the mysterious art that keeps your reader glued to every page



Few people know the ins and outs of fiction — and have a knack for explaining them — so well as uberagent Donald Maass. In his book “The Fire in Fiction” he dedicates a chapter to what he calls microtension.

A writer who masters the art of microtension keeps a reader glued to every page.

Not many writers, Maass points out, can actually do this.

Conflict is story, as every writer knows (and to those who say character is story, I say conflict reveals and deepens character and character drives conflict, so I’m not sure you can truly separate them). But what keeps a reader turning pages is often not the Big Conflict that informs the novel.

Think of the last action-packed thriller you read or saw onscreen that left you….bored during the middle act, when nothing much seemed to be happening, even if you were invested in the characters.

That would be the equivalent of a martial arts fighter who lands a powerful kick…so long as he has enough distance to do so. Get in close, though – take away his ability to throw kicks and punches – and he’s lost. He lacks what Harriet Rubin calls “micropower…the power to act in small tight dangerous spaces.”

For a fiction writer, micropower is the ability to keep the reader fascinated in the small tight spaces page by page, line by line….those dangerous spaces where the reader can lose interest and start to skim, or toss the book aside altogether.

Maass says microtension comes from this: emotions in conflict.

Dialogue becomes compelling when the two speakers are emotionally at odds with each other: perhaps one is dubious of the other’s argument. The reader reads on, wanting to know – needing to know – if, at the end of the conversation, the speakers will be reconciled.

Description and exposition become compelling when they’re framed within an emotional juxtaposition. The narrator reminisces about the idyllic summer when she was 12 and her family rented a cottage on the lake…except, from the start of the description, her tone is tense and apprehensive. The reader senses within the narrator an inner emotional conflict that undercuts the sweet nostalgia of what she is describing. The reader wants to know why that is…and reads on.

Maass puts forward this concept clearly and well, and I highly recommend both the chapter and the book. But it made me think of another book, Sally Hogshead’s FASCINATE: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation.

Through the masterful use of conflict (or microconflict) and microtension, writers pull the “fascination trigger” known as mystique.

Conflict is story because conflict raises questions. Put two different forces at odds with one another, and that raises questions about how the situation came to be…and how, or whether, it will be resolved. Thus, conflict generates mystery. Mystique. Which Hogshead describes as “revealing enough to pique curiosity, yet shadowy enough to prompt questions…provoking our imagination, hinting at the possibilities, inviting us to move closer while eluding our grasp. It doles out information without ever actually giving anything away.”

Hogshead points out that of the seven triggers, mystique “is the most nuanced and…most difficult to achieve” (which supports Maass’s statement that, in his experience, few writers do it right). Mystique is about sparking the reader’s curiosity, and then “doling out information” in a way that does not satiate that curiosity but “builds mystique around a message by gradually introducing new information and meaning, adding layers of mythology.” In the case of a novel, the “message” would be the story’s central conflict.

The novel’s microtensions are raised and resolved in a way that builds and deepens the story through the “layering” of all the little stories (microstories) of character and theme.

What do you think?



Mar 7, 2010

21 comments · Add Yours

Wow, I’ve tried to explain this to people before. You nailed it. Well done.


Wonderfully articulated and here’s to hoping I can someday get to that in my work. I’m a novice writer, so the craft of writing can seem overwhelming to me. For now, I’m working on just getting myself out of the way and writing from the heart.


“Think of the last action-packed thriller you read or saw onscreen that left you….bored during the middle act, when nothing much seemed to be happening, even if you were invested in the characters.”

I think you have a bad taste in your mouth from that action flick referenced many posts ago ;P


no, sadly, I can think of quite a few :)


The more I read these kinds of articles and books that get at the nuanced aspects of bringing your story out in all its glory, the more I see how revision and rewriting are the nuts and bolts of good writing. It’s like painting layers upon layers to achieve a rich interpretation of the subject. It may be a lot of work, but I imagine it will be so much more satisfying than looking at the first couple of layers.
Thanks for the excellent post!


I just read a book that was missing ‘microtension’ and I skimmed through the last hundred pages. It was very disappointing, to say the least. Conflict on every page! Good description of what that conflict could be- even a conversation should have conflict. Unless it’s the end of the book;)


I just did too — maybe we read the same book. :) The first third or so was gripping and I was really involved with the story and the characters and loving the book. And then…it lost me, and I wasn’t entirely sure why (a lot of the events were being told in summary or summary/half-scene, but other authors have done that and still kept me deeply involved). Reading Maass helped me understand why. I started skimming, kept skimming, and then cast it aside.


thank you! and thanks for commenting.


Don’t be overwhelmed. Just read a lot and write a lot and take your time absorbing and digesting everything you learn…Your subconscious is a powerful thing. Just keep feeding it information and examples and stories, stories, stories, and the stuff that might seem overwhelming to you now will start surfacing naturally in your own work. (Reading fiction is still, in my mind, the best way of learning how to write fiction…nothing teaches like actual example. Although blog posts help!)


Yeah, so much of the ‘real’ writing happens in revision and it’s a wonderful process….It’s a shame so many beginning writers don’t really let themselves embrace it — or perhaps more accurately, don’t embrace the kind of tough-love constructive criticism that is often required for that level of revision to take place.


Two forces in opposition to each other? How simple to say … and hard to do. I can barely keep my characters stumbling to the end.


it’s in the little things…keep an eye out for all the little inner and outer conflicts you experience in the course of a day..there’s microtension in your comment, and you weren’t even trying. See? You’re better than you think! :)


This is an excellent explanation. Too many authors frustrate or bore me either early in the book (too much exposition) or between the conflict and the climax because they fail at maintaining tension.


