Microtension: What is it and how do we get it onto the page?

People talk like microtension began and now idles with Donald Maass.  For Maass, microtension boils down to a conflict…a juxtaposition…a clashing of things, preferably emotions, but also ideas, concepts, anticipations, whatever–whatever’s available for contradiction in your story.  But is there more? More guidance?

By random chance (or synchronicity?), I came across a book in the library’s used book store (fifty cents!) that offers just that. It’s from the eighties, and it talks about this thing the author calls creative tension.  Meanwhile, I also heard about something poetry calls phrasing.

(For all you poets out there, I’m new here, and I apologize in advance for bumbling through the tools your discipline offers. I also thank you for sharing them–and for pointing out others that might benefit our prose in the comments…)

Anyway, microtension: What is it and how do we get it onto the page? Let’s see what the lesser-known–but no less helpful!–craftmasters have to say.

What’s Microtension?

According to Maass, microtension “is not a function of plot. This type of tension does not come from high stakes or the circumstances of a scene. Action does not generate it. Dialogue does not produce it automatically. Exposition–the interior monologue of the point-of-view character [POVC]–does not necessarily raise its level.

“Micro-tension,” says Maass, “is 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.”

But he’s not the first to discuss this technique. For Gabriele Lusser Rico, microtension, or what she calls creative tension, “reflect[s] the profound truth of the both/and, rather than only the either/or, nature of life.” 

How do I write with microtension?

The word “‘Tension’ . . . comes from the Latin, tensio, meaning ‘stretched,’ as in ‘extension,’ a stretching out, a reaching for ways to join images, connect new patterns, reconcile opposites,” says Ms. Rico. “Thus when I speak of creative tension, I mean the tensions you produce in your writing through oppositions, juxtapositions, and resolutions of seemingly contradictory ideas or feelings.”

And Maass says microtension “comes from emotions and not just any old emotions but conflicting emotions.”

How do I find conflicting emotions?

Maass tells us to identify the driving emotion in the segment we’re looking at, the dialogue or action or whatever, and then note the opposite of that driving emotion.  The same works for thoughts or actions or whatever: Identify the main thought or action or whatever, then note an opposite or conflicting or contrary thought, action or whatever.  And rewrite the passage from there.

That said, “routine emotions are unlikely to get through to us,” says Maass. “Fear! Shock! Horror! Uh-huh. What else have you got? We are inured to cliches, and that is as true of overused feelings as it is of familiar words and phrases.”

So how do we dig deeper into a segment to find secondary emotions?  And how do you then take that bald, if secondary, emotion that you’re not supposed to “tell” and instead “show” that emotion–and also its conflicting emotion–in a way that’s authentic to the character and the story?

I’ve got a few suggestions.

First, we’ll look at a tool Ms. Rico calls clustering.

Second, I’ve got a list of ideas for where, in your story, to mine and add microtension.

Last, we’ll look to poetry for three entirely different ways of adding microtension to our stories.


Ms. Rico says, “clustering is the fundamental tool that will enable you to bring the tension inherent in image or event into your writing.”

Clustering is basically mindmapping.  Apparently, like many simultaneous discoveries, Rico developed clustering while the mindmapping guy developed mindmapping . . . and mindmapping won the recognition.

“To create a cluster,” says Ms. Rico, “you begin with a nucleus word, circled, on a fresh page. Now you simply let go and begin to flow with any current of connections that come into your head. Write these down rapidly, each in its own circle, radiating outward from the center in any direction they want to go. Connect each new word or phrase with a line to the preceding circle. When something new and different strikes you, begin again at the central nucleus and radiate outward until those associations are exhausted. . . . until at some point you experience a sudden sense of what you are going to write about. At that point, simply stop clustering and begin writing.”

Cluster until “the seemingly random associations of your clustering suddenly take on coherence,” says Ms. Rico. “[S]ome sort of illumination that point[s] to the both/and nature of some aspect of life.” This “shift is movement from indeterminate form to focus. You are clustering, seemingly randomly, when suddenly you experience a sense of direction. The moment between randomness and sense of direction is the moment of shift. It occurs during any creative act.”

So basically, look at your scene and identify the character’s emotions.  You can can even go back a step and cluster something from the scene–person, place, thing, event–to find all the emotions–primary, secondary, tertiary–that Character is feeling in the scene.  In particular, look for contradictory or at least contrary, positive and negative, emotions.

Now cluster those contrary emotions. You can cluster them singularly, each in their own cluster, or cluster both in one cluster.  Ask: Why does character feel that way? What do these feelings look, taste, sound, feel, smell like? Who or what might relieve those feelings? Who or what might make them worse?  Ask anything; there’s no right way to do this. You’re just generating material, and some of it will contradict. That’s the gold.

