Teachers Write 7/1/13 Mini-Lesson Monday with Lisa Schroeder

Welcome to Teachers Write Week 2!  The winner of last week’s HIDE AND SEEK signed book drawing is Beth Shaum! Beth, please send me your mailing address via my website contact form and I’ll get your book in the mail.

If you’re new here, Teachers Write is a virtual summer writing camp for teachers and librarians. Click here to sign up if you’d like to join us! If you’re on Facebook & want to also join our group there,here’s the link. Then click “Join Group.”

A quick note about blogging your Teachers Write experience: It’s GREAT if you want to set up a blog where you share all of your writing from this summer. One important request: Please do not copy and paste the mini-lessons or writing prompts – publish only your own writing on your blog. If you’d like to reference the ideas shared here, providing a link is the best way to do that. Thanks!

Today’s guest author is Lisa Schroeder, who is the author of four teen verse novels including I Heart You, You Haunt Me and its companion, Chasing Brooklyn, Far From You, and the Oregon Book Award finalist, The Day Before. Her latest book for teens is a combination of prose and poetry, titled Falling For You.  She’s also the author of the middle grade novels It’s Raining Cupcakes, Sprinkles and Secrets, and the forthcoming Frosting and Friendship (9/2013, Aladdin). Her books have been translated into several languages and have been selected for state reading lists. She lives in Oregon with her husband and two sons. You can learn more by visiting http://www.lisaschroederbooks.com.

Creating micro-tension in your novel

by Lisa Schroeder

 You know the drill. When you’re writing a story, you have to figure out what your character wants and then put obstacles in his/her way (i.e. create conflict) in an effort to create an interesting journey for your readers to follow. Simply put, conflict = story. Of course, in great stories, there’s an internal journey as well as the external one.

 So we try our best to keep that ultimate goal out there and keep our protagonist reaching for it. But according to agent and author Donald Maass, conflict must be present in small ways too. In his book, The Fire in Fiction, he says, “Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether: Micro-tension. That is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen, not in the story, but in the next few seconds.”

 Did you catch that? “Next few seconds.” I don’t think enough authors keep this in mind. I’d argue it’s even more important when writing for kids and teens because if they put a book down out of boredom, there’s a good chance it won’t get picked up again.

 So, let’s take a look at my middle grade novel, It’s Raining Cupcakes, because it’s one I obviously know well. The main character, Isabel, has never been out of the state of Oregon and she dreams of traveling. That’s her goal. But there are a few things keeping her dream from coming true. First of all, she’s a kid with limited income. Second of all, she has a mother who is afraid of flying. And finally, her parents are opening a cupcake shop, so travel is really the last thing they want to do. And yet, Isabel wants to travel. Badly. And she goes about trying to earn money and also enters a baking contest for kids because the finalists earn a trip to New York City for the bake-off.

 In each scene where Isabel is trying to either raise money or come up with a recipe for the baking contest, I tried to create that magical and wonderful micro-tension. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

 In one scene, Isabel is babysitting three-year-old twins in an effort to earn money. Of course, I let the little boys be boys, so it’s fun to read. But I knew I needed more than that to keep the reader engaged. Isabel notices some travel books in the house, and while the kiddy pool is filling up with water, Isabel decides she wants to read those books. She knows it’s not wise to leave the boys alone with the water, and tries to persuade them to go inside with her, but they refuse. So she tells them to stay out of the water, and off she goes. Here is an example of micro-tension. Suddenly, the reader is nervous. Will the boys get in the pool when Isabel steps away, even though she tells them not to? If they do get in the water, will one of them get hurt? And what if she gets caught?

