Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How do literary novels hook you?

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?


  1. My favorite stories end up being a combination of literary and commercial. high plot but wonderfully written with details and micro tension. No, I didn't read the whole entire thing. But yes, I think both commercial writers and literary writers could learn something from each other.

  2. I did read the entire thing and loved the way you color coded it. It is so difficult to achieve something like this! I really need to read this book...One of the issues I have in my current WIP is building enough tension so this really helps. Thank you :)

  3. I prefer to write and read novels that have both.

    I'm going to have to reread (again!) that section in Donald's book just to make sure I'm doing them both right.

  4. I haven't read that book. Now I can't wait. The writing is lyrical and understated--lovely.

  5. i love character pieces, but never knew why. thanks for teaching us about micro/macro tension today! lovely excerpt! i've seen the movie but never read the book.

  6. As a writer of character-driven fiction, I'm so happy about this post! Thanks!

  7. I love how well you describe the difference between macro and micro. The excerpt certainly did keep me reading. Now I'm anxious to try it out on one of my own books. Thanks, Margo! XO

  8. For me, literary fiction is where I want to highlight almost EVERYTHING and that's the thing that keeps me reading more than anything else.

  9. Thanks Margo, this is very useful. I can see what you mean in the excerpt, but I'm finding it hard to define that quality. A kind of discontentment in the language? Feels like there's a constant reminder of opposing ideas, but in a very small way. Not sure how to bring it into my own writing until I have a stronger grasp of exactly what it it is. Would be too easy to convince myself it was there when it wasn't. Does Maass' book go into detail how to create/recognise it?

    cheers for the info,

    btw, thanks for leaving the question on my blog, hope the answer is satisfactory (it was quite a toughie).

  10. This is a great look at how a story can be interesting without any battles or chase scenes. Thanks for sharing, Margo.

    I'd definitely keep reading Girl With A Pearl Earring, but not for the macro-tension. The descriptive, synaesthesic voice and the subtle relationships were what seemed interesting to me. I'd read just to follow Griet around and see more of her viewpoint, whatever it is that the plot has in store for her. And I do think genre writing could use more attention to micro-tension. It often seems like the "chase your character up a tree and then set it on fire" school of plotting gets all the attention.

  11. Gosh this is really dissecting a book to its bare bones!! Great stuff, thank you! Take care

  12. Damn, I think I have to add this to my TBR list. I watched the movie a few years ago but I sped through that excerpt and now I want more. If you wanted to send me a colour-coded version so I could study bits and pieces, that'd be fine by me-- you really helped demonstrate the difference between macro- and micro-tension. This reinforces the need to get my hands on a Maass book, too.
    - Sophia.

  13. Wow, this was so thorough and really, really informative! I love the time you took to color code things too. Awesome Margo!

  14. Thank you so much for posting the text! I love the micro-tension bits, and you just made me put this book on my To-Be-Read list! I've seen the movie, and it's got some beautiful pieces of cinematography. Looks like the book is the same :)

  15. Ah, but genre fiction (successful genre fiction) has microtension by the bucketload! Just sometimes, it's overshadowed by the high concept stakes. Great post!

  16. Excellent way to show micro-tension, Margo. I loved that book. Just finished Tinkers, another literary novel that employs so much of this kind of tension. It's challenging to read because of the structure, but it's fascinating and you won't soon forget the characters or what the author has to say about life.

  17. Hi Margo! *waving from Nebraska* I've been re-reading "Fire in Fiction" , too, and I'm so glad you posted this. I'm not a big fan of literary fiction, though I admit, I've been reading more of it in the past few years. This was a great example of micro and macro tension. Well done!

  18. This post was great! I love how you showed us a very nice (and thorough!) example of micro vs macro tension. I never really considered those terms.

    And I remember when I first started writing, trying to figure out my plot, I thought of all the books I love. I tried to figure out how the plot moved, pacing, etc, and then was surprised when I realized how basic some of the storylines were. What I mean by that is I discovered there weren't many "physical" things happening (running from place to place, fighting monsters, etc), but that tension - micro tension- was what drove much of the story. That suspense you build between characters. It totally changed my perspective!

    So again, thanks for this breakdown! It's such a great tool.

    New follower...

  19. Wow, Margo, you did a great job of breaking this down and color coding it. I read the entire excerpt. Beautiful writing. Thanks for pointing out the macro and micro tension. I see what you mean. I think that the figurative language enriches the story. The descriptions fit the mood/appearance of the characters, which makes them more real to the reader. What a great post! I don't have a blog yet. So I'll subscribe by email. Did you have the option to do this when you started your blog? I find it so much easier to keep up with the few blogs I'm following if I get an email instead of trying to sort through the Dashboard. I love the email option. Thanks!

  20. Before you gave us the answer to your question, I would have said tension keeps us reading any fiction (having read Maass' How to Write the Breakout Novel). But since I haven't read The Fire in Fiction - it's on my super long TBR list - I wouldn't have known the distinction you illustrated for us so well. Thanks!