If this is pre-work for a first draft, you’ll probably come to a point where you suddenly feel like writing, and the draft will have microtension built into it. (Woohoo!)

If you’re editing, you’ll probably eventually run out of stuff to say in the cluster, and you can then look at what you have in the cluster and what you have in your draft and find opportunities to make changes that add microtension . . . and these changes will probably also deepen the character, touch on theme, suggest concept . . . lots of good stuff.

To practice, consider clustering the following until you feel a shift toward a focus and the urge to start writing:

  • Word Pairs. Word pairs are “related terms clustered as a double nucleus, such as look/see,” touch/feel, hear/listen, taste/savor, desire/lust, cry/weep, etc.  Clustering word pairs “confronts us with obvious likenesses,” but also “we become aware of subtle shades and nuances of these words and a tension is created between them.” Pick a word pair appropriate to your scene and see what tension the subconscious delivers.
  • Contraries. Contraries are words that contain paradox but aren’t full-blown contradictions, such as sweet/sorrow, cruel/kindness, cold/burn, admirable/villain, beautiful/disaster, etc.  Pick two that arise from your character or story and see what comes up.
  • Polarities. Polarities are full-blown contradictory words, such as power/helplessness, separation/union, hot/cold, limited/infinite, impossible/necessary.  “Clustering the pair tends to evoke a sense of relatedness rather than pure opposition. Cluster whatever comes: associations, images, metaphors, lines of poems, songs, proverbs–anything that comes your way.”
  • Dialogue. Cluster two characters who have something to say to each other. The cluster nucleus can be the character’s name or something else that represents the character. For example, his sword or a painting the other character did of her, or the story’s McGuffin, whatever.  “Think of the words they say, their tones of voice, their attitudes, their physical differences, and so forth.  Be alert for the . . . shift from randomness to sense of direction,” says Ms. Rico.

Some ideas for adding microtension

Find contradiction stemming from concept:

  • In the beginning of the story, look for opportunities to use words and imagery that hint/suggest/shadow/foreshadow the story concept that we’ll eventually see and experience in full.
  • What opportunities, big and small and micro, does the story have to echo your concept?
  • Cluster your concept.  If it’s a happy concept, what’s negative about it? If it’s a negative concept, what’s positive about it?

Find contradiction stemming from plot:

  • Early in a scene (or sequence/act/story), give us hints of the scene’s payoff, by describing early-scene action (or setting or whatever) in a way that echoes/suggests/foreshadows the scene’s payoff action.
  • Cluster your logline.  What opportunities, big and small and micro, does the story have to suggest the opposite of what actually happens?

Find contradiction stemming from theme:

  • Your thematic premise has an opposite statement and also suggests corollaries and contrary statements.  Put these conflicting statements in play in the story where appropriate, say, by having your clones express them in their words and actions.
  • Cluster your theme.

Find contradiction in character interiority:

  • Maass says, “dig deeper into your character at this moment in the story and find inside of him contradictions, dilemmas, opposing impulses, and clashing ideas that keep us in suspense.”
  • Include character inner conflict about what’s happening right now in the scene, in the moment. Inner conflict can be shown with contradictory thoughts, words, and/or actions. For example, show a character acting in a way that contradicts his desires.
  • Show the character doubting, hoping for, or fearing something that might or might not happen in the story’s future.
  • Include references to things in the past (this morning, years ago, whatever) that pose questions and curiosity in the reader. Bonus if the facts mentioned seem mutually exclusive.
  • Have Character misinterpret his emotions. Show this by having them assume they feel one way and then have them react and deal with their thoughts and experiences in a way that’s contrary to their assumptions and that reveals their true emotions.
  • Give Character uncertainty or disbelief about what is happening in the moment.
  • Give the character negativity about the past intermingled with positivity about what’s happening in the present, or vice versa. Or intermingle emotional thoughts about the present with an opposite emotional thought, hope or fear, for the future.

Emphasize contradiction in dialogue:

