.



Micro-Tension Exercises
·      Pick a passage of dialogue. Strip it down. Increase hostility between the speakers. It can be friendly ribbing, worried questioning, polite disagreement, snide derision, veiled threats, open hostility, or any other degree of friction.

·      Repeat the prompt above 100 times.

·      Pick a passage of action—anything from high violence to a stroll in the park. Freeze the action in a sequence of three to five still snapshots. Select a detail from each frame. For each snapshot record your POV character’s precise feelings. Discard obvious emotions. Choose emotions that contrast or conflict. Rewrite the passage.

·      Repeat the prompt above 50 times.

·      Pick a passage of exposition. List all of your POV character’s emotions. List all ideas. Discard what’s obvious. Find emotions that conflict. Find ideas at war. Grab what creates unease, uncertainty, fresh worry, new questions, a deeper puzzle, or agonizing dilemma. Rewrite the passage.

·      Repeat the prompt above 100 times. (If you are a romance writer, repeat 200 times.)

·      Pick a moment when your protagonist is still, simply waiting or doing nothing. Look around. List three setting details that only this character would notice. Detail her emotions. Find those that conflict or surprise her. What’s this moment’s personal meaning? Write a passage combining snapshot clarity and roiling inner intensity.

·      Print out your manuscript. Randomize the pages. Examine each one 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.

·      Repeat the prompt above for every page. Yes, seriously.


The winner will be announced on Novel Rocket's Facebook page tomorrow. Be sure to like us there!

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Novel-Rocket/129877663761335?ref=hl

53 comments:

heididrukortman said...

Thanks, Mr. Maass. This will put polish on my rough draft.

Graeme Ing said...

I am absolutely going to try the randomize page suggestion on every draft from now on. What a fantastic idea, thank you.

Sally Apokedak said...

Great bits of advice.

I don't skim, but I do put books down and never pick them up again.

I don't put books down in high tension places. I put them down when, despite the action going on, there is no tension. Nothing I need to know. Nothing that needs to be resolved.

Rick Barry said...

Yes, ratcheting up tension must help every story. Whether it's romantic tension or the ticking clock or whatever the case. So much dialogue is ho-hum. Thanks for this.

Myrna Loy Ashby said...

Thank you, Mr. Maass. Your post inspired me to fire the editor in my head who, up until now, insisted my characters needed to "settle down."

jubileewriter said...

I realize that I skim often even in books I enjoyed. I had not considered it the lack of tension but rather boring details. Like Sally that is where I place my bookmark for the next time.

Cindy W. said...

Wow! What wonderful information. Thank you. I would love to win a copy of your book.

Smiles & Blessings,
Cindy W.

countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

Heather Marsten said...

It's true. I've been working on tension in my memoir. Even a scene description can add to tension. It's funny, classics don't always maintain tension, but I don't skim them the way I skim modern fiction.

Thank you for sharing your writing tips with us. Your books are an invaluable resource to writers.

HM at HVC dot RR dot COM

Joanne Huspek said...

Great exercises! And if I don't win the book, I will definitely buy it. jlhuspek at MSN dot com

Lisa Harris said...

I always love Mr. Maass' input on writing when wanting to take things to the next level. Thanks for the great post.

Lisa Harris
contact (dot) harris (at) gmail (dot) com

Beth K. Vogt said...

"Make magnets of your pages."
I like that -- and the idea that I need to run electric current (tension) through them.

Would love to win the book!

beth (at) bethvogt (dot) com

Katherine Scott Jones said...

Writing the Breakout Novel is my writer's Bible. Would love to read this new book and implement its wisdom.

Ane Mulligan said...

I'm reading Writing 21st Century Fiction right now! And I'm glad I'm work on the first draft of my manuscript! The book is fantastic, Donald! But then, I knew it would be. :)

Jim H said...

Perhaps I misunderstand what Mr. Maass means by "constant line-by-line tension...." The statement strikes me as hyperbole. I would agree that the writer must engage the reader at every emotional level, but the result of that engagement doesn't always have to be tension. But it must always be engagement. Readers put fiction down when they no longer feel emotional involvement with the characters. That, of course, should create tension in the writer.

