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.

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