  • Microtension in dialogue comes from conflict between the talkers and/or from inner conflict from the POVC, from one character’s “reluctance to accept” something about the exchange, the words, or the other character.
  • Maass says, “building tension depends on an artful teasing out of the hostility” between the talkers.
  • Characters, even friends, can have contrary, contradictory or just different shades of: moral codes, opinions, desires, needs, wishes, perceptions, interpretations (about who, what, where, when, how, why, etc.), goals (story or otherwise), priorities, topics they want to talk to be talking about right now or don’t want to talk about . . .
  • Make one character uncertain about or suspiciousness of the other character.
  • Put one character on the defensive, even if it doesn’t seem provoked. Or put one character on the offensive, make them aggressive, even when it doesn’t seem necessary.
  • Give the character a ‘button’ that’s easily pushed by the other character, whether (i) the other character knows they’re pushing the button and is doing it on purpose, or (ii) the other character is pushing it on accident and evoking an unexpected reaction from the sensitive character. Bonus if you can make the ‘button’ plot- or theme-specific.  Bonus again if you can delay revealing the reason for the button.
  • Make a character’s dialogue contrary to their goals, thoughts, body language . . .
  • Make the POVC’s interiority/thoughts conflicted about what they’re saying. Bonus if you can include external signals, from other characters or the setting or whatever, that suggest he really should be saying the opposite of what he’s choosing to say.
  • Don’t just “rely[] on the circumstances or the topic itself” to generate tension, says Donald Maass. “Instead, find the emotional friction between the speakers. Or externalize your focal character’s inner conflicts. Or pit allies against each other. True tension in dialogue comes not from what is being said, but from inside those who are saying it.”

Emphasize contradiction in action:

  • Maass says, “tension in action comes not from the action itself but from inside the point of view character experiencing it.”
  • Put emotions (shown by thought or dialogue) in conflict with subsequent action or put action in conflict with subsequent regretful thought or dialogue.
  • Choose and describe action in a way that suggests/echoes/foreshadows sinister things to come.
  • Don’t just show action; show or reveal the POVC’s emotions about the action, about the fact that it’s actually happening and what it might mean.
  • POVC’s inner conflict can be shown with (i) character’s self-reproach about something he’s about to do or (ii)  external cues, say from other characters, suggesting that what the character is doing is the opposite of what he should be doing.
  • Cluster ways the scene action can play out. Is there something that suggests the opposite of what will actually play out?
  • Maass says, “action, when related in strictly visual terms, feels flat. . . . Emotions are needed to give action force.”

Emphasize contradiction in backstory:

  • Make Character anything but neutral about his past. He can be regretful, doubtful, overconfident . . . anything but neutrally fine with it.
  • Give Character long desired things . . . and still no way, even now in the front story, to fulfill them.
  • Use the past to stir up conflict in the present.  Buttons to push. Problems to solve. Desires to forget or fulfill.
  • Describe the backstory/wound/flaw/etc in a phrase and cluster it.

Emphasize contradiction in sequels:

  • Give Character conflicting emotions about what has happened and what it means.
  • Give Character conflicting emotions about what’s to come, about what might come and about what he might have to do.
  • Make Character indecisive about what comes next, about what he must do next.

Find the contradiction in exposition:

  • Use conflicting feelings, ideas, concepts, goals, impulses, dilemmas, etc.
  • Cluster these.
  • In sequel, do more than just restate what has happened. Show character’s conflicting emotional thoughts about what has happened, about what it all means, and about what it could all lead to next.
  • Use contrary emotion-infused words, positive and negative, in close proximity to each other.  Contrary word pairs could include: warm/cool, bright/dark, hard/easy, hard/soft, etc.
  • Overemphasize one emotion to make Reader anticipate that actions producing the opposite emotion will actually win/play out in the story.
  • Morph your motifs/recurrences/refrains/horses as your progress through the story, giving them more and deeper meaning for Reader to ponder.
  • Maass says, “true tension in exposition comes not from circular worry or repetitive turmoil; it springs from emotions in conflict and ideas at war.”

Find contradiction in setting/description:

  • Tie setting, in some way, to inner tension in the POVC.
  • Put character’s tone or attitude toward the setting–toward what’s going on there now or toward what has happened in this setting in the past–in conflict with the setting’s appearance. For example, the place is beautiful, but being here angers the POVC.
  • Is there something about the setting that the character doesn’t know and yet wants or needs to know?
  • Give a character a conflicted attitude toward another person, place, or thing that’s being described.
  • Cluster setting. Cluster characters. Cluster setting together with a character.

Find contradiction in general word choice:

  • Juxtapose conflicting or contrary words, imagery, description, setting . . .
  • Add imagery befitting the genre, especially if it foreshadows the concept or what’s to come.
  • Tension can also come from posing/asking questions and delaying the answers or even withholding them until a later scene.
  • Describe the scene in one word. Cluster the word.

Microtension: Help from poetry

“What is distinctive about poetry,” says Derek Attridge, “is its exploitation of the fact that spoken language moves, and that its movements–which are always movements of meaning and emotion at the same time as movements of sound–achieve a varied onward momentum by setting up expectations that are fulfilled, disappointed, or deferred.”

Does that not sound like microtension?  To this end, some tools from poetry:

1. Phrase sentences and paragraphs to create micro hooks.

Maass says microtension makes Reader want to know what happens next, not just later but “in the next few seconds.”  So another way to look at microtension is to consider it a micro hook, a micro question/answer.  And you can achieve this micro question/answer in your sentences by paying attention to something poetry calls phrasing.