 In another scene, Isabel decides to try out a recipe for the baking contest she wants to enter. Her mom has told her she thinks she should enter a cupcake recipe. After all, if Isabel makes it to the finals, it could be good exposure for the new cupcake shop. But Isabel worries people might think her mom helped her. She really wants to do something different. But she doesn’t exactly tell her mom that. So one day, while her parents are both out running errands, Isabel attempts a recipe that isn’t a cupcake one. When Mom and Dad come home earlier than expected, Isabel panics. She grabs the dessert she’s just made and without thinking, runs out to the fire escape. Why the fire escape? Because as the author, I knew this was a great way to create some tension. I could have just had them come home and catch her in the kitchen, but why miss out on an opportunity for conflict? Once she’s on the fire escape, then what? Does she try to climb down? Does she throw the dessert out on the street? Will her parents catch her out there, hiding from them? And what happens when she realizes she just drank not one, but two root beers, and she suddenly has to go to the bathroom really, really bad? I put Isabel in a pickle, and that’s what me must do over and over again in our stories to keep the tension high.

 One of the reasons The Hunger Games has been so successful, I’d argue, is because Suzanne Collins is a master at creating micro-tension. Of course, she set up a story that would be ripe for it, and kudos to her for doing that, but think how different the story would have been if it were just Katniss hiding in the woods, all by herself. With every character she encountered, there was tension.

 Ask yourself, with each scene, what can you do to keep readers on the edge of their seat. Brainstorm a few different things, and then try them out and see how they play out on the page. As one author put it in this great blog post by Sarah Callender at “Writer’s Unboxed” (which I encourage you to read, because it’s another way of looking at micro-tension), “My characters must feel torn. Often. That’s right. We must create a massive game of tug-o-war within our characters by throwing choices in their direction. Even better, we might give them only lousy choices. Or, let them be torn and then let them make a wrong choice. We must make them squirm as a result of their choices. Squirming characters = engaged readers.”

 Go on then. Have some fun. Make your characters squirm!

 One lucky commenter today can win an Advanced Review Copy of Frosting and Friendship, a companion novel to It’s Raining Cupcakes and Frosting and Friendship.

Note from Kate: Thanks Lisa!! Remember, campers, in the comments, feel free to share a few lines of what you wrote today! Please note: If you’re a first-time commenter, I’ll have to approve your comment before it appears. This may take a while if I’m not at my computer, but don’t worry – I’ll get to it and it will show up later on!  As we continue in writer’s camp, Gae and I are traveling on and off, so we won’t be able to reply to comments every day. But your guest authors may be stopping by, and you should most definitely read & reply to one another, too. Remember that it’s the community that makes this place so much fun!

And one last thing…Monday Morning Warm-Up is today, too!

86 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/1/13 Mini-Lesson Monday with Lisa Schroeder

  1. What a great reminder, Lisa. I am one of those authors who doesn’t consider this concept of micro-tension enough as I’m always looking at the BIG TENSION and this is definitely something I’ll be looking at from now on. Thank you! (And HI! Great to see you in these parts!)

    1. Hi Joanne! Good to see you here! Glad you found the post helpful. It\’s something I\’ve become more and more aware of as both a reader and a writer, but it isn\’t always easy as a writer, that\’s for sure.

  2. I read Ruta Sepyts’ lovely Out of the Easy yesterday. I could not put it down. After reading this mini-lesson, I know why. Micro-tension. I couldn’t wait to know what happened next. Thanks for sharing this lesson. I get it….I am not good at writing it yet, but I get it.

  3. Thank you for the great reminder! Not only am I going to go back through my own writing, I’m going to start looking for a few mentor texts to introduce this concept to my class.

    1. Hi Michele, I think as you start looking for it, you’ll definitely notice when a book has micro-tension and does it well. One example I can think of is ENDANGERED by Eliot Schrefer. Not sure what grade you teach, but regardless, check it out. It’s a fantastic book that I could not put down.

  4. Great mini lesson showing how each decision we make makes a difference. I\’m having fun this summer learning tricks for myself and my students.

  5. I will bookmark your mini-lesson on micro-tension. I have been a bit of a reading rut. When thinking of the books zi have been reading of lately they do not have that tension. A great lesson to use with my readers. Thank you!

