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Tension-Ating: A 12-Step Program

This whole writing thing is HARD, have you noticed? It feels like you have to keep about 73 balls in the air all the time. And then…you have your manuscript all done, and you still aren’t done. No. What you need is more tension. Not stress–though it might stress you out, but tension.

Now comes the hard part. That dreaded word…

RevisionsThere’s one key revision that is essential to keep the reader turning pages. That essential is to make sure there is tension on every page.

Here’s the thing. I used to think you could have too much tension. But you can’t. No matter how much tension you think you have, it’s not too much. It’s probably not enough. In fact, it’s probably…none at all. So the point is, unlike my chocolate orgasm four ways brownies (a taste sensation not to be missed), Twilight Zone marathons, or visits from crazy relatives, it’s impossible to have too much tension.

Unfortunately, most of us have a distinct lack of that tension in our manuscripts. Thus, the need for revisions.

Donald Maass insists–and he should know, since he’s a top New York literary agent–that a true page-turner manuscript is one where the reader encounters tension on every single page, from page one to page “the end.”

I love Maass’s suggested way to fix a lack of tension on the page. Here’s his procedure:

Rainbow-Tension-Ate Every Page

Start with a complete print-out–one page per sheet–of your manuscript. (Do make sure you have page numbers on the print-out, by the way. You’ll be sorry later if you don’t!)

  1. Now split your pile of 400 or so pages into, say half a dozen or so piles of 50 or 60 pages each. Choose one pile more or less at random and set the others aside. (No…don’t start with section 1 and go in order through the manuscript. Really choose a random pile.)
  2. Ready to start adding that tension?  Great. Find a room with a big open space in the  middle. Take the printed pages of the section you’re working on. One…Two…Three…


  3. Toss those sheets up in the air!
  4. Makes a big mess, huh?  Okay, shuffle around the pages and choose ONE page.
  5. Study the text on that page. Is there any tension there? Is a question bouncing around the reader’s mind as a result of the text on that page? If so, pull out a highlighter and highlight it.
  6. Can’t find any tension? Or only a teensy amount of tension on the page? Okay…add some tension. Do it right now. Just write it in in red pen. (Or purple. I like purple.) Work with this one page, by itself, until you have at least one to three points of tension highlighted and/or written on the page.
  7. Set that page aside.
  8. Shuffle around the big mess on the floor (you are a messy writer, aren’t you?) and choose another page.
  9. Check it for tension too. Make sure there are at least one to three points of tension for the reader on that page. Highlight what’s there, and write in more if you don’t have enough.Tension Markup
  10. When you have that page done, set it with the first (I suggest you put it in page order as you complete each page.)
  11. Repeat this for every page in the section. When you’re done the  manuscript pages should look like rainbows of tension.
  12. Now choose another section of the manuscript–try not to make it the section immediately after the one you just did. Repeat from Step 2 until all sections of the complete ms are done and properly rainbow-tension-ated.

Now all you have to do is go to your computer and add all those lovely tension-ated moments. Read through the story once you’re done, and I think you’ll find it much more un-put-downable!

Oh, yeah. You might want to use more, smaller sections if you have a cat or dog. Or small child. They love to “paper-surf” through the mess on your floor. I’m just saying…


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