Tension: How to Keep ‘Em Reading

It was Tuesday, February 6, 1996.

My mother drove slowly down the slithery street. Brown, muddy snow had collected on the sides of the road, and . . .

You clicked the “read more” button. 🙂

And I think I know why. You read the first line and began to wonder, What happened that day?

Why Can’t We Help Ourselves? We Need to Keep Reading

You had your thumb ready to scroll on. But you needed to know more.

Then you read the second sentence. You wondered, Was it a car accident?

You were hooked. The tension would’ve remained until you knew the answer—and I would’ve kept it from you till you were convinced you needed to hear the rest as well.

When you awaken a “need-to-know!” anxiety in your readers, they won’t put your article aside until their craving is satisfied.

The secret to this tension is knowing when to disclose information—and in what order.

Let’s Break it Down: High versus Subtle Tension

In the first line, I gave only the date, arousing your curiosity. In the second, I unearthed a few details surrounding that elusive thing that’s about to happen.

You felt the tension rising. (That is, if I succeeded. 🙂)

This is what I call high tension—a tension that could morph into suspense if extended long enough.

But tension can also be subtle.

Consider the fourth paragraph. The clause “I think I know why” creates a tiny flick of tension. You think, Why then?

You have to read on.

The tension lasts just long enough to pull you into the following sentence.

Tension Within a Sentence

Tension can also be effective within a sentence. For example, the order of clauses can make the difference between dull and nerve racking.

Take a look at these two versions of the same sentence:

[Context: From between the curtains, Mr. Howard sees a dark-clothed man looking up at his neighbor’s apartment. His old police instincts take over, and he dashes to the elevator.]

“The mysterious figure was gone by the time the elevator dinged and the doors opened.”

“By the time the elevator dinged and the doors opened, the mysterious figure was gone.”

Quite a difference, right?

The second version extends the anxiety. For the duration of the first clause, you’re wondering what Mr. Howard will find.

The tension remains until the last word.

I could also amp up the tension by interrupting the flow with a hard stop.

“The elevator dinged and the doors opened. The mysterious figure was gone.”

Tension Isn’t Your First Concern

Considerations like these are part of my writing routine. When constructing sentences, I first think about clarity, rhythm, conciseness, and diction.

And if I have time left, I search for opportunities to add tension to my prose—high tension to hook my readers; subtle tension to pull them through my sentences and paragraphs.

The key is to keep your readers curious: don’t give them more than they need to keep reading.

Subscribe to the free Change the World Writing course to learn more about tension and suspense (via the form below).

WARNING: Let Your Story Guide You

Sometimes we get more tension by telling what is going to happen and leaving the reader to wonder how it is going to happen.

Also, consider when these techniques are appropriate. In business writing, for example, we should put all essential information up front.

Would you like help finding suspense in your nonfiction story? Book a free discovery call below, and we’ll find out how I can help you.

Enjoyed this blog?

Have a look at my other posts. And if you need help finishing your story, let’s chat.

Tension: How to Keep ‘Em Reading

Niels Kwakernaak

Nonfiction Editor

Thanks for your interest in my experience and ideas. I write these blogs to help you overcome the hurdles of being a writer.

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