Keeping tension in your chapters


At the end of a chapter, readers should want to turn the page. They should need to read the next chapter. What's going to happen next? they should ask. I can't live without knowing.

Readers will turn to the next chapter for four reasons.

  • Fear. They are nervous about what could be coming.

  • Hope. There's a clue that things are going to get a lot better.

  • A puzzle to be solved. Something looks like it doesn't make sense.

  • Crucial information. There's a 'reveal' coming that's going to answer a big question.

In other words, readers turn to the next chapter because of tension. And tension always asks this question: what's going to happen next? 

Tension should build throughout a chapter.

It can be intense, or it can be subtle, but either way, the reader should be aware of a question that is building up. 

Will he get through the barriers and find the girl?
Will she be eaten by the monster?
Can they possibly survive the task that seems impossible?
Does the look he gave her mean he likes her? Or is she mis-reading the situation?
Who's lying? Who's not? How can she tell?

A good exercise is to go through your chapters one by one. Can you sum up each chapter in a question? If you can't, ask yourself why someone would keep reading your book. 

Tension is built using any or all of these things:

  • giving time to the important parts of the scene

  • hints and foreshadowing of things that will become important to the situation

  • dialogue with hidden subtexts

  • silences, pauses and gaps as well as action

  • appropriate pacing

  • voice

As you edit your chapter, ask: does this word/sentence/scene increase the tension? If it doesn't, consider rewriting or deleting it. 

Chapter endings are crucial.

Finish with a question, a hint or hope, or an expression of fear. Every last sentence in a chapter must hold a question, a hidden meaning or a clue as to what could come next.


keeping tension in your chapters

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Want more writing tips? In our Write Your Memoir course we go into tension and lots of other things that get your readers turning those pages. Check it out here.

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