    1. Hi Kristen, Yes, I agree, I’ve read a couple recently too that just did not have enough of it, and I kept thinking how the author could have made the book so much better by adding in more conflict.

  6. I have used the quick write from 27 June, as I worked out getting to know my main character, to identify places where over-arching tension could develop. Having this tool from our previous quick write (which actually turned into a four-day write, not so quick but ever so helpful) was invaluable. I can now look into teasing out areas where I want to develop that main tension within the story line. Here is a peak into one of those spots that is beginning to fester into a juicy plot …

    #4. What is your favorite thing about yourself?
    He takes great pride in his looks and his suave way of handling just about anything that is thrown at him. His self-confidence rating is off the scale, but does that mean it is a true self-identity; no one knows – not even him. However, he is so confident that he is able to convince just about anyone that he knows just about everything regarding just about anything.
    TENSION BUILDER POSSIBILITY …. the tip of the “just abouts”; what happens when he meets someone who does know everything about that one thing?

    In addition to enjoying my morning write-ins; I have also been taking the time to look at my notebook and writing through the eyes of a teacher. What can I take back to my writing workshop in the classroom, how does this look in a middle school classroom. I’ve been making some wonderful discoveries and have actually posted a photo of my notebook (on the Facebook link) & my most recent “aha” moment as I transitioned our quick write of developing a character into the middle school classroom. It has been invigorating and exciting as I push through the quiet moments to develop a tumultuous text. Thanks for the boost and all of the expert advice plus rich mentor text infused within each post.

  7. It’s kind of funny for me to think about this, because, as a reader, I often HATE that micro-tension. I get so anxious about the character doing something wrong or stupid that I get upset! But, really, that’s what keeps me engaged. I have to find out what happens next, of course! I never thought about teaching my students how to use it or its importance before. When we teach realistic fiction in my district, we have been instructed (at third grade) to teach the children to write a story where there is a goal, and the character must make three attempts to attain that goal (or solve the problem), the third try being the charm. I’n thinking not only to try out micro-tension with my kids in that unit, but that your book will be a great mentor text for that as well as the attempts to solve the problem. One of my students gave me your book for my library last year, so I’m ready to go!

    1. It can be nerve-wracking, it’s true, to wonder what’s going to happen. But yes – that is definitely one of the things that keeps us engaged. Of course, we have to care about the characters, and that is a different lesson, i.e. creating characters our readers want to route for. But when it all comes together and really works, it creates such a magical reading experience.

    2. ShyrlAnn – I feel the same way! I get frustrated with the character, and yet if that tension wasn’t there, I’d be bored! LOL

  8. What a fabulous lesson! In the short story I recently wrote at http://learninglines.wordpress.com I tried to tell a story with micro-tension, (only I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time). Not only does micro-tension motivate the reader, it also motivates the writer. It’s fun to write! Thank you for articulating, so clearly, the process I often stumble upon in writing. Now, working for it, planning for it will be more at the forefront of my mind. Wonderful words of wisdom.

  9. Thanks for this mini lesson on micro tension. I think I have to work a little on revising my current project so that there’s more of this buil-in earlier on.

  10. great mini lesson this morning! My goal this morning is to really focus on creating micro tension in each and every chapter—much appreciated!

  11. I always try to tell my kids when they write to make sure that there is conflict. I never thought of micro-tension. It’s true though – that’s what keeps us going through a story, hooks us to the characters. We always talk about how good books keep you guessing, or wanting more. Now I can explain it’s called micro-tension and it will be fun to try to create it both in my own writing and help my students with theirs. Thanks!

    1. I really appreciate that Donald Maass gave it a name, and helped me think about it in my own writing. It’s such an important tool to have in our toolkit, I think.

  12. Thanks for this micro tension mini-lesson…I am wondering what technique an author would use to keep readers engaged with informational text as well? Ideas?

