Last week, Moody Writing had a great post on literary fiction, which got me to thinking... if a book doesn't have "a character with a highly specified goal and huge stakes forcing them forward at the fastest pace possible" - then what grips us in literary fiction, what makes us keep on reading?
My first response would have been to say literary fiction keeps us reading because it's character-driven instead of plot-driven. But that's a pretty big generalization. Since digesting the Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, I have a new answer:
Genre fiction is often (again, generalizing here, forgive me) driven by macro-tension: e.g. big plot things, lots of action, lots of disasters. Literary fiction is driven by micro-tension.
Micro-tension is easier to understand when you see it in action, than trying to describe it. So here I give you the first scene from Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier. This is one of the most striking literary novels I've read in the last year, despite the fact that very little happens in it. A girl leaves her home to work as a maid in the household of Vermeer, a not-yet-famous painter in the Netherlands of the 1600's. There's no affair, there's no "big" conflict, there's not even an antagonist in this novel. But it gripped me from beginning to end. (Btw, I did not see the movie by the same name. No idea how it might differ from the book).
What I've done here is copied the text from Chevalier's web page (making a big assumption that this okay to do because she posted the text online and I'm giving her credit, of course). I've highlighted the macro-tension in orange, and the micro-tension in blue. You will see only a little orange and A LOT, I mean A LOT of blue. And hopefully this will demonstrate what micro-tension is and how powerfully it works.
My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes.
I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard voices outside our front door -- a woman's, bright as polished brass, and a man's, low and dark like the wood of the table I was working on. They were the kind of voices we heard rarely in our house. I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur.
I was glad that earlier I had scrubbed the front step so hard.
My mother's voice -- a cooking pot, a flagon -- approached from the front room. They were coming to the kitchen. I pushed the leeks I had been chopping into place, then set the knife on the table, wiped my hands on my apron, and pressed my lips together to smooth them.
My mother appeared in the doorway, her eyes two warnings. Behind her the woman had to duck her head because she was so tall, taller than the man following her.
All of our family, even my father and brother, were small.
The woman looked as if she had been blown about by the wind, although it was a calm day. Her cap was askew so that tiny blond curls escaped and hung about her forehead like bees which she swatted at impatiently several times. Her collar needed straightening and was not as crisp as it could be. She pushed her grey mantle back from her shoulders, and I saw then that under her dark blue dress a baby was growing. It would arrive by the year's end, or before.
The woman's face was like an oval serving plate, flashing at times, dull at others. Her eyes were two light brown buttons, a color I had rarely seen coupled with blond hair. She made a show of watching me hard, but could not fix her attention on me, her eyes darting about the room.
"This is the girl, then," she said abruptly.
"This is my daughter, Griet," my mother replied. I nodded respectfully to the man and woman.
"Well. She's not very big. Is she strong enough?" As the woman turned to look at the man, a fold of her mantle caught the handle of the knife, knocking it off the table so that it spun across the floor.
The woman cried out.
"Catharina," the man said calmly. He spoke her name as if he held cinnamon in his mouth. The woman stopped, making an effort to quiet herself.
I stepped over and picked up the knife, polishing the blade on my apron before placing it back on the table. The knife had brushed against the vegetables. I set a piece of carrot back in its place.
The man was watching me, his eyes grey like the sea. He had a long, angular face, and his expression was steady, in contrast to his wife's, which flickered like a candle. He had no beard or moustache, and I was glad, for it gave him a clean appearance. He wore a black cloak over his shoulders, a white shirt, and a fine lace collar. His hat pressed into hair the color of brick washed by rain.
"What have you been doing here, Griet?" he asked.
I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. "Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup."
"And why have you laid them out thus?"
I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disk in the center.
The man tapped his finger on the table. "Are they laid out in the order in which they will go into the soup?" he suggested, studying the circle.
"No, sir." I hesitated. I could not say why I had laid out the vegetables as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.
"I see you have separated the whites," he said, indicating the turnips and onions. "And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?" He picked up a shred of cabbage and a piece of carrot and shook them like dice in his hand.
I looked at my mother, who nodded slightly.
"The colors fight when they are side by side, sir."
He arched his eyebrows, as if he had not expected such a response. "And do you spend much time setting out the vegetables before you make the soup?"
"Oh, no, sir," I replied, confused. I did not want him to think I was idle.
From the corner of my eye I saw a movement -- my sister, Agnes, was peering round the doorpost and had shaken her head at my response. I did not often lie. I looked down.
The man turned his head slightly and Agnes disappeared. He dropped the pieces of carrot and cabbage into their slices. The cabbage shred fell partly into the onions. I wanted to reach over and tease it into place. I did not, but he knew that I wanted to. He was testing me.
"That's enough prattle," the woman declared. Though she was annoyed with his attention to me, it was me she frowned at. "Tomorrow, then?" She looked at the man before sweeping out of the room, my mother behind her. The man glanced once more at what was to be the soup, then nodded at me and followed the women.
When my mother returned I was sitting by the vegetable wheel. I waited for her to speak. She was hunching her shoulders as if against a winter chill, though it was summer and the kitchen was hot.
"You are to start tomorrow as their maid. If you do well, you will be paid eight stuivers a day. You will live with them."
I pressed my lips together.
"Don't look at me like that, Griet," my mother said. "We have to, now your father has lost his trade."
"Where do they live?"
"On the Oude Langendijck, where it intersects with the Molenpoort."
"Papists' Corner? They're Catholic?"
"You can come home Sundays. They have agreed to that." My mother cupped her hands around the turnips, scooped them up along with some of the cabbage and onions and dropped them into the pot of water waiting on the fire. The pie slices I had made so carefully were ruined.
Sorry, that was a lot for a blog post (over 1000 words). But all that micro-tension keeps you reading, doesn't it? The subtle conflict between Griet and her mother, between Vermeer and his wife, between Griet and her sister, between rich and poor, tall and short, married gentleman and nervous young girl, Catholic and non-Catholic... and there's even micro-tension in here I can sense without being able to even put a label on it.
Would the macro-tension alone - the girl having to leave her home to live with strangers - be enough to keep you reading? Would genre fiction benefit from utilizing more micro-tension, in addition to macro-tension?
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