I heard famed writing craft author and literary agent Donald Maass speak at a one-day workshop back in January. It was revelatory.
So I went back to my copy of Maass's The Fire in Fiction and reread Chapter 8, Tension All the Time.
How do you create the type of tension that keeps a reader reading every blessed page of your novel?
A page-turner. Can't put it down. Kept me up all night.
How? How? Well, Maass says, it's not by creating a big plot with a big question that will keep the reader turning the pages to find out who-done-it. Even if it's high-stakes. Really high stakes.
It's not setting each scene up carefully with a goal your character goes after, as we are taught to do.
It's not incessant action, sanppy dialogue, or reading about what is going on deep in your point-of-view character's mind.
Not saying that any of that stuff is not important. IT'S JUST NOT ENOUGH.
Maass says that an instinct for tension is the best predictability he has for which writers will go on to become career novelists.
This tension has nothing to do with the set-up of the book and all the other things I've just mentioned.
Rather it is about permeating your novel with constant tension that arises from CONFLICTING EMOTIONS, not from outer action going on but from your character's INNER CONFLICT.
No one will give a rat's arse about your beautiful passages of description, your careful backstory hidden in dialogue, your contemplative sequel where your character mulls over what just happened, your carefully choreographed sex scene, or ANY emotion your character feels UNLESS you infuse every single bit of it with MICROTENSION, which Maass defines as "the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but IN THE NEXT FEW SECONDS." (Boldface mine.)
I am going to sticky-note that last part to the corner of my computer screen.
As Lori Wilde has said in her writing classes, it's all about EMOTION. That's why readers read.
Maass says tension comes from INNER CONFLICT, FEELINGS IN CONFLICT WITH ONE ANOTHER, not from the outer actions we put on the page.
If you are intrigued, read Maass's book. This chapter that I'm talking about has tons of examples and "Practical Tools" section that helps you workshop your own trouble spots so you can up the tension stakes in your own writing and create your own best-selling, page-turning blockbuster of a novel.