Friday, September 16, 2016

How to Infuse Tension into a Scene Without Vivisecting Your Plot

Hello there, writerly reader, and thanks for stopping by. Today I'm going to be talking about a little something called microtension, which was at one time mysterious and confusing for me, but that I'm pleased to say, upon mastery, is not that difficult to understand or incorporate.

I had heard the term floating around for a while, but one of Donald Maass's books finally explained it to me. I was about to go look up which one, but instead, I'm going to recommend all his stuff. The two I read this past year are Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling and The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, and I have a couple more sitting waiting for my attention. If you want to be a better writer, gobble up everything he's published. I'm serious.

So what is microtension? It's any tension infused into a scene that keeps the reader wanting to know the outcome but that is not directly related to plot.

First I'll explain what it's not: What's the antagonist going to do next? How is the hero going to get out of this bind? What's the killer's identity? What's the resolution of this chapter cliffhanger? Those are all good things that make your audience read on, but they're not microtension. They're plot. If you removed them, you would lose a key piece of the story you're telling.

But sometimes you need to impart information that could be boring (back story, world-building), and you're not in a great position to enhance the plot while you do it. That's where microtension comes in.

Here are three examples, curated from movies and TV because it's easier to give those examples, and that's what I noticed when I was mastering this concept. Hey, you can learn a lot about storytelling from movies and TV.

(I have tried to leave out any spoilers that aren't absolutely essential to my explanation of microtension in case you haven't seen these.)

Example #1: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rey and Finn have stolen a junk ship from the planet of Jakku. Something's going wrong with a gas leak below the floorboards, Rey is attempting to fix it with Finn and BB-8's help. If she doesn't fix it quickly, they're going to die. That is the microtension.

During this entire scene, in which we the watchers are worried that the poison gas is going to kill them, she and Finn talk about what they need to do. They talk about the map that BB-8 is carrying and where they could possibly go next. That is the boring but important plot information.

If the poison gas leak was removed from the scene, you would lose no vital plot information; however, if you removed the discussion about BB-8's map, you would. The microtension makes it (more) interesting than if they were sitting in the cockpit with their feet up on the console.

Example #2: The Sixth Sense

Child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe meets Cole Sear in his apartment for the first time. Malcolm wants to talk to Cole about the difficulties he's been having at school and elsewhere. All in good fun, Malcolm says he's a psychic and he can figure out what Cole is thinking. Malcolm makes a bet that if he gets answers correct, Cole will step forward, and when he gets to the chair, he must sit down and talk to Malcolm. That is the microtension.

As Malcolm asks questions, we unravel some interesting information about Cole. He's seeing and hearing things. We find out that what Malcolm is assuming about Cole (that he's a disturbed boy) is not correct; we discover that Cole does actually see dead people. That is the boring but important plot information.

During the scene, we want Cole to move forward and sit in the chair. Well, I did. Maybe if you're that kind of person, you didn't want him to, but the point is the same: you had feelings about Cole moving forward or backward. But if you removed the bet from the scene, it wouldn't make any difference to the outcome. Cole would impart some back story, and Malcolm would get stressed out about it.

Example #3: House, M.D.

I actually don't remember the details of this one all that well because it was just another House episode wherein House is being House. They're trying to figure out what's wrong with a patient, and for whatever reason, Dr. House decides to make Dr. Cameron (a female) come into the men's room while he pees in the urinal. She's obviously uncomfortable with this, but she goes along with it. That is the microtension.

She and the three other doctors talk about a possible diagnosis. That is the boring but important plot information.

I wanted to include this example even though the details have faded from my memory because it illustrates that microtension doesn't have to be something particularly intensive. Make a character uncomfortable and want something--to escape, to tell off the person being a jerk, to quit their job--and you've got microtension.

To Wrap Up

I hope that these examples helped illustrate what microtension is, and I hope you can see the immediate applicability to your writing. They're not a substitute for engaging plot, and I would always encourage you to trim away as much of the non-essentials that you can. But if you're got something that you think, "Ho, hum, this is important but sort of not interesting," you can use microtension to fix it.

In fact, you can use microtension to fix things that are already interesting. Don't have too much going on, but if something is just slightly saggy--hey, slap some poison gas in that room.

One Final Note

Thank you for sticking around to read to the end of this post. Before you go...

I didn't want to take up an entire blog slot with just this information, so hopefully the previous tidbits on microtension are useful to you.

It is with mixed emotions that I'm announcing that I'm leaving Operation Awesome. It's been a whirlwind year, and I'm glad for all the connections I've made and writers I've (hopefully) encouraged. Thank you all for your participation in the Friday flash fiction contests, and I'm sorry I didn't pick better books to engage more people in the monthly book club. ;)

I will be helping behind the scenes during the upcoming Pass or Pages, although I don't want to take credit for it or anything--our awesome team of Operatives that are sticking around will continue to be here and support that. We had a GREAT turnout this time, and we're all so glad this contest is beneficial to you.

I'm not going anywhere writing-wise. A stand-alone book in my Fallen Redemption series is coming out in October, I'm trying to finish up the last book in the series before the end of the year, and I'm looking to start writing a whole new series soon. I've got over a dozen short stories on submission, with several in second-look piles (oh great, did I just jinx myself?). I've decided to whole-heartedly pursue self-publishing, which means marketing replaces querying. I'm slush reading for Flash Fiction Online, and I'm volunteering as a Netgalley approver/other miscellaneous for SFWA.

So, phew.

Being honest here, blogging is really not for me--I tried this and I struggled, so I'm moving on to things that I am good at. HOWEVER, I really love helping newer writers, so I do definitely try to give back to the community in other ways! If you need anything at all, a shoulder to cry on, advice on writing, some eyes on your query, hit me up on Twitter @Saboviec.

Thank you all for this opportunity. Whatever it is you're working on--make 'em cry.


S. L. Saboviec grew up in a small town in Iowa but became an expat for her Canadian husband, whom she met in the Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game Star Wars: Galaxies (before the NGE, of course). She holds a B.S. in Physics, which qualifies her to B.S. about physics and occasionally do some math for the sci-fi stories she concocts. Her dark, thought-provoking science fiction & fantasy contains flawed, relatable characters and themes that challenge the status quo.

Her short fiction has appeared in AE and Grievous Angel. She's a member of SFWA and a slush pile reader at Flash Fiction Online. Her debut novel, Guarding Angel, received an honorable mention in the 23rd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. The sequel, Reaping Angel, is out now, and the stand-alone companion novel, The Impending Possession of Scarlet Wakebridge-Rosé, releases Oct. 3.

Grab your FREE copy of the short story "When Your Time Is Up" when you sign up for her newsletter.

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  1. I LOVE the micro tension part and HATE the you leaving part. Thanks for simplifying this concept for me :0)

  2. I'm not sure why you think you're bad a blogging! If its lack of comments, they don't measure much. I almost never comment, but I read nearly all of your book club picks, including the Steven King book is which now my favorite craft book of all time. Loved the weird motivating software thingy for about 10 minutes, and your no-nonsense approach. Whoever is telling you that you're not good at blogging is wrong.

  3. Your explanation of microtension is super helpful. I wish you the best!!


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