What’s the one goal every writer has for their novel?
To hook the reader.
Sure, there may be other goals. To entertain. To inspire. Some might even want to enrage. But at the end of the day, there’s one goal that is universal amongst writers: to create something that grabs the reader from page one and doesn’t let go until the very last word. After all, if your reader gets bored, you risk losing them. Readers have millions of options at their disposal when it comes to books. If you want to keep their attention, you have to fight for it.
Fortunately, there’s an answer for that: tension.
In terms of the craft of writing, tension is conflict. Conflict creates tension. The more conflict there is, the more tension there is. However, the creation of conflict itself is not enough to emotionally invest your readers in the world you are creating. Despite the fact that your characters might be feeling angry, scared, or desperate—that may not be the case for your readers.
In fact, I would venture to say that the key problem to most books is a lack of emotional resonance with readers.
For readers to be fully invested in the tension of the story, they don’t need to understand the tension the characters are feeling—readers need to feel tension themselves. The more the reader feels tense, the more they want to—no, have to know what will happen next. Unfortunately, often writers only consider big picture tension, or macrotension, when writing their book. Macrotension is plot. Ever heard of raising the stakes? That’s macro. Macrotension also includes that constant cycle of obstacle and goal that a character goes through to reach the climax.
Macrotension, while important, often doesn’t translate to the reader experiencing tension. So what does?
If macrotension is plot, microtension is, well—not. In fact, microtension is the tension and conflict that occurs on a line-by-line basis throughout your writing. Good microtension can be found in every page, in dialogue, actions, setting, and more. Often, microtension is described as a juxtaposition of what is really happening in the scene with what is described by the point of view character.
Lola put the meatloaf down on the table.
Not again. He’d had meatloaf every night for a week. “Meatloaf?”
“I didn’t feel like cooking tonight.”
“Well, I’m sick of it.” He groaned and pushed his plate away.
Lola slid the tin of meatloaf across the table.
The ketchup on top pooled, the scarlet sheen of a grease bomb he’d seen one too many times. “Meatloaf.” He took a thick slice and plopped it on his plate with a grin. Then he licked the ketchup from his fingertips and stood.
“I didn’t feel like cooking tonight.”
“Fantastic.” He gave her another grin for good measure. Then he tossed the whole thing—plate and all—in the garbage can.
Spot some of the differences? Besides the second being more descriptive, the second also isn’t quite as on the nose. With both, we understand the POV character isn’t thrilled about meatloaf. Yet the second example usd small details to clue us into the character’s emotion and gives the reader a chance to experience the tension between the two characters. Moreover, the second scene probably elicits an emotional response from the reader. (Want to punch the man in the face in the second scene? I know I did!)
Ways to Create Microtension
Microtension is created using conflict in a variety of ways throughout each scene. Here are some of the top things to consider:
Interior Dialogue: Take the opportunity to give the reader insight into what the character is thinking with everything that occurs. If a character has the opposite reaction of what a reader thinks the character should have, it’s a powerful opportunity for microtension!
Emotion: Layering the emotional responses of the character into every page is highly important. Emotion is a huge cue for manipulating reader response. Remember, just because a character feels something, doesn’t mean the reader will. But by giving insight into character emotion, the reader can start to sense the unstated emotions that the writer wants them to feel.
Dialogue: Try to use dialogue as a way to juxtapose what is being said with what is really happening. Subtext is hugely important to creating tension in dialogue.
Setting/Descriptors: The setting or descriptors in the scene have a very powerful effect on the way the reader feels about the scene. They also give us a ton of insight into the character. A Vietnam vet, for example, might not view a helicopter in the same way that an Alpine skier would. Thus, the way that helicopter is described by the character would change according to the character’s POV.
Remember, the more microtension you add to each page, the more likely you are to elicit a powerful emotional response from your reader. Readers who experience emotion are also readers who are likely to stay with you through your whole novel. And that’s the goal, after all.