    1. I think the key with that is to not do too much at once. Weave it in throughout the text, rather than a big info. dump with lots and lots of information or back story. One of things one of my editors taught me is to really think, with each chapter, if I’m developing characters and/or moving the plot forward. Ideally, some of both will happen in each chapter. So that’s often a simple thing I’ll ask myself when I’m revising. Good luck!

  13. I loved this lesson. I think this is going to be one of the harder areas for me to get a handle on. I will keep practicing. Today I’ll just look at what I’m working on and start asking questions to see how I can ramp up the tension with micro-tension.

  14. Lisa – Those are great examples from your book and gives me a perfect editing focus for my next read of my WIP. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. (BTW…My seventh grade students LOVE It\’s Raining Cupcakes! I can\’t keep it in my classroom.)

  15. Lisa – your mini lesson promises to be helpful to me – as a new writer and what I thought myself as – a seasoned reader. I will now be more aware of the micro-tension and tug of war choices that authors present their characters with. The idea of micro-tension gave birth to a new scene that was started in my character interview prompt last week. Thanks for the insight!

  16. Thanks, Lisa, for this great advice. I went back to my WIP to see if I had micro-tension. I revised this section.
    Sleep does not come for me. I am wide-awake with worry. Will my momma know I’m gone? What am I going to do in the morning? I need a plan. While the ideas swirl around in my brain, I perk up to any sound outside. Crickets rub their legs together to fill the night with sound. There is a soft breeze blowing the leaves on the trees. Shadows dance on the walls. I close my eyes.
    I wake to the sound of a lawn mower running and blowers. Sounds like an army of yardmen. I don’t dare open the door.

  17. I teach third grade too, and my district preaches the same 3 events and a logical conclusion method for story writing.
    As a teacher of English Language Learners, this approach works on a basic level, but usually produces cookie cutter type stories. Very vanilla. I can see how tension acts as the spice that can rev up their writing. My kids can certainly brainstorm tension into their plots regardless of their limited English vocabulary.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yes, it really is all about brainstorming ideas to make the scene more interesting. Young writers have so much to think about as they’re writing, I’m not sure how much of micro-tension is appropriate to expect, but it’s certainly something worth talking about and getting them to think about it.

  18. Thank you, Lisa, for showing us and not just telling us about this important element to add or amp up in our writing. That is one thing I especially find valuable about Teachers Write! All of the authors and teachers are willing to be generous with their knowledge and talent to really SHOW us how to utilize these devices. I hope to come back later today with an example of how I tried this in my own work!

  19. she realizes she just drank not one, but two root beers, and she suddenly has to go to the bathroom really, really bad?

    Lisa, what a funny and excellent example! Made me laugh, and I INSTANTLY understood the tension!

  20. This makes perfect sense. Micro-tension makes the story a page turner and the reader stays immersed in the story!

  21. What a great way to write your way out of a block! I’m not one who “believes in” writer’s block, but we all have those times when we’re sitting at the keyboard, staring at the screen, saying “OK. now what?” Answer — Add some tension. Thanks, Lisa.

  22. Thanks, Lisa! This was great.
    I have been dukin’ it out with my revisions and I know that this “micro-tension” is what is needed. I point it out to my students all the time when I read because they are the parts I am drawn to the most. It’s the “Oh, no, don’t go in there!” or the moment of such embarrassment for the character that as a reader you are physically uncomfortable – quite literally squirming.
    Now, if I could only get that in my writing…

    Thank-you again, and to all the authors who are so generous with their time and their advice this summer. You are touching lives!

    1. I think it’s another one of those things that simply comes with practice. The more you write, the more you are aware of the moments where adding some micro-tension will help the story along.

  23. What a great way of explaining how to keep readers engaged. You can bet I’ll be checking back over what I’ve written now, looking for micro-tension. Thank you!

