What Is Tension?

No, I am not playing Jeopardy; I am trying to zero in on what Donald Maass considers the make-or-break element of all successful fiction.  I posted a general appreciation of Maass, agent, author, and writer-about-writing in December: https://thefirstgates.com/2010/12/07/donald-maass-and-the-breakout-novel/

In his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Maass says:

Tension on every page is the secret of great storytelling.  Everyone knows that.  Practically no one does it...It’s so simple, really, and yet so many manuscripts that arrive at my office go right back to their authors in their self-addressed stamped envelopes.  Why?  The number one reason is insufficient tension.

Tension on every page works, says Maass, and low tension does not.  Good to know, but as I have considered the subject, I’ve come to think there is much misunderstanding of what tension really means.  Especially with the rise of digital special effects, you see it in movies all the time – the delusion that enough explosions can make a good story.  At the other extreme, I know writers who don’t understand that, according to Maass, tension is independent of the fictional situation:  it can happen – or fail to happen – in any situation, be it a battle or a walk in the woods.

At its simplest, tension results from anxiety over the wellbeing of a character we care about, and in the best fiction, identify with.  The Latin roots of “tension” and “attention,” are very similar, which is interesting, for as our bodies know, attention always follows tension.

One of the most interesting sections of Maass’ Breakout Novel Workbook is Chapter 22, “Low Tension Part I:  The Problem With Tea.”  In his workshops, Maass tells writers to cut “scenes set in kitchens or living rooms or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths.”  According to Maass, “99.9 percent” of such scenes never make it into print because they:

“…lack tension.  They do not add new information.  They do not subtract allies, deepen conflict, or open new dimensions of character…Typically scenes like these relax tension, review what has already happened, and in general, take a breather.  They are a pause, a marking of time, if not a waste of time.  They do not do anything.”

Maass spends the rest of this and the next three chapters showing examples of authors who make such potentially low-tension scenes work.  How?  But creating “a mood of unease.”  In dozens of ways, conjuring “small anxieties [that] keep us on edge,” even when nothing appears to be happening.  “Mere talk does not keep us glued to the page,” says Maass, but, “disagreement does.”


If tension on every page is the secret of page turning fiction in any genre, I ought to be able to find it in my favorite books, the ones I have read more than once.  I have devised a little experiment I am going to try for my next post, and I invite anyone who is curious to try the same thing and comment on what you find.  Here is what I am going to do:

  • Take a half-dozen of my favorite books, especially the ones I have praised here.
  • Flip them open at random and carefully read the page I land on unless something “exciting” is going on – I want to avoid a fistfights, gunfights, or car chases, and the action-adventure genre in general.
  • See if there really is tension on that page, if that is one of the factors that makes these books so special.

In the past, I have studied these favorites for things like characterization and dialog; for descriptive language; to see how the authors deal with backstory, but I have never focused tension.  If Maass is right – and I bet he is – then this something to look for!

To Be Continued.

1 thought on “What Is Tension?

  1. As I said in my post, you really do STUDY books on writing, not just read them. I admire that. This is a great exercise. I hope I can find time to do it soon. In the mean time, I am certainly going to be more conscious of tension while I’m reading and writing.


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