Sunday, April 19, 2009

Beachtalk with Donald Maass: On Creating Micro-tension

“Great storytelling is the key to success as a novelist,” says Donald Maass, the legendary literary agent who founded his own firm in 1980 and now sells more than 150 novels a year in the US and abroad, including work by Stuart Kaminsky, Thomas H. Cook, Anne Perry, Diane Duane, Todd McCaffrey, and David Zindell.

It was while Maass was writing his own novels under various pen names in the 1980s that he learned how to plot a compelling story. “Ninety-nine percent of a story’s success,” Maass says, “is in the manuscript. Everything else flows from that.”

Much of the knowledge about writing stories that he learned on his own (and from working with hundreds of authors at his agency and in the writing workshops that he offers around the country) Maass shares in his enormously well-received books on writing–The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004).

Now Maass has written another book on writing, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, which writers are likely to consider just as indispensable to their understanding of their craft as his earlier work.

The Fire in Fiction is scheduled for release next month, and Maas was kind enough to chat with us on the beach and offer Wordswimmer readers a brief (non-exclusive) excerpt from the book on creating micro-tension in stories.

Conflict is story. We hardly need discuss that any further. Every novelist who’s gotten beyond the beginner stage knows it. What many do not grasp, though, including many published novelists, is that what keeps us turning hundreds of pages is not a central conflict, main problem or primary goal.

Think about it. If that was all it took to get keep readers involved to the end, then all you would have to do is set a principal plot problem at the outset. Then you could indulge yourself however you like for hundreds of pages.


Of course it is not like that. Conflict must be present in smaller ways throughout. Most novelists understand that too, or say they do. Despite that I am able to skim vast swaths of virtually all manuscripts and portions of many published novels.

What is it, then, that keeps us reading all the way? Is it conflict within each scene; a character in every chapter who has a clearly stated goal? Is it avoiding low-tension traps such as back story, aftermath, landscape and weather openings, empty exposition and unneeded dialogue? Is it keeping the action moving? Is it throwing in sex and violence for occasional jolts of adrenalin and allure? Is it luck?

What keeps us reading every word on every page of a novel is none of that. Consider the page turners on your shelves that do open with weather or scenery, or quickly dump in back story, or linger in aftermath and indulge in exposition. How do those authors get away with it?

Conversely, think about those highly-plotted, action-packed novels that didn’t hold your attention. Think about the violence that moved you not at all and the sex scenes that you skipped. Weren’t those novelists doing it right, writing by the rules? How come, then, you set those novels aside?

Holding a reader’s attention every word of the way is a function not of the type of novel you’re writing, a good premise, tight writing, quick pace, showing not telling or any of the other conventionally understood and frequently taught principles of storytelling.

Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether: Micro-tension. That is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen—not in the story, but in the next few seconds.
As Maass suggests, micro-tension is essential to keeping a reader’s attention firmly fixed on the page, and you’ll have to read his new book to understand what he means by micro-tension and how to establish it in your work.

But I’d like to explore the idea of micro-tension a bit more here to try and understand how it might operate to hold a reader’s attention.

First off, the term alone–micro-tension–implies a larger tension in a story, say, macro-tension, which in turn suggests two levels operating within the story simultaneously.

On the macro level, you have to establish the main character’s ultimate goal–the thing that he or she is striving for with all his or her being, and on which the success or failure of his or her quest or journey will rest.

On the micro level, though, you have to create a series of steps which lead your character toward that ultimate goal, and each step must contain tension or conflict in order to satisfy the principle of micro-tension.

What Maass doesn’t say in this excerpt is that tension on the micro or macro level cannot be sustained at full intensity through the course of the story.

Rather, that tension must rise and fall and rise again in a series of undulating, wave-like scenes that draw the reader into the conflict and spin him out of that conflict into another new (more difficult or dangerous) situation ... in which he faces yet another conflict.

In other words, micro tension is based on scenes, and the scenes are built around conflict, and the conflict must rise in tension within the scene itself... and then must rise again as scene A flows into scene B and so forth... so that the tension on the micro and macro levels can build toward a climax.

Imagine each scene like the rung of a ladder that the character must climb in order to reach the next rung and the next.

Plot then becomes the melding together of character and action, with each action the character takes bringing him into greater conflict or danger... always closer to his ultimate goal... which he is constantly in danger of losing by virtue of the greater and greater conflict that he must face.

What I find helpful about Maass’ description of micro-tension is the way it helps break down the plot into subsections or segments (like rungs of a ladder), each segment filled with an increasing level of tension that the character must make his way through in order to fulfill his destiny.

Anyway, thanks to Maass for raising these questions and for suggesting that we look closer at micro-tension as a way of strengthening our stories.

For more information about The Fire in Fiction, visit:

For more on how Maass helps writers find the micro-tension in their work, visit:

If you’d like to read more about Maass and his agency, visit his website:

And if you’re interested in reading interviews with Maass, visit:


Barbara O'Connor said...

This sounds great! It's on my list.

gaelwriter said...

You do a good job of taking Maass's comments on micro-tension and showing how they can be structured into the story.

Remember how Jon Franklin ("Writing for Story") outlined his Major Complication, and all his related, interlinked Semi-Major Complications, wherein all the latter are confronted and resolved as we work through our story, 'climbing the ladder,' right up to the Major Resolution? Good practical piece of work, that. Maass's advice here, too; I looked at his "Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook" on Chuck's recommendation.

Motormind said...

micro tension is based on scenes

No, micro-tension is totally unrelated to scenes or any other larger elements. It's the tension inherent in the text itself. It's the rubbing of personalities, or the struggle with minor issues.