This is something my CP Erin Latimer talks about a lot, and she has a great post on the subject on her blog. You should certainly read her remarks on the subject, but I’m just going to elaborate a little bit here.
Micro tension is basically what it sounds like. You’ve got your major conflict that covers the whole story, but you’ve also got miniature conflicts going on. Often these conflicts are as small as a couple sentences.
To give you an example of micro tension, I’m going to refer to movies and television, where micro tension is a little easier to see because it’s so visual. Imagine you’re watching a movie and the camera focuses on a guy watching a girl just a little longer than would be normal. The clip may only last two seconds. But you can gain a lot in those two seconds. It clues you in that something is happening with this guy and this girl. Maybe he wants to kiss her. Maybe he wants to hurt her. Maybe he knows her from somewhere else. Whatever it is, you want to know.
Two seconds of screen time can raise all these questions that will keep the audience intrigued. So how do we do the same thing in writing?
The answer is that it’s in the little things. The tone of voice your character uses. The little ways they react to things. The trick, as Erin points out in her post, is to keep it subtle. You don’t want to put a billboard up that says “HERE IS A LITTLE SOURCE OF CONFLICT YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT!”
Keep it subtle. Keep the reader wondering and flipping pages.
Here are some of my favorite books with micro tension:
- Unwind by Neal Shusterman
- The Selection by Kiera Cass
- A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller
- The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann
- The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- The Last Dragon Slayer by Jasper Fforde
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
- The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen