I came across the following micro-tension exercises by literary agent Donald Maass. He writes about how to create micro-tension in his craft books “The Fire in Fiction” and “Writing 21st Century Fiction.” I’m quoting the following from an article that I found here. I’ll admit to never (yet) consciously applying his ideas, but, since I’m now involved in both a stem-to-stern rewrite of one novel and beginning a new one, I think I’m gonna do it. One exercise that really interests me is the last one below. See what you think.
Micro-Tension exercises by Donald Maass
- 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. (In a workshop I attended he suggested throwing them in the air and then pick the randomized pages back up.) 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.
For what it’s worth.
© 2015 Ray Rhamey