Use punctuation that “punches,” and breaks that keep the reader breathless.

When you think of tension, you probably think in terms of plot – of a storyline that keeps you glued to the page. However, “tension” is also a momentary psychological effect you can create through the manner in which you structure your prose. It is this literary device, in my opinion, that often separates the great, thrilling reads from the merely satisfactory.

In a book, you can promote tension through structure in a number of ways:

1) CHAPTER BREAKS: This is perhaps the most obvious mechanism, the one with which we’re most familiar as readers. Every author looks for just the right spot to break chapters. The ideal chapter break accomplishes two key tasks:

      A) It closes out the chapter in a way that satisfies the reader. Think of each chapter as a mini-book/story, requiring its own unique conflict and resolution, and you’re likely to ace this requirement.

      B) It sets up the next chapter, providing an anticipatory thrill for the reader, such that he won’t even think about putting the book down.

2) STORY BREAKS: Formats vary on these, from simple multi-line breaks in the text, to line breaks before and after a 3-asterisk (***) designation (my preference), to a long centered line between segments. Think of these as sub-chapter breaks. They typically indicate one or more of the following:

      A) You abruptly change scene, often skipping forward in time or flashing back.

      B) You change POV from one character to another.

3) PARAGRAPH BREAKS: As basic as it sounds, this is, in fact, one of the most difficult aspects of writing for beginning writers to grasp. You simply have to develop a feel for it, as there are many reasons for which to break a paragraph. We tend to focus on the most elementary of reasons: a change in subject or a need for a little “white space.” However, one of the most underused tools is the isolating of the last sentence of a paragraph (at least under normal circumstances), making it a stand-alone paragraph. This might give that final sentence extra punch, greater impact.

4) SENTENCE BREAKS (CADENCE/RHYTHM): Should that be one sentence or two? Or three? At what point does a series of short sentences become too choppy? At what point does a series of long sentences become too wordy and long-winded? How should you alter the sentence lengths and syllable counts? You must mix it up, or you will create the “Lullaby Effect,” and your readers will lose interest, or even nod off. Use what Harry Chapin, the late, great songwriter/storyteller, called “the rhythm of time.” Make your words sing.

5) SENTENCE FRAGMENTS: When does a 1- to 5-word fragment provide an extra punch? When is it just plain lazy, sloppy writing? Fragments are a powerful tool, when used sparingly and to good effect. When overused, however, they cause readers like me to start fuming.

6) PUNCTUATION: This most basic element of writing remains one of the most confusing. The comma must be the most misunderstood, misused, abused, and amusing symbol in the English language. It can be the writer’s greatest friend… or fiercest enemy. For that matter, did you notice that little ellipsis I just used? When should you use them? And I haven’t even mentioned the almighty dash or – hold your breath now – the exclamation point! At what point do you overuse these types of punctuation?

7) ITALICIZED (EMPHASIZED) TEXT: When you want a word to really jump out at a reader, as it would if you spoke the word, italicize it. Just be careful; don’t overdo it.

Okay, so I’ve listed a number of ways in which you can promote tension through structure, but I left many questions unanswered. It’s a long and detailed subject, so I’ll be tackling them one-by-one – not necessarily in order – over the next few weeks. I wanted to plant the seed, so that you’ll be thinking about these as you sit down to write your masterpiece.

Tune in soon for the rest. In the meantime, and as always, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.