Attridge says, “Most words in poems (or any stretch of language) can be felt as participating in one of four basic types of movement:

  1. they are part of a movement toward some point that lies ahead [a setup leading to a payoff, anticipation (ANT)];
  2. they are part of a movement away from some point that has already passed [prolonging an answer, extension (EXT)];
  3. they are part of a relatively static moment from which something might develop [a self-sufficient phrase that doesn’t beg for further information or ask any questions, statement (STA)];
  4. they are part of a moment of arrival toward which the previous words have been moving [the anticipation’s payoff, arrival (ARR)].”

In other words, within sentences and paragraphs, some phrases beg for more information, some delay that information, and some provide that information.  And reorganizing a sentence or paragraph can either take advantage of this fact to create microtension–or make it anticlimactic.

So to create microtension where there isn’t any (yet!), look for places where you’ve led with the punchline.  Identify the parts of the sentence that, by themselves, ask for more information. Also identify the parts that provide that information and the parts that could be used to delay that information. Now rewrite the sentence to ask and then eventually answer the question.

You can also do this with paragraphs.  Look for opportunities where you’ve made the punchline the topic sentence.  Identify each sentence for whether it asks, delays, or answers questions.  Some sentences may answer a question and also ask another question.  Now reorganize the sentences so that they ask questions–and keep asking questions, or at least delay answers–until you get to the punchline.

For example one opportunity for making such an edit is when the POVC makes a conclusion and then gives the reader the evidence for drawing it.  He’s a slob. His sink is full of week-old dishes. His bed is unmade..Instead, show what the character sees and then draw the conclusion . . . if you even need to. There’s no reason to say things the reader has already figured out.

Anyway, this kind of phrasing analysis can be done at many levels–parts of sentences, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, story–and one level can be more static/slow/stationary, while another level can create the necessary movement/forward momentum that keeps the reader reading.  This could be an answer as to why slow-seeming stories can still be compelling reads.

2. Turn a Phrase.

Attridge says, “Because verse heightens the readers sense of language moving through time, the poet can suggest meanings that are then modified or contradicted a moment later.”

So basically, if you look at the beginning of a sentence, there are lots of ways writers before have finished sentences that began the same way. (In other words, identify the cliches you want to avoid.)  Then, to thwart expectations and create microtension, come up with new, unexpected ways to finish the sentence . . . all while remaining authentic to the story, of course.

I’ve frequently seen the first line of Gone, Girl used as an example of this:  When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.  Her head? What? Really? I was not expecting that. I must read on.

3. Juxtapose Rhythm with Meaning

“The choice of a particular rhythmic form can also imply a certain emotional coloring,” says Mr. Attridge. “When we speak, we impart to our words a rhythmic quality expressive of our feelings–light and rapid, heavy and slow, regular, abrupt, smooth, and so on. What’s unusual about verse is that it has the capacity to build in these qualities, so that they become an inherent feature of the lines.”

And prose can do this too.  So with this in mind–that the rhythm of what we say conveys its own emotion–another way to create conflict in our sentences is to write with a rhythm that conveys an emotion that is different from the emotion the words themselves convey.  For example pair a lighthearted rhythm with melancholy words.

Top Books on Microtension

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The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you.  In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!

Well, that’s it for me.

What about you?  Do you know other techniques to create microtension?  Other tools from poetry?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up Next

I’m determined to finish the scene posts. It looks like it will be a series of a dozen or so posts, but I still have A TON to read, so . . . ?  They’ll post when they post.  In the meantime, there might be another post or two on other stuff. Maybe. Either way, see you later!


3 thoughts on “Microtension: What is it and how do we get it onto the page?

  1. I’m trying to educate myself about micro tension to improve my writing. This article was helpful. How do you determine the nucleus word when clustering?


    1. Hi Nancy! You can pick any word or duo of words that you want as the nucleus word. I’d start by brainstorming a list of words that your story idea or scene brings to mind. So, for example, if you’re writing, I don’t know, a vampire novel, you might have: fangs, blood, night, mirrors, crucifix, wood, stake, scary, beautiful, haunted, tempted . . . And then pick a word or two from the list. There’s no wrong choice. If you don’t like the stuff your word choice is yielding on your mindmap, it’s probably because the word you’ve chosen doesn’t have enough emotional juice, emotional resonance, for you. (For me, from the list, ‘tempted’ has the most emotional juice and ‘scary’ the least. It’ll probably be different for you.) So pick another word with more juice. Or, if you need to use that particular word for logical/plot/character reasons, pair it with a synonym or antonym that has more emotional juice. Hope this helps. Thank you for reading!


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