Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.14: Heavy Lifting with Microtension

Let’s take all our tension tools and apply them in tiny ways. A big application of tension might be an argument between two characters about a course of plot-important action. Microtension might be those characters arguing about how long to boil eggs.

In this episode we’ll explore some favorite applications of microtension, and the ways in which it can be layered to ramp up the larger, plot-focused tension.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Raise the tension in a scene by adding microtension alongside the big plot stuff.

Thing of the week: Chlorine, by Jade Song.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Microtension is smaller versions of the tension tools, adding conflicts between goals. It adds depth. Form is what you can touch, essence is how it makes you feel. Microtension is the form of the larger essence conflict. Put the labels on your toolbox that work for you.

[Season 18, Episode 14]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Heavy Lifting with Microtension.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I don’t lift heavy things anymore.


[Mary Robinette] That’s why we’re going to use microtension. So, microtension is this idea that you can take all of the tools that we’ve previously talked about and just use smaller versions of them. So that you ‘re kind of adding conflicts between goals, or small elements that don’t belong. This is an opportunity for often, I think, some fun tension within a novel or story or whatever it is that you’re working on. Can you all think of examples of micro-tension that are particularly delicious? Dan.

[Dan] So, what of my favorites is a recent one that I saw in a TV show called The Offer. Which is like a behind the scenes about the creation of the movie the Godfather. He gets… Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, the director and the writer together, and he’s trying to get them to create this movie. They fight and bicker constantly. There’s one really simple, really little scene where the two of them are in the kitchen, because they’re sharing a house during this process. There in the kitchen trying to make spaghetti and arguing, heatedly, about the script. But, at the same time, arguing about how you make spaghetti, because they’re both from Italian families, they cannot agree on my family’s method or your family’s method. Then the scene ends with one of them going, “[gasp] we should put this in the movie! This is what it’s like to be in an Italian family. We need to have this kind of simple slice of life stuff.” So the tension turns into something else. The microtension in the scene actually becomes the solution to the other part of the scene. But it’s just a really simple wonderful way of adding a lot of depth to what’s going on.

[DongWon] One of my favorite ones, and we mentioned Glass Onion many times over the course of this series, but… And Glass Onion is chock-full of these. Of tiny little character beats that add up to more and more tension over the course of the movie. My favorite one is, there’s a device in the movie that if there’s a sound that slightly too loud or if there’s fire in the room, a very loud shutter slams shut to protect a valuable object. Over the entire middle act of the movie is this long-running scene in one room that this thing is in, and it is constantly slamming shut over the course of this scene, over and over again. Every single time, I jumped, and then I would laugh. It added more and more tension, just like this chaotic thing happening in the background. It was this constant release of tension, and kept me so on the edge of my seat as characters were mostly just talking to each other in a room. That’s all that’s really happening over the course of this scene. But because he introduced this element of this randomly slamming shut noise throughout the thing. It is this master Chekhov’s gun just sitting over there, and just adding this element of pure chaos in what could otherwise be a boring talking scene.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I enjoy about that, and why I think it’s a particularly good example… When I first started hearing about microtension, I heard about it from Donald Maass. He thinks about it as like kind of the moment by moment tension… I think he says moment by moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen next, not within the story, but in the next few seconds. So I think one of the things that kept happening with that particular shutter was wondering if this was the time when its closing was going to be plot relevant. Because you knew it was going to be at some point. That constant little tug on the reader… It’s like, “Is this important? Is this? Is this going to matter later? Do you have to…” That’s a fun thing that you can play with as a way to ramp the tension up.

[DongWon] It’s almost like you’re giving them like a narrative loop, but in a tiny moment. Right? So it’s a way to remind them of the overall structure of what’s happening. It’s like, the overall structure of Glass Onion, these recursive loops. So by giving us the beats within this scene, of keeping us on our toes and questioning, “Is this the thing? No, that’s not the thing, that’s a red herring. And this one’s a red herring. And this one’s a red herring. Oh, now it’s real.” Right? Like, the pure joy of that when you’re in the hands of somebody who is good at delivering at the end of the day can be incredibly satisfying.

