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.