  24. What a great lesson, feel like I’ve been to class this morning without leaving my apartment.

  25. Lisa, it was funny to see your reference to Donald Maass, as I was just reading his Writing the Breakout Novel. (I’ve blogged about his advice a couple times because his novel prompts have always impressed me for the insights they generate.) Between your advice and what I’d just read, it helped me to let go of some of the more “dead” details. In trying to give readers a picture of my female main character, I kept creating everyday details – her ordinary house, some ordinary daily activities. It was taking space, but not exciting me. Between your advice on tension and another piece by Maass on ‘larger than life’ characters, I realized that the “ordinary” details about my character weren’t why I was writing about her. I could ignore (that is, delete or not write) the details about everyday life, while focusing on what makes her an interesting character for me. Yay – a much more powerful series of detail came out in my revisions this morning. It’s not something meaningful to post here, since the details only make sense in the context of the whole chapter, but I’ll share this post from last week, which says more about how I’ve struggled with tension in keeping the “flatness” out of this character. http://elissafield.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/novel-revision-revising-a-flat-character/
    Thanks so much for your advice!

    1. Donald Maass has such great advice in his books. I’ve read a lot of books, and I find his to be some of the most helpful. Glad it helped with your writing today!

  26. Thanks for this great lesson today, Lisa! Now I’m going back to my WIP to see if there’s micro-tension at work in each scene. Thanks again! 🙂 Jennie @jenniekaywrites

  27. I just started my first draft today after wrestling with my ideas for a week and finally firming up a topic. Your mini-lesson was perfect food for thought as I got started. The main plot of my story is these ten-year old characters trying to save their local fire station when it is threatened to be closed by funding cuts. But I started to build toward some micro-tension with a character who the kids will later find out did not pass the fourth grade. That piece of action was not even on my radar until reading this mini lesson today, and I\’m so glad for the inspiration and guidance! Here are a few lines of what I wrote today regarding this micro-tension:

    “Aaleyah?” Isaiah questioned the blond girl who was sitting next to him, reapplying her lip gloss. She tossed her long, dark brown hair over her shoulder and turned to him.
    “We want to know who your fifth grade teacher is.” Isaiah repeated.
    “I don’t know…” Aaleyah replied in a bored tone of voice.
    “Didn’t you get your letter yet?” pressed Isaiah?
    “I don’t know! My mom didn’t show me one. Maybe it got lost in the mail.” Aaleyah replied a little more sharply this time. Isaiah turned back to Derek and Cora and shrugged his shoulders.

  28. Grandpa Lloyd points to the one gray tooth and says, “I found this shark’s tooth at a gift shop in town. I kept it in a matchbox for twenty years. And when my last tooth fell out, I just had the dentist screw this one right into my jawbone.”

    I am terrified by this. By the fact that someone could keep a tooth in a matchbox for twenty years without any kind of fear at all for what kind of night creature might come to collect the tooth and what it might leave behind in exchange. In my mind I imagine swampmen with seaweed draped across their shoulders and dangling from their forearms, outstretched fetching blindly into dark rooms for the teeth that belong to the water. My grandfather smiles and swirls a spoon around his coffee cup leaving currents of cream in circular patterns. He smiles and I see that tooth jutting out from a pink sandbar of a gumline like a sharp rock standing post.

    There is no reason for me to not believe him. He is a fisherman, after all.

    1. You paint such an intriguing character here… I reread this a few times, and I couldn’t believe it myself, which is why your last line is just perfect. Of course he’s a fisherman. So now I’m conflicted. Am I supposed to believe him or not!?!

  29. Oh, thank you! By far my biggest problem was building in ANY tension! The most helpful critique I got when I was getting started was that my characters were all too agreeable, and the reader was wishing something bad would happen… I think the best way for me to think about the concept of micro-tension is to focus on the word “choices,” and make my characters choose. Thanks so much for this lesson – off to wreak some havoc in my manuscript!

    1. Yes, it can be hard to make our characters struggle. After all, we care about them! But conflict is a must in great stories. Good luck with your writing!

