Sunday, February 25, 2018

Micro-tension: What Is It and Why You Care

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.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Time It

Who wants to snap the photo after the sun’s risen or the gull flown? Whether photography or proposal, wrestling or writing, it’s all about finding the moment.

At its best, fiction gives both writer and reader the astonishing power to control time. Boring moments whizz by while anticipation becomes thrill instead of anxiety. 

But like everything else about storytelling, time management requires a deft hand. Here’s why:

A work of literature can be thought of as involving four different and potentially quite separate time frames: author time (when the work was originally written or published); narrator time (when the narrator in a work of fiction supposedly narrates the story); plot time (when the action depicted actually takes place); and reader or audience time (when a reader reads the work or sees it performed). — Beth Hill, “Marking Time with the Viewpoint Character”

Of these categories, audience perception matters most. So if you want readers to grasp significance, proceed as if 

Length is weight in fiction, pretty much. —Joan Silber, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes

~ Don’t linger over detail that contributes only to this moment rather than the big picture. 

Ideally, that big picture divides the characters’ journey between time collapsed into summary or savored within scenes.

Time perception refers to the subjective experience of the passage of time, or the perceived duration of events, which can differ significantly between different individuals and/or in different circumstances. Although physical time appears to be more or less objective, psychological time is subjective and potentially malleable. — “Exactly What Is Time” Blog

~ Manage pace by speeding or slowing to maximize suspense and emotion.

How long events last matters as much as how quickly the plot proceeds.

~ Always start the scene at the last possible moment.

The best scenes and chapters begin when something’s at stake—immediately at stake.

And control of fictional time also involves when scenes end. Too soon, and readers might feel bewildered or disappointed. But too late, and neither writer nor reader has the oomph for what’s next.

~ End every scene except the final one with the next obstacle the protagonist faces.

Tip: In fiction, time should offer the opportunities that reality lacks.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Hard-wired for Story

The organic world is mostly phototropic. Like plants and moths, people gravitate toward the light. In fact, the longing to stare at the sun can risk sunburned eyeballs, even damaged retinas. 

Without the deleterious side effects, storytelling has always wielded similar magnetism.

 Since humans have been humans, they’ve told stories. That’s because
According to Uri Hasson from Princeton, a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience. — Leo Widrich,“The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains”
You’re a novelist in a world crowded with obligations and distractions competing for attention. When children—and grownups—beg “Tell me a story,” they want to hear a great one. How can the storytelling instinct help you attract readers and keep them engaged?

~ Tension.

It’s no accident that any writing coach will insist that it’s needed on every page. Interrupt the story, and you interrupt reader connection with it. That connection, of course, is why readers care about characters and why fiction has always been a means for cultural instruction: 
in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention–-a scarce resource in the brain–-by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters — Paul J. Zak, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling”
~ Causality

Unless each—each rather than some or most!—event in the novel determines what follows, the novelist offers the randomness of life rather than the meticulously shaped progression of story.
A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think. — Leo Widrich
~ Universality

Different cultures certainly express human emotions differently. But the emotions themselves remain constant. That’s why stories let people vicariously bleed under the lash of slavery, recoil at the stench of a dragon’s breath, shiver in the trenches of a battlefield, or bask in the awe of a kiss from the spouse you’ve loved for fifty years.

Tip: The greatest stories spring from capitalizing on the human instinct for narrative.