Gdub said...

As concerns interiority--I've been told write way too much, then you'll have enough. That's not for everyone of course, just for those of us light on interior thinking by the main character. Same goes, I see (and I surely believe Mr. Maass) for tension. Write too much of it--then you may have enough. And, again, it would probably be advice for those light on tension. Great information. Would read his book as a page-turner I'm sure.

Dina Sleiman said...

Reading your, "Writing the Breakout Novel" helped me land my first agent. I go back to it often. I definitely need to read this one too!

Sally Bradley said...

I love some of the very specific ways to change things up, bring in the less obvious. I'll definitely be trying those.

Lyndie Blevins said...

I am living a medical event in my Mom's life right now. This is exactly how the last five weeks have gone. We get past one difficulty and think surely when we turn the page things will be better, but they are not.

I look forward to reading the book

Duncanville, Lyndie

Marian Pellegrin Merritt said...

Have printed out these prompts and will have next to my laptop as I revise my latest manuscript. Thanks so much!

C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks for posting! I'd love to win that book. :)

Janice C Johnson said...

Sometimes I save advice posts in a document in my "Resources" file. This one I am printing out to use this week. Thanks a million!

Question, though... I've also heard that an occasional bit of humor gives the reader a needed break in the tension. Do you agree?

Creston Mapes said...

Love Donald and would love to win his book!

Robin Bayne said...

Just finished a story where I found myself skimming portions-- definitely a lack of tension. Great article!

Jason said...

These are must read items. Thanks for sharing.

Linda said...

I'm a great Maass fan, and I teach fiction workshops as well as a novel writing class at a community college. I have learned so much from this approach to fiction. I'd love to win the book. Linda S. Clare

Gina Conroy said...

Creating conflict and tension is my favorite part of writing. Great exercises! Can't wait to implement them!

PatriciaW said...

I find that I agree and disagree. Jim H kind of hit it on the head in his comment. Books that make me skim a lot are disappointing, but reading is an emotion activity and I don't want to be on high burner all the time.

Maass is no doubt one of the masters and so I have to take his advice in that vein. Still, I find that there are different types of stories, or at least scenes,--and I'm not talking literary fiction--where constant tension just doesn't seem appropriate. Look at all the words that Maass used--ribbing, derision, questioning,etc--they all have a bit of a negative connotation. Yes, we want conflict in our stories, but not all conflict has such a negative tone to it. Some dialogue is happy, relaxed and less tension-filled. Some conflict is funny or poignant. Stories ebb and flow and this advice feels like all of one, none of the other.

Would probably be great to sit in one of his classes, about which I've heard nothing but good things, to get a more complete picture with examples of how this advice may be applied to one's story.

Guess I've demonstrated why I need to win his book. :-)

PatriciaW said...

Funny thing...

As I continue moving through my blog reading, I just came across a post by author Jody Hedlund about creating tension on every page (which references Donald Maass's microtension) and it helped to illustrate what Mr. Maass was saying here.

http://jodyhedlund.blogspot.com/2012/12/ten-techniques-for-getting-tension-on.html

Patti Shene, Executive Editor, Starsongs Magazine said...

Relating to Patricia W's comments, I agree that there needs to be positive, relaxed, happy, humorous dialogue and action. However, even those scenes, for me anyway, carry a bit of tension. Will the characters always be this happy? What's going to happen to upset all those good feelings or situations? Did everyone involved in that humorous scene find it funny, or did one of the characters take offense?

Thanks for a great post!

I'd love to win Mr Maas' book.

patgonzales(at)arkvi(dot)com.

Annette said...

I've printed this out to post on my wall next to my computer. Looking forward to your pre-conference workshop at Pennwriters in May!

Katherine Ernst said...

Thank you so much for this post!

Bill Peschel said...

Perhaps it should be considered a challenge. Not just to create tension, but to justify what's on the page. Are you saying something? Or are you wasting the reader's time.

At the risk of sounding pomo, you're interrogating the text and being as demanding of it as the best readers.

Martha Ramirez said...

