Writing Macro and Micro Tension

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Last evening, my class on Show Don’t Tell Scenes asked how to write micro-tension into scenes. While I didn’t invent this concept (thanks, Donald Maass!), I’d like to offer a few tips for creating micro-tension in your fictional scenes.

Writing Tip for Today: What is micro-tension and how do you use in in fiction scenes?

Character is Story

When a fictional character is well-developed, readers gain almost as much excitement from the character’s inner tension (micro) as from tension coming from the story’s plot (macro). Why? A strong, memorable character has several defining qualities.

First, an extraordinary character doesn’t do things the way most of us would. Where ordinary people might think, don’t rock the boat, this character isn’t afraid to confront the opposition. He strides right into the fray, armed with qualities such as honesty, loyalty, generosity, perhaps the capacity to forgive. Because this character holds his beliefs firmly, readers feel confident that he’ll do the right thing—eventually. We gain energy from the character’s boldness and straightforward morals or ethics.

This character also has self-regard. That is, she doesn’t just blindly crash through life. No, she reflects on her actions and beliefs and evaluates herself in terms of the larger picture. She’s self-conscious in a way that show readers not just what we are, but what we can be.

This strong, larger-than-life character isn’t all superman,
though. He is vulnerable, has weak spots like all humans. The weaknesses of
this character most often arise from an inner struggle, a battle with the self.
He may be generous with everyone but himself. He can forgive others for
mistakes but refuses to give himself a break. Put simply, this character often
has an inner grudge against himself—one that doesn’t show on the outside, but
one that is eating him alive.

Balance Inner and Outer Tension

As you might tell from the character we are describing, she
appears to handle big crises in the world much more easily and with better
results than the little fires that ignite in her relationships or within
herself. But how much space should you devote to each? Stories with little emphasis
on the “inner person” will feel less developed, more stereotypical or
cartoonish. Stories with only inner struggle and not much action can make
readers feel trapped in a character’s head.

Striving for a balance between the outer and the inner helps
solve both problems. Balance is more likely if you add more macro-tension to
the plot’s action and interaction between characters (outer tension) and pile
on the micro-tension by putting the character at odds with his own emotions.

Conflicting Emotions 101

Micro-tension sounds difficult, but it will enhance your
story’s outer (macro) tension. Let’s say your character desires a solid, loving
relationship—he’s lonely and hates rattling around by himself. BUT, the character
has been hurt by his previous relationship, and he has publicly or private (or
both!) vowed never to trust anyone with his heart again. In every scene
(especially early scenes), Character’s emotions push and pull at him—all while he’s
acting strong, forgiving and perfectly fine, thanks. This is micro-tension.
Allow your character’s doubts, fears and dislikes to openly mingle on the page
with her display of confidence, courage and affections.

How, you ask? One student asked me how to “show, not tell” a character’s regret. I suggested she first note her own regrets in life. Where in the body does she feel regret? What does she do to try to overcome it? In my life, I tend to feel regret first in my solar plexus, then as a hollow feeling in my chest. To try to get over it, I usually wind up obsessing over the thing I regret, scolding myself for obsessing, temporarily distracting myself and then starting all over again.

Weave Micro-tension in and around actions and dialogue, with relevant snips of back story to add to the drama. Pay attention to the rhythm of the beats—sentences—that add this tension without slowing down the scene too much. A person at war within herself will transfer tension to the scene as it unfolds, adding interest and making that character deeper and more believable. For help building a character arc, KM Weiland’s book, Creating Character Arcs is helpful.

One note of caution: As you add micro-tension, take care not
to allow your character to become a drama queen at the story’s expense. Readers
crave authentic conflicted emotions, not histrionics and poor me attention-seeking.
As you heighten your story’s tension and micro-tension, test for authenticity
by examining your character’s motives. Micro-tension that grows naturally out
of character motivation will have readers turning pages late into the night.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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