Micro-tension – the secret ingredient of great fiction

tree in water at the sunset - micro-tension

There are many books devoted to creative writing. So many that if an aspiring author decided to read them all before ever putting pen to paper, he would die and be reborn a disturbingly high number of times before he could actually write a single word.

Maybe–just maybe–if you firmly believe in reincarnation this is not necessarily a big deal. But for all other aspiring writers it undoubtedly is.

Luckily, though creative writing is a complex and extremely nuanced subject, it also offers a notable perk. That’s to say you can try any technique, any style, any suggestion without having to worry that your work might cause a disaster down the line.

With bridges, and airliners, and skyscrapers, and space shuttles flaws–even apparently insignificant ones–can cause disasters beyond belief.

With a book you can enrage your readers. But ultimately the death toll is nil. Of course your reputation and self-esteem may end up in shatters, but that’s all. And it’s nothing you can’t mend later on. Picasso produced thousands of paintings. But he is remembered and considered a genius thanks to a small percentage of them, not the other way around.

By the same token, as a reader, the authors I most respect I respect for the books of theirs I read and loved, not for the ones I didn’t like.

As a result, more than the number of how-to books you’ve read, it is important that the books you put into such a collection are the best you can find around. The best for you.

In fact, many books just repeat what many others have already said. Mostly they fashion their advice in a different style.

This might look like a minor detail. But I think it is not. In fact every one of us tend to find certain examples more illuminating than others.  So while two books may well offer the same type of advice, they can nonetheless cater for the learning styles of different groups of people.

A concept that is often repeated at ibidem in such how to books is that stories require conflict. A lot of conflict indeed.

This piece of advice is certainly useful. But it doesn’t answer an important question. That is, how come that sometimes we read long passages–indeed, even whole books–where conflict though present is muted and tuned down rather than exasperated?

Furthermore, many say prologues are to be avoided at all costs. But I do enjoy reading prologues. If they are well written and meaningful to the story I want them to stay where they are. For me reading a well written prologue is like shaking hands with a friend I haven’t seen for ages.

The same goes for descriptions. Certain descriptions are organic to the story. So much so that the idea of cutting them out just because someone said they have to be kept to a minimum, most likely oscillating between zero and nonexistence, is simply ludicrous.

Backstory is also another uselessly endangered species. Again, I love reading backstory. I do. If it’s done well and helps to better understand a character I welcome it. It’s perfectly fine also if it helps to better understand the dynamic of the passing of time.

What I mean is that conflict alone cannot be what makes a story tick. In fact, we have plenty of novels where the stakes are nothing less than the survival of whole societies or even of the human race. Yet they fall flat on their faces. Readers get bored and walk away.

Others stories that have the same stakes turn instead into bestsellers, or instant classics.

In fact while conflict is an important ingredient of the concoction that turns a drab piece of writing into a living symphony, what really makes sing every single page must be something that is closely related to conflict but much more subtle and malleable.

This something is micro-tension.

What is micro-tension

Think of the brain. It thinks grandiose thoughts. It sets goals. It experiences elation and anguish, and just about any other kind of contrasting emotion, of conflict. Yet, what makes the body tick is the heart. Its constant and almost unnoticed beating.

Micro-tension is like that. A constant and barely noticeable rhythm that keeps your prose alive. Even if the ultimate goal of the novel  is still four hundred pages away.

Another metaphor I find useful to understand micro-tension has to do with running. When I was a boy and I was starting out as a runner, an older friend of mine gave me a simple but extremely effective tip.

He told me that to keep going I had to focus my attention on the stretch of road or of trail I had right in front of me. That meant I had to focus my attention on things like a tree just fifty meters away. On a pothole along the road. On nearby bushes. Clumps of flowers. Even lampposts, which are notoriously extremely boring.

When I put this trick into practice I discovered that keeping my mind focused on those small and easy to reach goals gave me a small but meaningful boost every time I reached one of them. And this prevented me from feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

Now that I’ve been running for many years I no longer need to constantly use that trick. But I always have it at my disposal and on those rare days I feel I’m toiling away and not enjoying my running I still resort to it. And even if it can’t turn a bad day into an over-the-top experience, this simple trick can do a lot nonetheless.

Micro-tension is like that. It is the art of transforming an apparently flat and nondescript straight into a series of meaningful steps.

Micro-tension has to do with any feature of your writing that forces your readers to subliminally ask themselves questions. Questions that are going to be answered within a short time frame.

Some examples of micro-tension


Every time I breathed, the air in my windpipe was so cold it hurt me. I was so cold I even began to hallucinate. I had the impression the cold and the snow had found a way to enter my body. And that the snow, as white as my bones were, wasn’t just  burying them but dabbing them out of existence.


The cold and the snow were no longer around me. They were inside me. Blown on by a harsh wind, the snow whirled, and I could feel it fall on my bones. White on White. One glacial flake after the other the snow wasn’t just  burying my bones, but dabbing them out of existence.

Both descriptions try to force readers to ask themselves questions. But while description 1 starts out in a pretty banal way and only at the end creates an interesting image, description 2 strives from the very beginning to force readers to ask themselves questions. It uses a somewhat deeper and intimate point of view and an oblique way to describe things.

However, this obliqueness never turns into sheer incomprehensibility. In this way the moment readers realize what they are reading about, they experience a small but gratifying ah-a moment.


The moment Morrison looked at the photo on the desk, he thought about carnival. Even if he didn’t like carnival, and parades weren’t his forte. Not even Brazilian parades, with those lush samba dancers shaking their asses as if the last Chilean earthquake had just gotten them.

He shook his head. The framed photo on the desk spoke of two daughters and a wife. But not of a family.

In the picture, Kimball’s wife stared at the lens. And curled her lips in a parody of a smile. Here. Parody. Morrison smiled to himself. Parody and parade. That was why he had thought of carnival. Or maybe not. Anyway.

He focused back on the picture, on Kimball’s wife. Yes, there was no doubt. Her smile was a parody. And Kimball had to have chosen the best parody he was able to find for his desk. But the picture still looked as fake as the tits she sported under her tight blouse.

Morrison grimaced at the realization. It hadn’t been the association of parody and parade. But those pair of outrageously fake tits that had made him think of carnival.

You need to get a life, he told himself, still waiting for Kimball.

You fingerprints, always yours

As you can see, micro-tension can be applied in an infinite variety of manners. In fact it can be said that micro-tension is where the true voice of a writer finds its way. Because it’s what you are and how you think that will lead you to think of certain ways to create micro-tension rather than others.

What? You’re thinking I’m obsessed with carnival dancers and fake boobs and bones and snow? I don’t know. Maybe I am. Or maybe not. I should write a lot more, and you should read a lot more as well to have any statistical support for such claims. And then, in any case, keep in mind that in fiction are lies that tell the ultimate truth…

If you want to read more about micro-tension you can go and check out The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass. It’s a nifty and extremely useful handbook. It’s worth every page.

Pictures: jplenio – amid313 – skeeze

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