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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?”
Let me be clear about that.
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.
· 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.