By Christina Soontornvat
Some people say writing is like fishing: authors have to lure their readers, set the hook, and reel them in. This article is not about the luring or the hooking, but about keeping your readers on the line all the way to shore.When I started writing All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, I worried that because most people already knew how the story ended, it would be hard to keep them turning pages. But I have learned that what makes readers stay engaged throughout a story is not the promise of an ending, but the tension all along the way. (Again, just like fishing!)
How do we create tension? For readers to be in tension, they must understand what is at stake in our stories. Fiction writers are often told that we need to “create bigger stakes” or “raise the stakes” in our manuscripts. Luckily, nonfiction writers don’t need to create stakes. Our job is to figure out what the stakes are and make them clear and meaningful to our readers.Even if your subject matter is not experiencing the life-or-death situation of being trapped in a flooded cave, the stakes are still high for them. There are reputations, livelihoods, life’s passions, true love, or broken promises on the line. I will use two of my favorite nonfiction books as examples: Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando (by Andrea Wang & Kana Urbanowicz) and Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (by Deborah Heiligman). These stories pull us along so strongly because the authors have clearly elucidated for us what is at stake for the subject. In Magic Ramen, it’s Momofuku Ando’s dream of feeding the hungry people of a war-ravaged nation. In Charles and Emma, not only is Darwin’s scientific theory at risk, but so is his marriage and his very soul.
Once you have identified what is at stake for your subject, you can think about pacing your story so that the stakes rise and rise and rise. Again, this will not be fabricated because this is real life, and in life the closer we get to attaining our goals, the higher the stakes become because the farther we have to plummet if we fail. We cheer for Momofuku Ando when he finally creates his ramen because we have seen him fall short so many times before. For Charles Darwin, the stakes pile up as time goes on—professionally, personally, and even physically as his health begins to suffer—until finally he must make his theory public or someone else will get there first and his decades of sacrifice will be for naught. Whoever thought that 19th century scientific publishing could be such a nail-biter?
Now that you know your stakes and you have mapped out how they rise and rise over the course of your story, you can think about more detailed mechanics. Here is where we come to chapter endings (or page turns if you are writing picture books). Here is a picture of a note I wrote myself about a work-in-progress just last week:
It says, “Don’t end chapter with falling asleep.” I am embarrassed that I still have to write myself notes like this, but it’s true! I have this natural tendency to want to end a chapter with closure and coziness, but that doesn’t exactly make your reader want to stay up late to keep turning those pages. The end of a chapter or a page turn is an opportunity to remind your reader of what’s at risk, or to introduce new information that ratchets up or complicates the tension. As an example, here is my original ending to Chapter 19 in All Thirteen, when the missing boys are finally discovered by cave divers:
By hugging Rick and John, the boys are not just showing how grateful they are to be saved. These two men are no longer strangers. They have become like family.
Originally, I had this next paragraph (edited here for brevity) in a later spot in the book, but my editor and I decided to pull it back and it is now the ending to Chapter 19:
The divers promise they will come back. As they dip back down below the water, Rick and John refocus on the harrowing dive ahead of them. There is one thought they won’t allow themselves to dwell on until they are safely on dry ground again…Later, John Volanthen will speak his grim thoughts aloud: “Alive in a cave and alive outside a cave are two very different things.”
Either ending is fine, but the latter reminds you that even though the boys have finally been found, they are still very much in peril. There is relief, but it is accompanied by a sense of foreboding that keeps the tension high.
Now I’m not saying that you should construct your manuscript in a way that feels forced or gimmicky. It shouldn’t feel that way, and you certainly don’t want to end every single chapter on some massive cliff hanger because that would be exhausting. And you will of course have to meander away from your main character to explain other pieces of their story. But even then, you should make sure your readers understand how it all connects to what is at stake. A chapter ending is a great place to remind them.
I believe that if you understand your subject with empathy and compassion, you will be able to create tension in your story in an authentic way. You will put us readers in their shoes, and our hearts will beat right along with theirs through every page.
Now if I was really good, I’d have a solid fishing metaphor at the end here. I’m afraid I can’t come up with one, but I want it to be remembered that I did not end this paragraph with someone falling asleep! Thank you and happy writing!