I think that tension…arises as a natural consequence of deeply-realized characters.

That’s just my own personal axe, well-ground. There’s the whole “story is king!” thing, but it seems to me that story has to be expressed by people and their interactions–“people” being humans, or lycanthropes, or intelligent rocks, or what-have-you.

Characters who are broadly-realized can carry a story, it’s true (see, oh, I dunno, that book about that Italian guy…DaVinci…whatzit?). But that’s because they’re big ol’ wobbly marionettes of papier-mâché and glitter, jerked around in big distracting movements by the author. That’s its own skill, yes, and effective, but there’s nothing micro about it.

If it’s true that microtension is “emotions in conflict”–and I believe it is–then it’s vital to have some fully-realized characters in your tale, because they’re the ones that generate emotion. Readers are humans, and humans are emotional beings, we’re saturated with the stuff. I believe that we can tell the difference between forced emotional conflict–characters jerked about by a puppeteer–and the genuine, nuanced conflict that arises from complex interaction.

All of which is ridiculously easy to say. The question presents itself: “HOW DO YOU DO THAT?!”

For me (’cause it’s all about me innit) it’s been a long process. Very recently I’ve come to realize that every time I’ve gotten stuck, it’s been because I’m writing as myself rather than my narrator. But! I’m writing in first person. It’s like doing a 300-page monologue on stage. In a way, I’m cheating–juggling multiple viewpoints just breaks my brain, at this point.

I suppose the only thing I might offer is: get into the habit of asking a specific set of questions based on your own priorities as a storyteller. Something feels stiff? Broken? Ask why. I start by asking: are my characters being true to themselves, or am I jerking them around? Do they have their own emotions…or just mine?

(Aaaand this is 319-word comment written an hour or so after a 380-post on my own blog about how I haven’t got time to bog extensively. Hmmm.)


That article (which is brilliant by the way) reminds me of one of my friends.
It was this girl in secondary school whowas able to create this so called microtension.
I absolutely loved her pieces and her style of writing. Once you began to read it you just get sucked into it. I haven’t seen her for few years but I hope that she’d become a writer. The funny thing about her was that she never really read any books, she hated english classes, studying about writing, poetry etc, and her dream was to become a pilot, but she used to write the most amazing pieces of work I have ever read. She was able to produce something of the top of her head and write an essay in two-hour class that so good the teacher would always keep a copy to herself and read it out loud to the class. She was trying a book while we were still in 1st year, as a request of my friend.
I have never seen a person like her.


I’m sorry, I know that that reply was a bit off the topic, but personally I think that you can’t study how to be a good, kick of writer from reading and studying books. If you have a talent for writing you can just develope and master it.
By the way, I really enjoy reading your books and think you are very successful in mastering your writing skills :)


Even after reading so many fiction books I still find it hard to come up with something original for my essay. I find so hard to come up with the storyline myself…don’t know how you do it people…I just usually use my childhood experience with little twists to make it seem like fiction, so far so good, because the teacher doesn’t know me personally ^^
When you write about something that have taken place you just come back to that scene in your memory and try to describe it.
But how do you write about something that you have created yourself ?


I look at it a little different. I agree with the idea — attempting to create tension at all times — it’s the application of the idea that’s a little more difficult. It’s not easy to look at something and say “I need more tension” here.

What I’ve found is looking for ways to add apprehension — something tangible, a fear of the future — is a lot easier.

All you have to do is look at the way a character wants things to go, then set things up so there’s a chance they might not go that direction — giving your character (and reader) a slight fear of the future.

Maybe it’s just semantics, but I find looking at it from that angle helps me.


I love your comments, always so glad when you take the time to expound on my blog.

I absolutely agree with you — I think it all starts and ends with deeply realized characters. Once you know, truly know, your story people — once that p.o.v. character becomes a felt mindset that you can slip in and out of — everything, including microtension, arises naturally from that. You don’t have to consciously think about how that character is ‘in microconflict’ because on that deep intuitive writing level you already know, or at least sense it enough to nudge the scene in that direction so you can pick up more clearly on it in rewrite.

As far as your characters being true to themselves — as my therapist likes to put it, “All of your characters are you” — so in that sense it’s kind of a moot question. But I get what you mean. I’ve learned to write not from outline (even though I have one) but from a deep sense of what that character would actually do, how that character would actually respond, and if it goes against the outline, well then, change the outline. (And if I don’t have that ‘deep sense’ to work with, that’s another problem entirely.)


Talent exists, no question, and it sounds like your friend has a lot of it, but the ironic thing is that it’s the talented ones who often disappear from the scene entirely because they don’t have the other qualities that it takes to develop into a career writer/published writer. (In this case, your friend doesn’t read books, which indicates to me that she might not have the passion and drive to stick with it once the road starts getting really difficult — as it almost always does, even for the talented ones.) The thing is, talent comes in a lot of different forms, and sometimes it takes longer to unfold in one person than it does in someone else. Writing teachers comment on this all the time — how often the ones who become successful are the ones they never would have predicted (none of Norman Mailer’s writing teachers thought he was particularly talented). I think I feel a blog post coming on, thanks for inspiring it….:)


I think that’s a good way to go. Apprehension is tension in and of itself…But yeah, I’m all about the mood, atmosphere, foreshadowing. :)



  1. The Nuance of a Story « Words and Coffee

Add your comment