[Howard] In one of our very first episodes of Writing Excuses, we talked about the principle of explaining something small in great detail, then not even bothering to explain something huge. Because the audience, once you’ve explained something small in huge detail and gotten it right, they’re like, “Oh, I totally trust you.” If two people are having an argument about what constitutes pizza, okay, I realize that might not be macro tension, that’s actually holy war…


[Howard] Between Chicago and New York and possibly a bunch of other places. But if they’re having this argument and the argument is well articulated and everybody responds in a way that makes sense for their characters and makes sense to the reader, then when they are having an argument about whether or not to use nanotube contained antimatter in their drive, the audience will trust you to get the argument right.

[Erin] Part of that is because, I think, there’s an underlying resonance there. DongWon literally took the words out of my mouth that I was going to say about the small loop being part of the big loop. But I think that’s true of argument as well. Part of it’s that the emotional need that is kind of driving your conflict, if you have two characters with different emotional needs, those will show up just as much in your pizza argument or your making of spaghetti as they will about the bigger things. So it feels resonant especially if you’ve… Like, the fact that I love, from a previous episode example, I love to do things through performance and I’m really invested in my public persona, and someone else is really about math, because they really feel like a kinship with logic, and that’s how they’ve always solved things. Then we try to make spaghetti together, and I’m throwing it around and they’re measuring. Those are both very resonant with what we understand about the character. That’s what makes the microtension kind of work, and also makes it work later when we see those same traits on a much bigger stage.

[Mary Robinette] When we come back from our break, remind me that I want to talk about the difference between form and essence, spinning off of what Erin just talked about. Now, we’re going to take a brief break.

[DongWon] Our thing of the week this week is Chlorine by Jade Song. It’s a debut novel. It is a dark horror novel. It tells the story of a young woman, a teenager, who is on her school swim team and under an enormous amount of pressure. She’s the child of Chinese-American immigrants, is under pressure at school, is under pressure from her coach. She becomes convinced that the way that she needs… What she needs to do to become the best swimmer that she can be is to become a mermaid. It is this very dark, twisted story of her trying to become her best self through any means possible. It is full of body horror, it’s full of the challenges that young women face in today’s society. It’s an absolutely brilliant lyrical strange story. I cannot be more excited about people to read this and lose their minds in the way that I lost my mind the first time I read this. That’s out March 28, so it should have just come out when you’re hearing this. I implore you to rush to the store and pick it up. Check content warnings when you do, this book has a lot. But I cannot recommend it highly enough.

[Mary Robinette] So, something that Erin said just made me go, “Oh!” There’s this idea of form versus essence which I use a lot when I’m talking to people about how to go after a goal or achieve something. It suddenly occurred to me it applies when we’re talking about that microtension. So the idea is that there’s… That form is something you can touch and feel, and essence is something… Is about how… Sorry. Form is something you can touch or buy, in essence is about how it makes you feel. I learned about it from a happiness coach, which sounds very woo. However, the example that was given to me was a friend was talking about how she wanted… She and her mom were baking cookies. For my friend, the essence of this was connection. For her mom, the essence of it was productivity. So when things started going wrong, my friend was like, “Oh. This is fine. I’m still getting to connect with my mom. Why are you getting so uptight?” Her mom was like, “We are not checking things off our to do list. Why are you being so flippant about it?” Where it ties into this idea of microtension is that microtension is the form of this larger… There is a larger essence conflict that is going through the entire story. That large loop, the recursive thing, the story loop that DongWon was talking about. The form is in this moment, this is how it is expressing itself, in this tiny micro conflict that is happening right now. But it is still part of this larger essence.

