Tension on Every Page

Eliminate low-tension traps by upping the stakes in action, dialogue, and even exposition. Bring a passage from your work-in-progress to take through in-class exercises. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, discover how to keep your readers in a constant state of suspense over what will happen next.

At a glance

What: Tension on Every Page

When: Sa, Oct 4, 1-4:30pm

Where: Pyle Center, Rm 111, 702 Langdon St, Madison, WI

Cost: $65 | limit 20 people

Register Online
or register by phone at
608-262-2451
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For additional information, contact
Laura Kahl: 608-262-3982


Is nailing the main conflict the key to page-turning tension? You might be surprised.

Donald Maass says an instinct for tension matters more than strong central conflict or even lovable characters. Heighten your awareness of tension on every page and backstory becomes revelatory, dialogue snappy, and action more meaningful.

So how do you do it? Truly effective tension doesn’t come from fist fights or action sequences. You could pepper your pages with face slaps and car chases and bore readers silly. It originates deeper—in character emotion. That doesn’t mean you must add weeping damsels or angst-ridden teens. Good tension is all about key characters grappling with conflicting emotions.

Throughout the day we’ll put tension under the microscope by exploring what Donald Maass calls “micro-tension,” or tension through conflicting emotion. Page by page, we’ll study how it’s done.

  • Make your dialogue do double duty.
    How do you build good tension in dialogue? Explore how to tease out emotional resistance, set up power plays, pressure characters to defend the facts, even exploit animosity between friends as well as foes.
  • Turn big or small action sequences into arresting revelation.
    Conflicting emotion gives action more impact. We’ll look at riveting action sequences where characters do little more than grocery shop and drift on rafts. Then we’ll tackle big action scenes with guns and fast cars that entertain and delve deep. Either way, good tension is built by balancing action, physical detail, and conflicting emotions hard to reconcile.  Maass says, “Tension in action comes not from the action itself but from inside the point-of-view character experiencing it.”
  • Entice with exposition.
    Exposition’s tricky. How do you make what’s inside a character’s mind thrilling rather than monotonous? Don’t show your characters rehashing what the reader’s already figured out. Instead, show your pov character contemplating conflicting feelings, torn by opposing forces. The inner tug-of-war spurs readers to keep reading to see what the character will do next.
  • Transform low-tension traps.
    Let’s face it, all writers break rules, for good or ill. You’ve probably been told to avoid weather openings rife with foreboding, or information dumps that dense-pack history into a scene. Yet some subversive part of you still wants to do it. Indulge the rule-breaker in you. Find out how micro-tension lets you get away with it. 

Take home tips on how to craft “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.” (Donald Maass)