Increasing Micro-Tension

I have read a lot of things on twitter lately about people who are using things like historical settings, fantasy or science and technology as ways to increase the tension in their stories. For the people who are writing a historical, fantasy or scifi novel, that’s perfect, but if nothing about the plot lends itself to those genres, the setting quickly feels like a gimmick.

Sure, many of the people discussing this are declaring warnings, but seeing it appear so much has made me wonder why? Why would you put a story in a historical setting, why would you do all that research, why would you force a story into a hole it clearly wasn’t made for?
As I’ve thought about it (without having read any of them), it feels like the motivation is driven by a longing for increased tension, heightened stakes, something to set it apart. 
As a high school creative writing teacher, I am often the first person to read young writer’s work (okay, besides their best friend and their mom, but those aren’t usually optimal critical sources). One of the greatest issues I see from these new writers is they don’t understand the concept of micro-tension. They know that the zombies need to attack, that there is a serial killer in the school, that if true love doesn’t happen, all will be lost, but they spin their wheels – and write insane amounts of meaningless dialogue – to fill up page requirements trying to get there.

It’s easy to spot in their stories, but I know the same thing happens in mine as well. The key to making the story matter, to raising the stakes in a way that will engage the reader is micro-tension.

Micro-tension is difficult to understand because it is so familiar. We experience this when we wake to go to work only to be blindsided by a surge of congestion courtesy of allergy season. Or when a child remembers four minutes before they are supposed to be on a bus that they were supposed to bring a tent to school. Or when a trip is planned and the travelers want to try and avoid spending $100 for parking a car. 
Of course, when we break down our days, it’s easy to see where the tension ebbed and flowed, but often we forget our very real characters would experience the same thing. 

1. Relationships

I’m an early bird, my husband is a night owl. We have to practice patience with each other during our not peak times (yes, there was a learning curve). I work with a person who takes liberties with her absences from the classroom while I’m very determined to only miss when absolutely necessary. There’s the micro-tension of having family rules that are different that the neighbor’s, of trying to align expectations with any of the people around us, and negotiating presumed expectations – both our own and those perceived. 

2. Complications

This is probably the source of many people’s micro-tension and I’m not talking about the big moments. Does that middle grade student remember they have a test? Did the YA girl have everything perfect for prom only to find she forgot bobby pins? Does the mother of four maintain a house of order but find that she could never plan for the power outage?

3. Situations

There have been times when I go to a work meeting with the intent to take the knowledge given and go about my day only to discover I have opinions and they won’t sit still. I recently had a pitch session at a writer’s conference, and if you want to see the manifestation of micro-tension, sit outside where these are happening (see also students lined up to see a counselor, people waiting for a job interview). This could be as small as backing out of a driveway and a child runs behind, taking a dog for a walk and CAT!, or even having someone say they will be somewhere at a certain time and then they aren’t. 

4. Desires

I was scheduled for a pitch on purpose – I have a desire to step further into the world of publication. I want my kids to be successful and happy (see also, spouse). I want my friends books to sell well, my grieving friends to find peace, my day to go smoothly. We all know people who want to sleep through the night, who long for love and companionship, who want to find a sense of purpose and satisfaction. While teens are a tricky bunch, they want to know what they’re goals are, want to have people understand their true nature, what to know what that is for themselves. 
While there are many other ways micro-tensions can manifest, the key as a writer is to remember that our realistic characters would have them too. And the way that we make that character more realistic is through showing the readers our characters’ responses – do they react with anger? Do they draw further within themselves? All these things are essential for a good story, are realistic, and will make the voice of the story feel more true and will allow writers to connect with readers without having to find a gimmick to hook them.
How do you increase micro-tension in your stories? Can you think of a book that does this well?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

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