[DongWon] Yeah, it’s that sort of Renaissance idea of as above, so below. Right? We can show what the greater pattern is by showing us the small version of it here. I think that could be such an instructive… I think of it as a roadmap, right? You’re showing them a little bit of a roadmap of how to read the rest of it. If you have that tiny moment that has that conflict in it, that has those different ways of seeing things, then that can give us such insight into the overall development of what’s happening with these characters over the course of their entire arc. Going back to sort of earlier topics, too, that could be a way to mislead people. Right? You can give them a microtension and make them think this is the real conflict, when really it’s something else entirely. So it’s a way to sort of like manipulate our reader a little bit, set up red herrings, set up a little bit of false information that’s true to the characters, you’re not lying to them, but those patterns that you’re using can be sometimes manipulated in interesting ways.

[Dan] So, here’s a… Spinning this in kind of a different direction, now, I really love a TV show called Tehran. This is an espionage show made in Israel about an Israeli spy, a woman, who is… Goes into Iran to do something, and gets stuck there. She can’t get out. So most of the series is about her trying to cross the border, trying to get back out of Iran. While she is there, of course, she has to wear a scarf on her head. This is really only one time over the course of the entire first series does this become a major issue. But it is always a micro issue behind every scene. In what situations is it socially acceptable for her to take this off? When does she have to have it on? Who can she trust, who can she not trust? When and how she wears this scarf on her head, despite being just this minor thing in the background, is this huge metaphor for everything that’s going on. How comfortable she is in a certain situation, who she will allow herself to trust or not trust. Kind of like this visual signal of the wall she puts up when she needs to deceive somebody or lie to them. It’s really fascinating to watch. Then, like I said, there’s one scene where it becomes suddenly and abruptly incredibly important. Anyway, it’s a really wonderful way of bringing out all the underlying themes and tensions of the spy story with this small detail that adds to the character, builds up the worldbuilding and the culture, and does all these other cool things at the same time.

[Mary Robinette] I think this is a great example, also, to just draw a line under what Dan said. When we started this, we talked about that all of the different forms of tension that we were talking about could be used on a small scale. So this is a great example of how it’s being used on a small scale and continuing to ramp up the tension up by building this anticipation, because you know that it’s probably going to become significant at some point. Similarly, you can use juxtaposition as a form of microtension by putting a character into a scene and having them think about something that no one else in the scene is thinking about. So it’s only affecting them. For instance, that class that I mentioned when we started talking, where I was literally teaching a class on tension and I was the only one at the beginning of the class who knew that there was a medical emergency back at home. That thing was constantly happening in the back of my head. Had I been a character in a scene, on a page, that would have kept popping up as this little piece of microtension that would’ve kept the scene tight and active while really all that was happening in that scene was a class was being taught. So, sometimes, just an internal juxtaposition is enough, you don’t need to have like sweeping music coming through the scene.

[Howard] For the taxonomy nerds in the crowd, in putting together this set of episodes, we talked quite a bit about where the lines were between these things and whether some of these were actually separate things or whether they were the same things. That is part of what makes these tools so powerful. Microtension can also be a tool for juxtaposition and anticipation. Conflict can be created in microtension. All of this is very much in flux. If you, fair listener, are in conflict with us about the terminology we’re using… Awesome! Because that means you have strong opinions about how the taxonomy will work best for your toolbox. That’s going to serve you better than the stuff that we’re talking about.

[Mary Robinette] That’s right. Frequently what we are doing on this podcast is just trying to give you words that you can use to describe the thing that you’re doing. But the thing that you’re doing is probably something that comes naturally to you. The toolbox is for those moments when it is not coming naturally to you. But none of this is the right way to do something. They’re just tools to think about.

[Mary Robinette] So let’s give you another tool. Why don’t we give you a homework assignment?

[Howard] I’ve got your homework. Take a scene you’ve already written. Raise the tension in it by adding microtension of some sort alongside the big plot tension. Doesn’t have to be making spaghetti or arguing about pizza or even related to food at all. Just a microtension that ramps up the tension of the scene that you’ve already written.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.