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Tension in character-driven MG

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I'm revising a quieter, character-driven MG, and I'm starting to worry about the lack of external tension.

It isn't a page-turner in that something or someone might be lurking on each new page. The tension comes from my MC's relationships with those around her, from her attempts to keep tabs on her own emotions, and from the consequences of one big mistake she made at the beginning of the story.

I'm worried that I'm not keeping the tension tight enough to make it "worthwhile" for the reader.

Does anyone have reading recommendations for character-driven MG books that get the pacing/tension just right? (Or any other recommendations, for that matter?)

 :thankyou
#1 - May 01, 2013, 07:33 PM

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Cynthia Lord's book RULES is really awesome for that very thing. It's a real-life story without any explosions or anything, but it's loaded with tension. The tension comes from each character having a lot at stake, and then being driven to the point where they can't avoid making a decision. And it's middle grade, too.
#2 - May 01, 2013, 08:30 PM

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Perfect! Thank you olmue!  :goldstar
#3 - May 02, 2013, 03:55 AM

Linda Urban's latest, THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING, might be another good one to check out.
#4 - May 02, 2013, 06:12 AM
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CALIFORNIA HISTORY FOR KIDS, CRP
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This is not a novel, but have you read THE FIRE IN FICTION by Donald Maass? He offers a lot of great suggestions for increasing tension in unexpected ways. It might give you some ideas for keeping those pages turning.
#6 - May 02, 2013, 07:27 AM
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Totally agree with mg. THE FIRE IN FICTION talks a lot about maintaining micro-tension, and he makes the point that explosions, etc., in themselves aren't enough.

Quiet books that held me captive are the Penderwicks books.

Does the book have a sense of what your character wants, and is she making some sort of attempt to get it? Dealing with the consequences of a mistake sounds good. Is she trying to repair this somehow? I think it's important that she not just be a victim of the consequences.  :goodluck
#7 - May 02, 2013, 09:40 AM
Adventures of Jenna V. Series
Caroline Grade Mysteries
The Journey of Emilie
Anne Bradstreet: America's Puritan Poet
www.marciahoehne.com

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I write quiet stories, too. Here are some of my go-to books.

Waiting for Normal
Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me
Missing May
Sparrow Road
Walk Two Moons
Each Little Bird that Sings
Because of Winn Dixie
The Tiger Rising
All Alone in the Universe - the one by Lynne Rae Perkins

Read for plot. Even in quiet stories, the plot drives the bus. Or so my editor keeps telling me :)
#8 - May 02, 2013, 10:12 AM

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Thank you, thank you for the excellent suggestions! BBers are the best!  :grouphug2:

mrh, my initial response to your question was: OF COURSE my mc is setting out to achieve something! Except I have no clue what that thing is.  :bangcomputer So... now I know where to work next. (Plot. Must include plot.)

#9 - May 02, 2013, 10:25 AM

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Thank you for starting this thread, RaeE! I could have posed the very same question.

Such helpful responses!
#10 - May 02, 2013, 10:32 AM
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Okay for Now
I was also going to mention The Fire in Fiction, and I'm actually reading about tension in that book right now.  It's not what you think and he uses actual books to show you what he means which I think is so helpful.  Wow!  Long sentence   :shootingstar
#11 - May 02, 2013, 08:45 PM

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I'll take a quiet, character-driven MG novel over a blow-em up action-paced plot any day. Tension can absolutely come from emotions and the characters surrounding your mc.

I'm going to be looking for the Donald Maass book. I've read his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and learned a ton.

Linda Urban's first two novels A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT and HOUND DOG TRUE are two other beautiful quiet stories.
#12 - May 11, 2013, 11:11 AM
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Check out this blog post that I found really helpful this week at Writer Unboxed. A few comments down, Donald Maass commented, too, a couple of times - make sure to read his comments too.

http://writerunboxed.com/2013/05/08/that-is-the-question/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+WriterUnboxed+%28Writer+Unboxed%29

She puts it so simply at one point: "My characters must feel torn. Often."

