I love stories, whether they’re told by mouth, expressed through song, or acted out on film. But more than anything, I love books. I suppose the one feature that makes books different from these other genres is the pace at which the story unfolds. I can read a book at whatever pace I choose. Some books are only good enough for short bathroom breaks, while others are so well written I can barely put it down long enough to get my chores done. So what’s the difference between them? What makes a book a page-turner?
There are many elements that make up a good story. While characters may or may not be likeable, they must be vivid and dynamic. Dialogue must snap with electricity and be free of accompanying actions that bog down the pace. Every scene must crackle with both inner and outer conflict conveyed through specific and identifiable turning points. Setting must come alive not through eloquent writing, but through how the characters wrestle with their emotional ties to it. The voice, more than just syntax, should sing clearly in detail and delivery, articulating a belief system and personal perspective while overwhelming the reader with authority and relieving us of skepticism. So how does a writer accomplish each of these? That’s easy. Through tension.
As writers, we understand that a story has ebb and flow, a cycle of ups and downs. But you cannot construct a story that is always on the upswing. A reader cannot appreciate such an upswing unless there is a downswing with which to contrast it to. And in order to keep the reader’s attention through a downswing, you must maintain tension. Literary agent, Donald Maass, calls this micro-tension in his book “The Fire in Fiction.” In it he says:
“Micro-tension 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.”
Maass portends that micro-tension is vital in all aspects of a novel, whether it be in dialogue, in action sequences, or in exposition. And more importantly, “micro-tension...comes from emotions, and not just any old emotions, but conflicting emotions.”
Dialogue in a novel should never be truly natural, which is often stilted with interruptions. If dialogue in a novel were written naturally, we would all be bored to death, wondering if the speaker was ever going to get around to his or her point. Maass writes, “In dialogue, it’s not the information itself, but the doubt about the facts and the skepticism of the deliverer.” It is “emotional, not intellectual,” that as readers, “we don’t want to know if the debate will settle the point of contention, but whether the debaters will reconcile.” Also important, dumping information via dialogue only works “if it is infused with tension, and even then, it must be a tug-of-war.”
This element of emotion is equally important in action. Emotion, especially contrasting emotion, is what provides energy for each scene. The same can be said for exposition, where the use of conflicting emotion keeps the reader involved. They want and need to know if the characters will resolve their conflict. This is where we learn of their “contradictions, dilemmas, opposing impulses, and clashing ideas…It puts the character’s heart and mind in peril,” explains Maass.
One area in a novel that frequently looses steam due to a lack of tension is backstory. This is at its worst when backstory is used up front, before the story even has a chance to get started. We lose interest simply because we don’t care about all those bits the author thinks we need to know in order for the story to make sense. James Scott Bell calls this a first page mistake and warns never to front load with backstory, noting it will only serve to stall instead. Maass contends that backstory may be added as long as it is not the point. The point, he says, “is to set up the conflict of emotions and inner tension.” He suggests using the past to create present conflict, that this will “stir curiosity to find out what will happen.”
So while tension is not the only aspect of a successful page-turner, it is of primary importance. After reading “The Fire in Fiction,” I read through my own manuscript. For the most part, I did have tension is every paragraph, but I where it lagged, I pumped it up using the techniques described in Maass’s book. I highly recommend it as a necessary tool on craft for every writer.
Read through your own manuscript. Is tension present in every chapter, paragraph, or sentence?