Micro Tension

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
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Query Critique 70

Dear (Agent whose name I’ve absolutely spelled correctly)

(Something personal about how I found you and why we’d be a good fit, to show this isn’t a mass submission)

11-year old misfit GWENDOLYN GRAY has a big imagination, which can cause a lot of trouble in a world where creativity is a crime. But when she finds a mysterious relic from THE CITY’s past, her imagination won’t stay confined to the inside of her head, and her life goes off the rails–forests spring up in the middle of the road, furry orange creatures run amok in her bedroom, and she certainly didn’t mean to make MISSY CARTBLATT grow a pair of rabbit ears… The words in caps are a little distracting. I would nix that. Fun premise, though.

Now she is being hunted by the faceless gentlemen, MISTER FIVE and MISTER SIX, who are determined to drain her imagination before it infects the rest of The City and disrupts its delicate balance.

With the unexpected help of SPARROW and STARLING, two young explorers who are lost between worlds, Gwendolyn escapes to the fantasy realm of TOHK, meets a dashing airship captain, and battles bloodthirsty pirates. Gwendolyn must learn to unleash the power of her fantasies to stop the faceless gentlemen and save both worlds, or be erased. But the secret at the heart of The City might be more than Gwendolyn can bear–after all, you can’t save the world when it ended a long time ago… This last sentence is sort of vague for my taste. There are quite a few characters introduced in the query. Make sure they’re all doing something for the query.

THE GIVER meets THE NEVERENDING STORY, wrapped up in a steampunk bow. List your word count and genre. Also, have you read Lisa McMann’s The Unwanteds, because it has a very similar premise. Might make a good comp title. And because it is so similar, you may want to focus on how your book is different.

Creative Guy (Guy to his begrudging friends) is a first-time author and a fifth-grade teacher with a questionable habit of testing his work on captive 10-year-olds, who all claim to love it, but probably just want him to hurry up so they can go to recess.

Agent Intern Chat

This is sort of an in case you missed it sort of thing, since this happened awhile ago. I got together with some of the other wonderful interns at A+B Works and we did a live hangout where we chatted about the business, answered questions, and did a live critique!

You can watch it here, even if you missed the original broadcast.