Read a current work of nonfiction and write down what the stakes are for the main character/subject. (Picture book nonfiction is great for this exercise!). Identify how the stakes rise and rise throughout the story. At what point in the story are the stakes at their highest point? Finally, make a list of ways the author used story structure, page turns, chapter endings, and/or overall pacing to keep you in tension throughout.
ABOUT THE AUTHORChristina Soontornvat is the award-winning author of over a dozen books for children of all ages. Her picture books include The Ramble Shamble Children, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Lauren Castillo, and Simon at the Art Museum, illustrated by Christine Davenier. She is the author of the beloved Diary of an Ice Princess chapter book series. Her recent works include the middle grade fantasy, A Wish in the Dark, which was named a 2021 Newbery Honor Book, and was chosen as Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and School Library Journal, and All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, which has received numerous nonfiction awards and was also named a 2021 Newbery Honor Book.
Fantastic read, thank you for writing it.ReplyDelete
I love where you said to pace the story so the "stakes rise and rise and rise." This is harder to do with a NF work but I can see how important it is to make sure it is included.
I have a huge stack of pb bios just begging for this exercise!ReplyDelete
Thanks for the reminder about page turns/chapter endings and rising tension. I want my characters to have coziness and closure also--but I guess that doesn't get them to the end of the story. I look forward to what I'll learn by doing the activity.ReplyDelete
Great advice about stakes and keeping tension on the line in NF writing! I’m new to NF writing so this was very helpful.ReplyDelete
I think ALL THIRTEEN is the best NF I've ever read. This is the one I will use for the exercise. I didn't see a prize. I hope it's a critique from you or a copy of one of your books. Fingers crossed.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your reminder about the stakes and keeping the reader awake.ReplyDelete
What a great lesson! Thank you for the help!ReplyDelete
Christina - your note to yourself made me chuckle out loud - what an honest and helpful share. And it is spot on. Thank you!!ReplyDelete
Thanks. This was just the advice i needed to hear today. Stakes are always my weak spot.ReplyDelete
Yes! These are the words I need. (and notes to self, too)ReplyDelete
Love the note about not ending chapter with falling asleep. Thanks for the tips on tension!ReplyDelete
Thanks for this peek behind your process. I love your books, and your thoughts on pacing and tension.ReplyDelete
Yes! We’re doing it as our class read-aloud now, & my students always comment that the author leaves us an a cliff hanger!!ReplyDelete
Thank you Christina Soontornvat for your behind the writing scene advice, my library has it still on hold and I can't wait to read your breath taking story.ReplyDelete
This is right on time. I have a habit of ending things in a sleepy cozy manner. Thanks for the reminder. Printing for future reference and applying to current WIP.ReplyDelete
This is so important, thank you for the reminder. I had utilized this for my middle grade novel, thank you for reminding me of its importance in all writing. PB especially!ReplyDelete
This was a great post! Thank you!ReplyDelete
Good tips, Christina - especially the note about falling asleep. And a great activity to use with a NF picture book I'm reading.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the fishing analogy!ReplyDelete
Great article! Thanks!ReplyDelete
Thank you for a great post! I really liked this line: "Luckily, nonfiction writers don’t need to create stakes. Our job is to figure out what the stakes are and make them clear and meaningful to our readers." That makes so much sense. When I think about my fiction MG, it's hard for me at times to think of some stakes that seem believable to the reader. But I like being reminded that the stakes are already present in a NF writing, and I'll just have to sort through them and present them in the best way for the story. :)ReplyDelete
This reminds me of R.L. Stine's MasterClass...except that he does say to end every chapter on a cliffhanger. But then again, horror fiction is kind of different from nonfiction (one hopes). Thanks for your insights, Christina!ReplyDelete
Must think in terms of rising tension in fiction as well. Thanks for the lesson in page turns, Christina. Look forward to reading your books.ReplyDelete
Great advice from a great writer. I will definitely remember not to create page turns or end chapters with falling asleep (unless it adds tension). :) Thank you, Christina!ReplyDelete
Thank you Christina this is great information and I can’t wait to try the exercise. I have your book and I can’t wait to read it and every thing you said about the pacing and attention was great advice.ReplyDelete