    Yet another reason to move The Fire in Fiction up higher on my list.

  21. Margo, your description and the book content makes me want to read the story. Learned something new too. Didn't think about literary fiction in those terms. Guess because I'm usually caught up in plot, sometimes at the expense of characters. I'm not a big fan of literary fiction, but your post made me get out Snow Flower & The Secret Fan. Absolutely loved that book! Can't think why I haven't written a review on it it, but it's one of those really good books in which cataclysmic things don't necessarily happen all the the time, but the main character is compelling. Great post.

  22. Interesting comparison between micro and macrofiction. Stephen King would probably fall under macrofiction, but in his book On Writing, he says books have to be about character first. Readers have to care about the character. I think that's true too. I've read plenty of fast paced books, but if there's not enough character there to invest in, I'm not invested in the story. Do you feel the same way?

  23. I was very taken with GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING when I read it. I love Griet's predicament and the way her talents revealed themselves. Love the terms mico and macro tension. A good blend and balance of both is my cup of tea. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  24. oh my...
    most of the literary novels that I read or used to read were in French. I only read a hand full of English ones in College, and they didn't stick with me after graduation. *shame*
    But if I remember right, character and setting are very important to me, to be able to take interest in one and read it from one end to the next. I should probably remedy to that when I get a chance.
    Great blog post as usual (even if it's long) :-)

  25. I think any novel that has a fast pace has a combination of Micro with the Macro, but I can see what you mean by the difference in main stream to literary fiction from this example.

    Thanks for sharing!

  26. What an incredible example. I love visuals like this. It'll stick with me now. I'll be colour coding my own tension phrases too! It works great! At a glance... you can see if you're really hooking the reader or not. Thanks Margo!

  27. I haven't read that story. But I love the excerpt you presented. I think micro-tension is so important. Thanks for this example.

  28. Hi Margo,

    So, I got hold of the book and had a look at the chapter about tension. I understood it better but he has a strange way of making things clear and cloudy at the same time (might jsut be me though).

    I think I've got the general gist and have even done a post on it on my blog. If you get a chance to have a look I'd appreciate your thoughts on whether I'm on the right lines (roughly).

    Moody Writing

  29. I'd have to agree with Theresa's comment. A reader HAS to care about the characters first. That's it.

    But I do appreciate your post on this. And I appreciate the color coded system you used. It made it so much easier to grasp.

    Fire in Fiction is one of the best books on writing. But the best way to learn all of this is to actually sit down (BIC) and write. That is the best teacher. :-)

  30. Thanks for the color coding and breaking this down. I'm the type who prefers more macro tension, I'd have to say.

  31. What a great subject, and a helpful way to make the distinction between macro/micro tension. I'll be looking closer at this now, thanks for the help! And I'm hearing so much about Fire in Fiction--I've got to get my hands on it soon :-)

  32. I realize this is a nearly two-year-old post, but I only found it recently while searching for info on how to write a good hook for literary novels. Excellent analysis! I love the way you've used color-coding to point out micro-tension. Oftentimes I'll read "how to" writing advice and come away with little idea how to apply it to my own work, but the way you've laid it out - in such a simple, clear, and visual manner - makes the lightbulb go off :)

    Just one question - in the Donald Maass book you mention, he defines micro-tension as follows:

    "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."

    This definition seems a little too specific and limited to apply to some of the things you've highlighted in the Girl With A Pearl Earring excerpt. So what made you decide to "blue" those portions, e.g. when she's remembering something, or describing someone else's incidental reactions?

  33. Great question! I'll give you some random examples of why I highlighted the text blue because I thought it was microtension.

    "Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well" - it's a bit of shock to her that her mother doesn't know her as well as she thought. Anything with a negative surprise means tension.

    "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." The word "rarely" was the hint of tension here. The following description implies a contrast: because these people are rich, and rare, it implies the main characters house is poor. Though no feeling is expressed in this example, most contrasts will evoke tension in the reader.

    "Papists' Corner? They're Catholic?" "You can come home Sundays. They have agreed to that." Nothing like a difference in beliefs to bring out tension. And the structure of her mother's response just felt tense to me too, like she had had to bargain with them to make sure her daughter could come home.

    "The pie slices I had made so carefully were ruined." Using a symbol for tension. The pie slices are symbolic of Griet's desire for order and art in her life; her mother has not just ruined Griet's composition but it's symbolic of her feeling her life is ruined too, or at the very least disrupted.

    Hope this helps! This was a good reminder for me too to double check to make sure I have some sort of tension on every page!

  34. Thank you! And yes, this definitely helps clarify things. I think the whole exercise would be a great thing to have beta or alpha readers do - just go through your work and highlight anything they consider macro- or micro-tension. If you get your material back with huge chunks untouched, it's probably a clue that section needs to be reworked.


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