  30. What a great mini-lesson! When teaching fictional writing, especially, I teach my 5th graders to work toward one major conflict and then resolve it, but I have been struggling with helping them elaborate on the scenes of rising action. Micro-tension is a wonderful strategy to use! I can’t wait to teach this idea in the classroom!

    On another note, I have It’s Raining Cupcakes on my classroom library shelf, and my 5th grade girls love it! I purchased the book when I had a class with girls who loved baking–especially cupcakes. They are always asking for more books like it, so I am happy to hear your next book is coming out. Thank you for writing for this age level! I can’t wait to tell them I had a “writing lesson” with one of the author of that book!

    1. Hi Heidi, I’m glad you found it helpful. So glad the girls in your class have enjoyed the book. I LOVED to bake when I was that age, so it’s been really fun to write and share these three books with like-minded kids. 🙂

  31. Micro-tension? I had never heard of this before today! It has made me look at my potential characters in a very different way. Thank you!

  32. I’m so glad you gave us so many options, examples, and concrete models of what using micro-tension means. I think I’ve finally got it! Do you use a certain amount per scene? Thank you for a great start to the week!

    1. Hi Andrea, I don’t have any set thing I do for each scene. I’m just constantly asking myself, how can I amp up the tension? How can I make my character squirm? What kind of choices might I throw out here that will provide some conflict for my character? For me, it’s about asking questions again and again. Good luck!

  33. Today’s lesson gives me a great idea for continuing a story that has been swimming in my writer’s notebook for over a year. Here is part of what I had written already:
    “Go straight home,” he continues as if he hasn’t heard her or isn’t listening. “Lock the doors. Close the windows and the blinds. Load the gun.”
    “What’s going…”
    “Just go! Do what I said. I’ll be there as soon as…”
    And just like that, the country song returns, the baby cries, and she stares through the windshield at the road that is now her lifeline.
    And now I’d like to think that this trip home won’t be the struggle-free race I might have written otherwise. Now I’m wondering…
    Will she crash?
    Will there be a road block?
    Will she be followed?
    What bad choices can I get her to make? I would love any ideas you might offer… Ha! This is so much fun!

    1. Morgan, You’ve shared a perfect example for everyone. Maybe she has different routes to choose from, and there are pros and cons with each. Or maybe she wants to make a stop first, for something important, but she debates whether there’s time. Sometimes it takes trying out a few different things before you find the right one. Good luck!

      1. Thank you. Those are possibilities I hadn’t considered. I love the idea of writing it in a couple of different directions. At what point do you decide to commit to one?

  34. Lisa,

    First of all, I love all of your books. I am competely bewildered by how many boys and girls (I teach sixth grade) want to be bakers. I had three this year in class and all three of them read It’s Raining Cupcakes.

    Secondly, thank you for the interesting lesson on micro-tension. The librarian at my school, also a writer, and I always talk about ideas to create more tension/conflict in our stories. I am currently working on a children’s (sports) story and spent some time today adding tension to different spots. I asked my future editor, my daughter (who by the way loved It’s Raining Cupcakes and Sprinkles and Secrets), and she liked the tension.

    Thank you again for the lesson. Can’t wait for the next book!

    1. Hi Andy – I loved to bake when I was that age, and still do! I’m so happy my books have found kindred spirits. And what a great editor you have! Happy writing!!

  35. Thank you for this mini-lesson. It is certainly something that I will be looking for more often and trying to do in my own writing.

  36. Hi Lisa,
    Do you have any suggestions for mini lesson for teaching elementary students (4th and 5th graders) how to use micro tension in their stories?

  37. I have acknowledged recently that I am terrified about writing conflict. I think of tense situations and think, “I couldn’t write that. It’s too scary.” I think this summer I have to set that fear aside and write things that scare me so I take away some of the power that fear holds over me. Thanks for the encouragement to embrace the tension and conflict!