Creating Tension through Sentence Structure

Have you ever wondered how some words can leave you breathless and wanting to know what happens next in a story? Is it always only the plot that makes a story exciting? Or could it be the way the words are placed in a sentence? Sometimes it is many words woven together that create an exciting read. Sometimes, it is just one word that provides an answer. How does an author create tension through their sentence structures?

The following example will make things clearer:

The gun was shot. Like a wind, we took off. The first boy I passed by was really easy. I was already ahead of four others, who were struggling, but I did not have time to look at them. I concentrated forward. Crossing the second boy, too, went like a breeze. I was getting there. And I did. This was as easy as water. Now only one more opponent was left. And I was yet to engage my fastest gear. I was waiting for the opportune time. Then it came. I engaged. But nothing happened. What? He was still ahead. I did it again. Still no success. He was a full metre ahead of me. I tried again. Nothing. No matter how hard I ran, he always seemed ahead of me. If only I could reach out and grab his vest, I could sling myself (symbolically, of course) ahead of him. The finish line was only a few feet away. My last chance. This was it – now or never. I gave it one last effort. My feet left the ground and took flight as we both flew across the ribbon on to the other side, with me inches behind him.

What do you notice about these lines?

  • Varying lengths of sentences are a must. Action is best expressed when a long descriptive sentence is suddenly followed by a short crisp one. That creates a change of pace. A change of pace creates tension. Use truncated sentences for this. Place many short ones consecutively. Do you notice the burst of short sentences peeping from between the rest and making all the difference? Even a single word sentence is sometimes enough.
  • Write long, complex sentences that prolong the explanation and create an atmosphere of heightened suspense. The reader becomes impatient for the end of the sentence when the author will reveal what happens next. Look at the last sentence in the example above. You can even have complex sentences with one dependent clause or compound sentences that have two independent clauses for effect. The idea in each is to keep the reader on their toes for the eventual result. 
  • Provide only partial answers. This ought to leave the reader breathless. Leave them wanting for more; give the answers, but not all. Make them wait; that will make them want. Gradually build the scene. Make the great reveal only towards the end. Could you tell if the narrator won the race or lost it before you read the last line?
  • Build the action upwards. As you write, keep building the tension in the action. Very similar to the last point, don’t reveal at once. Tease the reader. Every few sentences, add an extra clue: a thought, a plan or a significant development. Pay attention to the thoughts of the narrator. Do you see how the thought precedes the plan that is made and then executed? It should almost feel like a rhythm.
  • Punctuate correctly. Full stops are you best friend here. Commas may be used but only to provide grammatical correctness. Don’t overload with exclamation marks. They reduce the seriousness of the content. 

Showing a fast-moving action or horror-filled scene is very easy in a video. But that can be achieved in writing as well. Just structure the sentences correctly, and use the magic of the right word. There you go! You have your action sequence right in front of you.

How to Create Mood or Atmosphere in a Story?

Doesn’t a good story transport you effortlessly to its fictional realm? Can you see events and scenes happening right in front of your eyes? Do you get goosebumps or feel your heart soaring after reading the words on the page? Do you wonder how authors make that happen? The answer lies in creating the right mood or atmosphere for a story.

Let’s consider the following example to have a better understanding of how to create mood in a story:

Hesitatingly, Mike stepped into the hallway, its cavernous mouth threatening to swallow all semblance of happiness and hope. Silence filled Mike’s ears like water gushing into a void: not even a creak of a chair or the hum of any machinery to reveal his location and put him out of his misery. The only sound that thundered in his ears were the sounds of his heartbeat, each one echoing against his chest cavity and sending shudders through his body till he felt like his nerves had taken over and were making deep gashes on his skin with a sharp needle. The thudding against his chest began to grow in pace, and his heart was now threatening to get out of his body, to make an escape from the room. To keep his legs from following suit, he bent his knees and collapsed on to the ground. He knew it would be pointless; any escape was seemingly impossible.

Can you guess the mood of the story in the above example? Suspense? Horror? Let’s look at the obvious giveaways that make the example a horror genre:

  • Feelings evoked in the character: not knowing where he is, feeling trapped, no way of escape. Mike’s loss of control over his body further aggravates his situation. 
  • Setting: Where is the story taking place? Has the author provided any answers? If so, are they elaborate or are they frugal in nature? In a horror genre, the less one reveals, the more intense the atmosphere becomes. What do we know about the setting in the example? It’s a hallway. The entry looks like the mouth of a cave with no return. That’s all. We don’t know where, and we don’t know how Mike got there. 
  • What sounds does Mike hear? Nothing. But he wishes for some sound for answers. Sensory words are very important to creating the mood. Sounds in a setting or their lack make the reader experience what the characters are experiencing. 
  • Obvious word usage like cavernous, void, shudders, threatening, gashes, creak, thudding, collapsed, impossible, etc.
  • Figures of speech is another technique that conveys the depth of feelings and emotion. Can you identify the metaphors, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, etc. in the example above? Silence gushes into your ears like water: now would that be a comfortable feeling? Thundering, thudding:  have you ever felt so scared that your heart was beating like a drum?  Can you see in the example how the scene is being drawn for you? Every description only increases the feeling of dread; there is no respite, no relief.
  • Internal monologue is very helpful in ascertaining the dark cloud in a person’s mind. Since some scenes may have only one character, dialogue cannot be used. So, internal monologue comes very handy. Do you notice how Mike debates in his mind in the last line? Thoughts reveal a person’s true feelings or intent. Make your characters confess using internal monologue.

When you create mood or atmosphere for your story, first think of how you would feel being in that setting. List down the things that make you feel that way. Then, picture how your body would react to it. Pen them down using interesting word choices, sensory details and figures of speech. And, that’s how you create the right mood for your story.