This activity certainly set me off on a firestorm. I picked up the nearest book to my computer. It was Carole Boston Weatherford's Gordon Parks How the Photographer captured Black & White America. I picked it up at the library in response to her post of 2/9. The very title sent me to Library of Congress (Peggy Thomas 2/12) to see Gordon Parks photographs. And now, I'm grabbing the camera to do the activity from yesterday by Doug Wechsler!ReplyDelete
There's a lot to think about here. Thanks, Christina, for sharing your pearls of wisdom...and congrats on your latest awards!ReplyDelete
I still get tears in my eyes when I think about that rescue. Thanks Christina for pointing out that in telling a story with a known outcome, it still matters how it's done.ReplyDelete
Pretty cool to get the inside scoop on a Newbery Honor book! Thanks Christina and congratulations.ReplyDelete
This makes so much sense, but I hadn't really thought about it before. (Although clearly, easier said than done!) Thanks so much for sharing your perspective!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for the great advice, Christina! I think the activity is a good one to do with several books, fiction as well as nonfiction. Very helpful!ReplyDelete
Great lesson! I need to post reminders to do this all over the place! Thank you!ReplyDelete
Christina, thank you for the extremely helpful post and exercise. Thanks to you I will have it in my head going forward as I read nonfiction books (and fiction). I am looking forward to reading All Thirteen. Congratulations!ReplyDelete
Christina, I did not fall asleep at the end of your excellent written presentation on how to end those chapters and page turns. You kept me hopping from paragraph to paragraph. I'm thankful for my notes. I'll be putting them to good use. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Thank you so much for this post! Your book has been an inspiration for me as I reformat a picture book manuscript that I wrote into a longer middle grade chapter book. I've been struggling a bit with how to insert chapter breaks, but now I have some great wisdom to help me through it!ReplyDelete
Thank you for these reminders, and congratulations on your awards! You are an inspiration!ReplyDelete
Creating tension and keeping readers on the line. Great skill to learn.ReplyDelete
I'm looking forward to your suggested activity.
Thank you for your excellent advice and a very educational activity.ReplyDelete
I started skimming All Thirteen at my local bookstore, but it literally had me on the edge of the seat (even though I knew how the story ended) so I had to buy the book. I wondered how you created such page-turning tension throughout the book; thanks for illuminating us!ReplyDelete
One of my typical genres is historical fiction and I try my very best to leave each chapter with a bit of a "cliff-hanger"...an enticement for the reader to continue turning the pages to see what happens at the end...even when they may think they already know...ReplyDelete
Christina, I LOVE your note about not ending a chapter with falling asleep. I also appreciate the reminder to find and gradually dole out (as if letting out a fishing line) the tension throughout the story. Now, to apply it! Thank you.ReplyDelete
I read your entire post and did not fall asleep. In fact, I'm going to read it again! And then I'll flip through some of my PBs and analyze their stakes. Thanks for the tips!ReplyDelete
I love the ending you shared from Ch 19. A great example! The entire post was great food for thought and will make me think more about how I'm creating tension and keeping my readers hooked with every chapter ending. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Thank you. Looking at a manuscript I'm working on now I see that I'm the cozy kind ender at the page turns. After reading this post I think it's to my advantage to start at the beginning and amp up the stakes.ReplyDelete
Just what I needed to fine tune a story dear to my heart. Thank you, Christina!ReplyDelete
This is really helpful and gives me lots of tension advice for better revision of so many manuscripts. Thank you.ReplyDelete
My reluctant reader reading buddy and I are very close to the end of ALL THIRTEEN, but one of the things we have talked about throughout the book is how very, very hard it is to stop reading with those cliff-hanger chapter endings! It is easier to see the stakes in novels, your post and activity are helping me see and understand how they are used in PBs. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Such a great exercise about tension! I took a class from Karen Boss on tension, so this will add to my understanding and how to add more tension to my manuscripts. Ty and congrats on all the accolades for All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer TeamReplyDelete
Christina, I love this post of yours because everything you said applies to both nonfiction and fiction - a reminder that I was needing. I know this is an article for this writing non-fiction (which I am), but I was processing this truth as it applies to my characters in a fictional story as well: "I believe that if you understand your subject with empathy and compassion, you will be able to create tension in your story in an authentic way."ReplyDelete
Thank you for your sage advice!