In my MG novel, Sprinkles and Secrets, Sophie, the main character, gets the opportunity to be in a commercial, and acting is what she loves to do. The only problem is that the commercial is for Beatrice's Brownies, the biggest competitor to her best friend's mother's cupcake shop, It's Raining Cupcakes. She feels torn! It's her dreams vs. friendship, and it's not an easy choice for a 12-year-old. That's the great thing about middle grade - they are learning how to navigate these kinds of things and "talking it out" isn't usually the first thing that comes to mind.

That feeling of "being torn" is what makes for great scenes. It's why love triangles in YA fiction are so popular.

Anyway, hope that helps. Good luck!


#13 - May 11, 2013, 02:26 PM
The Bridge From Me to You, Scholastic
plus five other YA novels
It's Raining Cupcakes trilogy
Charmed Life series
http://www.lisaschroederbooks.com

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Awesome find, Lisa - thank you!
#14 - May 11, 2013, 03:31 PM
A RAMBLER STEALS HOME, HMH 2016
EVERYTHING YOU NEED FOR A TREEHOUSE; THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE, Chronicle 2017
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Thank you! I can't wait to read that post later tonight, Lisa! Jody, I love A Crooked Kind Of Perfect, and I'm excited to read it again with this in mind!
#15 - May 11, 2013, 03:59 PM

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I really love all the books mentioned above. Similar to OKAY FOR NOW (which I loved so much I still sigh at the mere mention), I recommend TWERP by Mark Goldblatt.
I'm currently reading it and just a few chapters in. It's short and more quiet but has perfect tension. Much of it has to do with an underlying emotional truth that you know is lingering there but not fully revealed - in this case it's a gnawing feeling of shame.
Loving this thread!
Jean
#16 - August 01, 2013, 07:01 AM
« Last Edit: August 01, 2013, 09:29 AM by Jean Reidy »
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Much of it has to do with an underlying emotional truth that you know is lingering there but not fully revealed - in this case it's a gnawing feeling of shame.


This sounds oddly perfect for my WIP. Thanks for the recommendation, Jean! (And OKAY FOR NOW is perfect, isn't it? That and WAITING FOR NORMAL have been my favorites so far.)
#17 - August 01, 2013, 09:24 AM

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Interesting to come across this thread right now because I've been reading a quiet MG (and thinking about one of my own), Patricia Reilly Giff's WATER STREET at the very same time that I've been reading the chapters on micro-tension in THE FIRE IN FICTION. And I love what Jean said about that underlying emotional truth . . .
#18 - August 01, 2013, 06:29 PM

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All good advice and recommendations here!

Once on a Twitter #mglitchat,we were discussing quiet books, and I said that in plot-driven books, the world is at stake; in character-driven books, the character's world is at stake.

If readers are invested in your character and things are *not* going well for that character, the reader will care, and there will be tension.

Good luck!
#19 - August 02, 2013, 12:49 AM
« Last Edit: August 02, 2013, 05:48 AM by Natalie »
FLYING THE DRAGON (Charlesbridge, 2012)
A LONG PITCH HOME (Charlesbridge, 2016)

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A new favorite of mine, being unbelievably seamless writing, I think, as well as   "quiet", yet both character- and plot-driven, is "Hold Fast" by Blue Balliett. Wonderful book which I know I am going to want to refer to again and again.

Leslie
#20 - August 02, 2013, 04:42 AM

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Once on a Twitter #mglitchat, we were discussing quiet books, and I said that in plot-driven books, the world is at stake; in character-driven books, the character's world is at stake.

Natalie, I *love* that!  :yup
#21 - August 02, 2013, 07:15 PM

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Thanks, Jenna. As a writer of quiet books, it's something I try to keep in mind as I write. This whole thread has been helpful!
#22 - August 03, 2013, 01:13 AM
FLYING THE DRAGON (Charlesbridge, 2012)
A LONG PITCH HOME (Charlesbridge, 2016)

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