Tag Archives | micro tension

Skimming (and I don’t mean stones)

Okay. Tell the truth time – even though it’s not Tuesday.

I love, love, love a good book. As with most writers – I always have. But learning to write has turned me into a super picky reader. Sometimes, I skim (gulp). I have several different reactions when I read.

This is the most terrific story and I’m going to run out and tell everyone about it.

 These stories I read word for word. I get caught up in the humor, suspense, the characters. At this level, I would read about the character doing the most mundane things like drinking milk or making a pb and j sandwich. I relish every minute reading it and am disappointed when the experience ends.

This is a good book and I’ll give it a favorable review but I’m not gushing or anything.

I’ll read this book and have a healthy respect for the writing and the author. I’ll give it favorable reviews. Most likely, I’ll read this word for word.

The story could have been a lot better.

I hate to say it. I never used to skim. But I don’t have time to waste on a book that is only half interesting. If there is a series of scenes of only character development and not plot, I’ll skim. And if it continues, I’ll skip huge chunks of the middle. The sad thing is, I’ll read the ending and realize I didn’t miss a thing. I still completely understood the ending.

Danger zone of losing me as a reader.

These are the books that after the first page or chapter, I stop reading. They might be good books, worthy of being published, they just didn’t draw me into the story – at all. And I’m sure this is extremely subjective.

Of course, there are levels in between. I didn’t start skimming until I became a writer. It makes me realize how important pacing, structure, micro tension are to a story.

Why does this phenomenon occur?

It’s because I read to learn. I do read for pleasure too, but I want to learn at the same time. And because I want to get the most out of my time, I won’t waste it. I think if I stopped writing and went back to just reading for pleasure, I’d stop skimming as much.

What do you think? Why and when do you skim?

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Micro tension and Empty Bowls

Micro tension. In other words – the little stuff going on that makes the reader turn the page without their eyes glazing over.

I experienced a different kind of micro tension, one that I hadn’t connected to writing. Sometimes, tension comes from apprehension in the character’s head from a preconceived notion of what  might happen based on their own insufficiencies or lack of self confidence. 

I volunteer in my son’s classroom when needed. I told the teacher that I could NOT sew (they make small friendship quilts). So, she asked me to come in and cook. Great.

Like I’ve said, I’m a plotter. I cook from recipes. So, the idea of cooking with first graders without any prep work before hand was intimidating. What if I didn’t understand the recipe? I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of the kids or the teacher (And I have a teaching background!) It was the fact that I had to show up and figure out what to do. Yikes! 

I arrived and looked at the big table full of ingredients and a crock pot and freaked out a little. But, once I read the recipe and broke it down, the tension dissolved. (If you don’t count the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to use the fancy onion chopper and had no idea what to do with fresh garlic.)

I succeeded. The tomato soup was excellent. I shouldn’t have worried.

If I had been a writer writing this scene in the story, I would have taken full advantage of the opportunity for humor and more tension. Like, the onion chopper breaking. Or spilling the soup and then the teacher slips on it…etc you get the point.

How often do you write with micro tension based on what might happen – instead of what is happening? It’s a good way to foreshadow and build up reader expectations.

**And for those of you that are wondering why they made soup, let me explain. Every year the first grade makes clay bowls in art class. Empty bowls. Then one day the children help to make soups and bread. Parents are invited to Empty Bowl Day where the children serve, wait, seat, bus, and perform. And parents are encourage to make a donation to the Heifer Project to represent their child’s hard work.

Here is my son with his empty bowl.

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Just add a spider.


Adding a spider to your shower is an extremely effective way to learn about adding tension. (Okay, so it wasn’t a tarantula or a Black Widow, but that’s beside the point. Really.)

As writers we know about adding conflict to our stories. But what about micro tension? That moment to moment suspense that makes a reader want to turn the page. We all want it. Here’s what I learned.

Put something in the scene that your character isn’t aware of at first  – let’s say a spider.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say your character is taking a shower – a simple mundane act that we usually don’t include in our stories. (I’m thinking about all the scary scenes from movies that take place in showers.) It could be any scene. But if it is a shower, make it a small stand-up shower without a lot of wiggle room.

In this scene, your character is naive, happy, going about her business. The story is moving forward.

Next, your character becomes aware of the spider.

And here is where the tension starts to rise. Even though the spider isn’t moving and is minding his own business, show the physical response in your character- like panic. Your character continues on in the scene, but is fully aware of the spider.

Then, the spider moves all eight of its legs, stretching, reaching. (Probably annoyed at the water splattering him.)

The original problem just became worse. The tension increases. Your character will find it extremely hard to continue what she was doing, but perseveres, hoping that the spider is just stretching before settling down for a long winter’s nap. Right.

Worse yet, the spider starts to move across its web.

Now, the character has lost all motivation in her original mundane act of showering. She is paralyzed, her eyes riveted on the arachnid, hoping he’s just repositioning.

But we can always make it worse for our main character. Right?

Now, the spider leaves its web and crawls down the side of the shower. This is the final act of terror that causes the main character to fumble with the shower door, open it, and grab for the tissues. And as your main character’s heart rate increases, so will your reader’s.

But no solution comes quick and easy.

Now the focus of your scene has switched from the mundane act to a highly stressful situation, fully focused on the main character’s predicament. She attempts to kill the spider in a single, quick act of violence (much against her character).  But the spider drops to the floor, its legs wiggling. The main character screams and jumps out of the shower.  Then she proceeds to take care of the problem with a lump of soggy tissues.

One last step. Show the recovery.

Your main character is shaken up, trembling.  After a few deep breaths, she resumes with her mundane act of showering. She is no longer naive and happy but totally creeped out.

So, there you have it. Just as tension rises from scene to scene, the smaller tension within a scene should rise to. And if you’re not sure how to add that micro tension – just add a spider. (Trust me, you’ll get the message loud and clear.)

How do you keep tension on every page, every paragraph, every line? I’d love to hear.

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