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How to Build Tension to Keep Readers Hooked

22 Mar 2024 The Writing Craft

Your greatest challenge as a writer is to keep readers engaged.

Your job is to keep them with you page after page to find out what happens.

Inject tension into your work to enthrall readers.

What is Tension in Writing?

Tension is anything in your manuscript—fiction or nonfiction—that causes readers to anticipate. 

Anticipate what? Literally anything.

This tension doesn’t even have to be dramatic or eerie, though it certainly can be—and isn’t that fun? 

But tension can come in any form at all that keeps readers with you—guessing what might happen next.

Sure, in fiction it can relate to fearing the villain is just around the corner, or whether your hero will snip the right wire to thwart the bomb, or whether your protagonist’s true love will ever return.

But even something as seemingly innocuous as a dental appointment can create tension because the reader intuitively knows it wouldn’t be mentioned unless something is destined to arise there. 

Even nonfiction books need such tension. Suggest the felt needs of your readers and imply you have the answer. That’s tension, and readers stay with you to see if you can deliver.

It’s all about creating an emotional response in your readers. Conflict is the engine of fiction, but readers have to care about the outcome. As you build tension and raise the stakes, you evoke wonder—anticipation—in your readers about what comes next. 

Consider the stakes in both fiction and nonfiction. What are the consequences of whatever’s coming? Is it life or death? Or is it success or failure? The more invested you can force your readers to become, the more likely they are to stay with you. 

Yet again, I can’t emphasize enough that tension can be every bit as dramatic in what might otherwise be considered a mundane event. 

Example: My current project—a Bible-based novel—opens at what is universally known as the Last Supper in the Upper Room. Most everyone knows that what might have begun as a traditional passover meal becomes one of the most pivotal events in the history of Christianity.

So my challenge? To create tension even before it begins. Scripture merely says that Jesus assigned his disciples, Peter and John, to make the arrangements. The drama doesn’t really begin until they’re eating and Jesus tries to tell them what is to come and also exposes who will betray Him.

So, without revealing any real spoilers, I’m going to speculate—fictionally—that one of those disciples senses a foreboding distraction on the part of Jesus. Something is on His mind. Something about this impending meal feels different. What might it be?


Withholding the Right Information

Offering too much information will leave little room for your reader to anticipate what will happen next. Give them too little, and they won’t understand the gravity of the situations into which you put your characters.

Readers need to know something is on the line, so start by giving them more information than the characters (also known as Dramatic Irony).

For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet fakes her death so she’ll be free to be with Romeo, however, because he isn’t aware of the scheme, he drinks poison to join her in death. 

When you give readers more information than the characters, they understand the gravity of the situation and are even more eager to see how everything plays out.

Withholding information from the reader can also prove effective. Be careful not to spoon-feed them every detail. Leave them a role in the reading experience. Give them credit to deduce what’s going on so they can fill in some of the blanks for themselves.

Create Characters Your Readers Will Invest In

Writing strong, lifelike characters can also increase tension. Just remember that in nonfiction—if you do it well—readers are the main characters. 

In either genre, readers must care what happens.

So, before you plunge your main character into terrible trouble, tell readers enough about them to make them care.


Build tension throughout your book by injecting hints in the dialogue and narrative summary of what could happen if things go wrong (and if things aren’t always going wrong, you have no conflict—and thus no story).

However, be careful not to be over-obvious. Foreshadowing should intrigue, not reveal spoilers.

You can plant clues to make readers assume one thing, only to result in something entirely different happening.

Aha moments for readers can make them feel as if the breadcrumbs you’ve left have been satisfactorily paid off.

At the beginning of the third season of the Netflix series Stranger Things, the need for two persons to activate a Russian device is shown off-handedly.

Later, as one of the main characters frantically attempts to operate the device by herself, she realizes the machine requires two people, making it seem impossible for her to save the day.

Avoid anything that will intrigue your reader if you don’t plan on paying off on it. Make every word count. Foreshadowing that leads nowhere disappoints readers and feels like an obvious plot hole.


A cliffhanger is any kind of foreshadowing or tense situation that isn’t immediately resolved.

What in real life might make readers aggravated here delightfully  compels them to find out what happens next. That’s the very definition of the kind of tension we want to build.

Don’t assume cliffhangers belong only at the end of your novel or nonfiction book. In truth, they can be effective at the end of a chapter or even a scene.

Leave the door open to a realm of possibilities.

Don’t frustrate readers by leaving something unresolved at the end of your book. You want an ending that feels complete and satisfying. How then can you dangle the possibilities for the next book in a series? Simply leave the door open to them, but don’t leave anyone or anything hanging from the cliff. Tension without resolution brings only frustration..  


Pace can make or break your book.

You must find the right balance between building tension and it going so long without a resolution that readers give up in frustration. That said, also be careful not to rush things. Patience is the key to taking the time to weave clues and plant seeds of conflict and tension.

Your goal should be to get to your climactic moment when readers aren’t sure what to expect but know the payoff is coming.

Outliners and Pantsers (those, like me, who write by the seat of their pants)  may approach this differently, but the result must be the same.

Draw Your Readers In 

Tension keeps readers reading. That’s why it’s so important for you to master foreshadowing, pacing, and cliffhangers.

Tension keeps readers engaged and invested, so give it the time it requires.