CRAFT MATTERS: The Compelling Book–Subtext Creates Conflict that Produces Micro-Tension

Secret SisterEmelle Gamble’s new release Secret Sister is this week’s highlight in Craft Matters. The author’s skilled use of conflict creates a micro-tension that grabs the reader immediately and continues to drive the story forward. Secret Sister is a cross-genre novel that hopscotch’s back and forth over the lines of women’s fiction, romance, and light paranormal.
At its core, this is a story of rediscovery and second chances. The self-exploration the heroine undergoes–that sense of being a foreigner in a strange land–takes the reader on an emotionally heart-wrenching journey with lots of bumps in the road. Bumps that we’re willing to take because we’re holding out for the payoff that we’re sure will come. And it does.
Gamble builds micro-tension by creating a tug-of-war between what is known and what is unknown from the very beginning pages. As readers, we worry and wonder and guess and backtrack on what we know and what we believe to be true just like the main character.Tug of War - 123RF And this creates a tension in the reader to know, to find out, which keeps us reading. We’re on a journey of discovery as well. Even in those first pages, we’re trying to figure out the dynamics of the friendship between Roxanne and Cathy, what’s going on beneath . . . what’s the subtext.
My best friend and I should have been relaxed and chatty, but we hadn’t been either lately. There was tension between us. She was distracted and distressed by calamity in her personal life and I felt at a loss to help.
Gamble uses this delicate maneuvering between text and subtext to create a micro-tension for the reader. We’re pulled by the conflict. The character goes on to explain that Roxanne has just been through a breakup. However, it’s because of the subtext that’s implied by Cathy that we know something more, something darker, might be going on. We keep reading to find out what that something more might be. Gamble continues to use this conflict between what’s said and what’s left unsaid throughout the opening chapters of Secret Sisters. The subtext causes us to question what’s real, what’s truth, who is sleeping with whom, who’s betrayed whom, and who is friend or foe, but most of all, it keeps us reading.
Another craft strength this author employs is emotional authenticity. Her characters’ responses feel authentic. They give us a glimpse into those dark recesses where we often don’t want to go, but, when seen and experienced, really expose what it means to be human. Readers can relate to the real relationships and emotional responses of her characters. There’s a truth that resonates with them. Let’s look at an example in Chapter 8. In this scene, Nick who’s dealing badly with his wife Cathy’s death, lashes out against Betty, the mother (who is also a psychologist) of his dead wife’s best friend. During this whole interaction, Gamble builds the tension with Betty’s every conversational interaction with Nick. But the emotional resonance, the kernel truth explodes on to the scene with Nick’s final response to her.
Betty squeezed my arm. “It would also be helpful, Nick, … to get some counseling. Grief counseling is very specialized art. I can give you the name of some of my colleagues, if you want. To help you move on.”
“I don’t want to move on, Betty,” I blurted out. “If anything, I want to move back in time. To July 9. I want to go back to that day and pull Roxanne’s head out of her ass and tell her to grow up and stop dragging my wife around like a fucking security blanket. If she didn’t care about her own life, fine, but she should have been careful not to kill my wife!”
Betty Haverty went white, her arms rigid at her side. 
Zoe clutched her backpack. “Nick, don’t …”
“So tell Roxanne I don’t care to meet with her.” My voice got louder. “And tell her when she can remember her life, to remember that Cathy was the best person she ever knew, and the best goddamned friend she ever had. And that she’s lost that friend now because she’s a careless, selfish, boneheaded bitch who never thinks about anyone but herself.”
While this is a hard scene to read, it’s a highly emotional one because the author doesn’t back down. Doesn’t settle for the smaller emotion here. She allows her character to go big and feel what someone experiencing this kind of grief might experience. It rings true to us as readers. There’s an authenticity that makes us sit up and take notice and more importantly, it moves us to tears and makes us experience this man’s heartbreak. It’s scenes like this one throughout the book that will draw readers in and keep them coming back for more.
Gamble’s expertise in developing sexual tension between her characters, even in the flashback to a forbidden relationship, will also capture romance readers from the early chapters of this book. But it’s the main character’s search for her true love that will keep them reading until she finds her happy-ever-after.
In the end, Secret Sister is a book about the search for true identity. Who are we when all else is stripped away and we’ve forgotten who we are? Then the story pushes a little harder and asks: Will our true love be able to find us if our identity changes–or worse, will they still love us, if they do find us changed? Go buy Emelle Gamble’s Secret Sister to find out. I highly recommend it!
You can find Emelle chatting about The Long Winding Road to Brand New this week at You’ll find her online at:, @EmelleGamble, and
So who are some of your favorite authors who use subtext to create conflict & micro-tension that compels you to find out . . . the rest of the story?