Many novelists know about the need for “tension on every page.” How do you get that? Micro-tension, as Donald Maass explains in The Fire in Fiction:
Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether: Micro-tension. That is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen—not in the story, but in the next few seconds.
The April 19, 2009 “wordswimmer” blog adds
the term alone–-micro-tension–-implies a larger tension in a story, say, macro-tension, which in turn suggests two levels operating within the story simultaneously.
So the novelist is juggling, but juggling more than pure action.
In a December 13, 2012 interview with Michael A. Ventrella, Maass elaborated on micro-tension:
Tension is not about action, explosions and shouting. It’s about generating unease in the mind of the reader. There are many ways to do that, many of them subtle. Even language itself can do it. When tension exists in the mind of the reader there’s only one way to relieve it: Read the next thing on the page. Do that constantly, on every page, and readers will read every word—you have a “page turner,” no matter what your style, intent or type of story.
Clear now? But of course you need to not only to understand the concept but apply it. Here are some strategies for accomplishing that.
~ Crisp details.
Less is more. Give readers lots of information, particularly at moments of high suspense, and you elicit thinking when feeling is the goal. Watch where you position your exposition.
~ Hard-working dialogue.
If characters talk the way people do, you get the same lack of tension that often fills daily life. Also, as Sol Stein puts in Stein on Stein, give your characters “different scripts.”
~ Time crunch.
The ticking clock keeps readers as worried as characters. What if it’s too late?
~ Internal dilemma
Little is more suspenseful than a cornered character unable to choose between two impossible options. Torment your characters. Readers will love you for it.
TIP: Novels need both broad overall tension and incessant, immediate edginess.