Excellent!! Yup yup. I have a tension reminder on my external hard rive with notes from your previous book. Would love to win your 21st Century book! I have all the rest. :-)

Thank you for this

Kathryn Craft said...

Hi Don, great post! I've done this microtension testing with Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT—as much as writers enjoy maligning her work, I figured she had to be doing something right to sell so many books, and I was determined to find out what it was. And guess what? She passes this test with flying colors.

If I don't win your book I'll be buying it at the Pennwriters conference. Thanks for all your agency has been doing to support THE ART OF FALLING and I look forward to seeing you in May!

Lisa E said...

All of the posts on this site are so helpful but this one especially. This is one to print out and keep. Thank you!

Cory Clubb said...

Great post and give away!

Carol Silvis said...

Thanks for a great post! I can't wait to try these exercises.

Mark Entner said...

I love the idea of making each page an electromagnet. :-) I definitely have a lot of work to do. Thanks!

D. Ray said...

Thank you for your wonderful information. I get so much better with each draft because of your advice and shared knowledge. I really hope I win. Good luck everyone.

Avery Cove said...

Appreciate the post, and I'd love to win a copy of your book!

Margo Carmichael said...

Mm, I can already think of a few spots in my ms where I can apply this information! Thank you, Donald and Novel Rocket.

Avery Cove said...

Forgot to add email :(
averycove(at)gmail(dot)com

Kathy Otten said...

Great article. Love your Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Can't wait to meet you at the Pennwriters Conference in May. I'm signed up for your workshop. Yay!

Kit Tosello said...

Enjoyed/still enjoying Writing the Breakout Novel. Your new book sounds fabulous! I will give these exercises a try.

Jackie Castle said...

Though I do agree that there needs to be tension, books that just bang me over the head with too much tend to irritate me. Some stories are nothing more than one catastrophe after another and you see it coming. You know something else bad is about to happen. The story becomes predictable and in my opinion, annoying.

Writers need to find that middle ground. Yes, give me tension. But please, don't just throw things in thinking you're making the story more exciting.

Aside from that, Mr. Maass, as always, I enjoy your tips and writing advice.

jcastle (at)yahoo(dot) com

Jackie Castle said...

sorry, that's jcastle316 (at) yahoo (dot) com. oops.

Gina Holmes said...

We have a winner. Please visit our facebook page for results.

Laurie Evans said...

Great article. I'm going to apply these to my WIP this week.

Lisa Godfrees said...

If it's not too late, I'd love to be entered in the drawing.

The post on micro-tension is helpful but I need before and afters to really understand how to do this. Hopefully that's in the book. :)

lisa(dot)godfrees(at)gmail(dot)come

Season Harper-Fox said...

I think some writers may misunderstand tension. The idea isn't to wham readers over the head or keep them gasping for breath (that isn't what Maass means). Even a positive, lighter scene can be much stronger if there's a disturbing undercurrent. If something feels a little askew and keeps the reader wondering. I'd rather read (and write) the story that keeps me turning pages, and micro-tension is something I discuss in every fiction class I teach (I'd never even heard of it till I read chapter 8 in The Fire in Fiction).

Thank you, Mr. Maass. I've been reading your books on writing for years. Your wisdom makes me a better fiction instructor. And a stronger writer, too. I'm currently revising my novel. It needs more tension, and I'm on a writer on a mission (:

seasonhfox(at)gmail(dot)com

Pamela King Cable said...

Don Maass is to the writer what Lee Strasberg was to the actor. I've studied under Don on several occasions. His teaching is the basis upon which many of us write. Certainly, it is for me. Having just received reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal on a debut novel, I look back and am grateful that I bought every one of his books. Underlined, highlighted, and wore them out. Writing The Breakout Novel is the Bible for writers. Do yourself a favor. Memorize it. You'll be glad you did.

That being said, just remember, it's also about the natural talent of storytelling. That can't be taught.

Don't put my name in the hat for his book, I've already got it.

Tiffany Turpin Johnson said...

I loved the Breakout Novel books and can't wait to read this one next!

Rose Phillips said...

I skim when I read. I fear I write too many moments for skimming. I am screwed. Heavy sigh.