I rarely think about layout when I write, but this was helpful! Thanks!ReplyDelete
I loved ALL THIRTEEN so much--one of the best books I've ever read hands down! The tension was palpable--it was a fast-paced and riveting read! I read it in one sitting, but many times I had to close the book and take deep breaths to calm myself down since I'm claustrophobic. So well deserving of all the awards it has won. Congrats, Christina!!ReplyDelete
Magic Ramen is one of my favorites, thank you for pointing out partially why. I also love the picture it gives like in so many other biographies - there is a need in the world, someone notices, and works to fix it.ReplyDelete
Thanks Christina for this excellent post and reminder to keep the tension going throughout our nonfiction narratives. I wrote a biography of Millie Benson, the original ghostwriter of the Nancy Drew series. As each of the ND Mysteries featured chapters with cliffhangers, I offered the same treatment in Millie's journey. Thanks for the reminder to do the same throughout my works!ReplyDelete
Thank you for this great post and activity - such a great way to examine and learn from mentor texts!ReplyDelete
Hi Christina, Congratulations on all the well deserved awards that All Thirteen has earned. It's a terrific NF mentor text!ReplyDelete
This post is great advice for both nonfiction and fiction writers. Pacing the story is so tricky, but extremely important and worth the effort. Your fishing analogy is spot on - I will think of each time I write from now on. Thanks so much!ReplyDelete
Pacing and tension. I appreciate the comparison to fishing, because it sounds easier to do than it is in reality. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the reminder about all these elements. Pacing, page turns, rising tension. All important. The most challenging of those for me is pacing. I usually need to cut from my ending to get it right.ReplyDelete
Fantastic post. I especially like the way you explained the different functions of tension - to add to a story - clarify risk, add new information and reveal a complication. I loved your fishing metaphors! You reeled it in for me. LOL! Congrats on the success of All Thirteen.ReplyDelete
Great article! We can all either find the stakes, or create the stakes, but showing their importance is what's the most...well, important!ReplyDelete
Great, tangible lessons we can all learn from!ReplyDelete
That's so interesting! I hadn't visualized that. I have these biographies dancing in my head I want to try this on.ReplyDelete
Congratulations on all your awards, the result of writing those great books.
Great information here to remind us to keep that tension going!ReplyDelete
Great information to consider about chapter endings - thank you!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Christina! Great lessons learned from your post. Now I think I know how to fix my saggy story sections. And I am swapping out my “Do Not Disturb” sign on my door to “Gone Fishin’!”ReplyDelete
"I believe that if you understand your subject with empathy and compassion, you will be able to create tension in your story in an authentic way." This is such a great way to state this, and to keep in mind as I research and write!ReplyDelete
Yes, Tanya, this was a beautiful revelation for me, to "...understand...with empathy and compassion..."!Delete
Thank you for this posting. I chose to read the picture book by Lynne Cheney, "We the People, The Story of Our Constitution", and connected immediately with what you have written here about Page Turns! For me, every page had to be turned!ReplyDelete
Balancing that concept of keeping the tension going, while infusing the story with empathy and compassion... this is wonderful! Thank you.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the reminder that it's not only the hook at the beginning that counts but also the tension throughout the story.ReplyDelete
Yes! Stakes and tension. (NOTE to self!) After reading your post, it made me realize that making sure the stakes continue to rise throughout the story also helps to move the story forward while creating interest for the reader to find out "what's next!"ReplyDelete
i've just downloaded All 13 and can't wait to read it. I also listened to the replay on your interview with the Writers Barn. So helpful. Your explanation of stakes is very helpful:Once you have identified what is at stake for your subject, you can think about pacing your story so that the stakes rise and rise and rise.ReplyDelete
Excellent post. Thanks for the great advice about tension and stakes, Christina!ReplyDelete
Identifying stakes is certainly critical to finding the story's heart beat. Congrats on 2 newbery honors!!!!!!!!!ReplyDelete
Great post and reminder to keep them on the line! Thanks, Christina. Here's to plenty more page turns in the sea ;)ReplyDelete
I haven't dealt with chapter endings yet, but this makes so much sense. Off topic, but I have friends that just watched 90 hours of Wentworth in 2 weeks because they said the cliffhanger at the end of each episode made them have to watch the next episode and they couldn't stop. Thanks for sharing, Christina! I can't wait to read "All Thirteen".ReplyDelete