What is micro-tension? It is the subtle, borderline subliminal itch the reader feels when things aren’t quite right. Micro-tension keeps your readers on the edge of their seats, turning pages, reading for answers to questions they may not even realize they have.
A wife is angry with her husband. Maybe she caught him cheating on her. She threatens to leave him forever, packs her bags, calls an Uber, walks to the door, opens it—and just stands there. In the back of their minds your readers are pleading for answers: “Why don’t you leave? What are you waiting for? What’s holding you back?” And they’ll keep reading to find out. Micro-tension in action.
A family takes a restful vacation at a cabin in the woods. The father steps out onto the back deck, sipping his morning coffee, looking out over a mountainside of thick oaks and tall pines. He inhales the freshness of the mountain air, watches the red blaze of a cardinal streak through the forest of green, hears a woodpecker tapping at a hole somewhere down the valley. A half dozen does, shy and skittish, weave in and out of the woods nearby. The father thinks, it’s almost perfect. And your readers ask in the back of their minds, “What’s not perfect about it? What is wrong here? What’s really going on?” They read on, eager to find out. Micro-tension in exposition.
A couple of friends are spending a day shopping. At a certain high class boutique, they are in adjoining dressing rooms, talking over the partitions.
“So, how did your date with Maurice go?” I held my breath, awaiting Judi’s answer.
“It was great. He took me to that new steakhouse, Tenders. Soft light, warm music, the best wine. It was so romantic. And he’s so funny. It was great—except. . .”
I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help myself. “Except what?”
Your reader repeats in the back of his/her mind, “Except what? What went wrong? Why couldn’t she help herself? Why did she hold her breath in the first place?” And wild horses can’t hold him/her back from reading further to find out. Micro-tension in dialogue.
You see what’s going on here? Micro-tension is subtle, almost subliminal. The readers might or might not consciously catch these little bumps as they appear in the fast-paced flow of your story, but somewhere in the back of their minds they will not only catch them, they will trip over them. And once they do these micro-tension bumps will be a burr under their subconscious saddle, driving them to read on until they relieve the irritation.
Put another way, micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension—the electric current—that keeps your reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the overall story, but in the next few pages.
So where does this micro-tension come from? Easily understood but often hard to do, micro-tension comes not from the plot or the characters or the setting or the dialogue or the words themselves. Like practically all other tension and conflict in fiction (and perhaps anywhere), its roots are in conflicting emotions. Like wisps of smoke above a volcano, micro-tension is the subtle, telltale signal to the reader of a bubbling emotional cauldron underneath, one perhaps set to explode.
But micro-tension is more than that. It is very much the net that supports your story, especially the sagging middle. It is the fuel that fires your reader. And it should be a fundamental instrument in your Fiction Toolkit.