Using Micro-tension to keep them reading

Jane Friedman, one of my favorite online writing advisors, had an intriguing guest blog Sunday morning by C.S. Lakin, a well-known author, copyeditor, and book coach, about micro-tension..

Lakin holds that ingredients of a commercially successful novel include scenes that deliver a punch in the last lines, have evocative, rich sensory detail, dynamic dialogue that accomplishes much more than conveying information, and the most understated ingredient­­–micro-tension. Few writers understand what this is and how it can be used in fiction.

Tension is created by lack of understanding, lack of closure, lack of equilibrium or peace. When your readers have questions, that creates tension. When they need to know what happens next, that is tension. But, while our characters may be tense, but that doesn’t mean readers are tense in response.

             The tension we want to focus on most is the tension our readers feel by focusing on micro-tension on every page.

I don’t want to repeat Lakins blog here but refer you to that. However, she uses a few examples from the blockbuster best seller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, greet each other one morning—like any married couple we’d expect.

   At the start of the scene, we get this strange thought in Nick’s head as he describes the wake-up ritual.

“The sun climbed over the skyline of oaks, revealing its full summer angry-god self. Its reflection flared across the river toward our house, a long blaring finger aimed at me through our frail bedroom curtains. Accusing: You have been seen. You will be seen.

Wait a minute. The sun is not warm and bright and inviting? It’s angry, accusatory: You have been seen. You will be seen. What’s going on here?

We immediately are piqued with curiosity—What is Nick feeling guilty about? What has he done? That alone might get many readers turning pages.

She gives several other examples. Then I remembered that I had Gone Girl  on my book shelf and hadn’t read it yet. I grabbed it to check out the opening pages. Wow. Now I know what Lakin was talking about.

Nick and his wife, Amy, moved into a new house on the Mississippi River two years ago, having left New York City.

“It’s a rented house right along the Mississippi River, a house that screams Suburban Nouveau Riche, the kind of place I aspired to as a kid from my split-level, shag-carpet side of town. The kind of house that is immediately familiar: a generically grand, unchallenging, new, new, new  house that my wife would–and did– detest.  Her first line upon arrival had been, “Should I remove my soul before I come inside?”

What the hell is wrong with Amy? How have they been living here the last two years? Who’s at fault for this fiasco?

Side note. How about split-level, shag-carpet side of town? Isn’t that great!

You get the point. Ten pages into the book and I KNOW I’m going to keep reading right now. My curiosity has peaked, I need answers–reader tension.