Keep readers hooked to the end with this simple writing technique

A couple of days ago, I emailed you a story about a spooky experience I had while living in Japan.

(Here’s the link in case you missed it: I CAN STILL HEAR HIM BREATHING.)

I shared the story not only in recognition of Halloween, but also to demonstrate an important writing technique that you can use to captivate your readers and keep them hooked to the end of every piece you write.

If you’ve read the story, were you able to guess the technique I was talking about?

Here’s a hint…

Take a look at this passage, which uses the technique to good effect:

I lay there for many minutes, wondering if he was still there or not, before I attempted to move my fingers. It worked. I had control over my body again. It was many more minutes before I summoned the courage to open my eyes. Heart pounding, I stared at the ceiling and listened to the silence for a long time before finally lifting my head to look at the end of the bed. There was nothing there.

Trembling, I got out of bed and checked out the other rooms in my apartment. They were empty. I was alone.

Now here’s the same passage, rewritten without using the technique:

I lay there for many minutes, wondering if he was still there or not. I finally attempted to move my fingers and realized I had control over my body again. I waited for many more minutes before summoning the courage to open my eyes. I stared, heart pounding, at the ceiling and listened to the silence for a long time. I finally lifted my head to look at the end of the bed and saw there was nothing there.

I got out of bed, trembling, to check out the other rooms in my apartment and confirmed I was alone.

Can you see the difference?

Let’s make it more obvious… Take a look at that first passage again, broken down sentence by sentence:

I lay there for many minutes, wondering if he was still there or not, before I attempted to move my fingers.

It worked.

I had control over my body again.

It was many more minutes before I summoned the courage to open my eyes.

Heart pounding, I stared at the ceiling and listened to the silence for a long time before finally lifting my head to look at the end of the bed.

There was nothing there.

Trembling, I got out of bed and checked out the other rooms in my apartment.

They were empty.

I was alone.

Now here’s the second passage again, sentence by sentence:

I lay there for many minutes, wondering if he was still there or not.

I finally attempted to move my fingers and realized I had control over my body again.

I waited for many more minutes before summoning the courage to open my eyes.

I stared, heart pounding, at the ceiling and listened to the silence for a long time.

I finally lifted my head to look at the end of the bed and saw there was nothing there.

I got out of bed, trembling, to check out the other rooms in my apartment and confirmed I was alone.

Do you see how all of the sentences in the rewritten passage are all roughly the same length, and use the same kind of structure?

All of these sentences are between 14 and 20 words long. And they all start with “I” and follow the same kind of Subject + Verb + Object + Clause structure.

And do you know what that makes them?

BORING.

The relentless sameness becomes monotonous and dulls the emotional impact of the writing, making it harder for the reader to feel invested in the content.

But when you vary the length and structure of your sentences – and use that variety to convey tension and drama and flow – you can evoke an emotional response in your readers and keep them glued to your words, eager to discover what comes next.

And here are some tips on how to do just that!

1. Use “choppy” sentence lengths

By choppy, I mean, mix it up! Avoid writing sentences that are all the same length. Have two long sentences followed by a short one. Or two short sentences followed by a long one, followed by a medium one. Or a medium one, followed by a long one, followed by a short one.

This kind of variety adds cadence & rhythm to your writing, and makes it so much easier for the eye to read.

Just be aware that when you use a choppy sentence structure, there needs to be a method to your madness. Your short sentences should be short for a specific reason, and your long sentences should be long for a specific reason.

2. Use short sentences for maximum impact

So, which ideas are best expressed in short sentences? The ones that add maximum dramatic impact to your writing.

For example, here’s a passage from a recent blog post:

How can we bridge the widening rift and get to a place where people on opposing sides can communicate openly and respectfully with each other — and develop the shared understanding we need to come together and solve the problems we face as a society?

The answer to this daunting question could be the key to world peace.

It also happens to be the secret to writing great copy.

Do you see how the most important idea (in terms of getting people to keep reading) is conveyed in the shortest sentence?

I could have added “and the secret to writing great copy” to the sentence above, but doing so would have diminished the idea’s impact.

In addition to emphasizing key points, short sentences can also add tension and drama to a story or anecdote you’re recounting.

Take this selection from my story above:

I lay there for many minutes, wondering if he was still there or not, before I attempted to move my fingers. It worked. I had control over my body again.

I’ve written the two big realizations (I can move my fingers! I have control over my body again!) as extremely short, abrupt sentences — because that’s how these realizations hit me in real life. Not as a dawning awareness that took place over a period of time, but as a sledgehammer that hit me not once, but twice.

3. Use longer sentences for flow & evolution

So if short sentences are used to emphasize key ideas and provide maximum dramatic impact, when is it best to use longer sentences?

When you want to create a sense of flow from one idea to the next… describe an event or events evolving over time… list a series of items or ideas… or build to a bold crescendo.

For example, look at the sentence that starts off this paragraph:

Trembling, I got out of bed and checked out the other rooms in my apartment. They were empty. I was alone.

I use the longer sentence to show how I got out of bed and checked out the other rooms in my apartment while scared out of my wits. Then I follow it with two abrupt sentences that reflect my choppy, scattered thinking at the time.

Or how about this one, taken from the passage from the other blog post I mentioned above:

How can we bridge the widening rift and get to a place where people on opposing sides can communicate openly and respectfully with each other — and develop the shared understanding we need to come together and solve the problems we face as a society?

That’s a really long sentence! I break it up with a hyphen in order to separate the two main “before” and “after” clauses, but it’s still a paragraph unto itself.

Why did I combine all these ideas into one super long sentence? To show the strong connection between the ideas conveyed in the sentence (if we do this, it will allow us to do that, which is the only way we’ll ever accomplish THAT) and also to create a sense of how much needs to be done before the ultimate goal (solving the problems we face as a society) can be achieved.

4. Mix up your sentence structure

Up until now we’ve been talking about sentence LENGTH. But it’s also important to mix up your sentence STRUCTURE as well.

When I say “structure,” I’m talking about how the main ideas of your sentence are put together. For example, are you using a simple sentence, like this one:

I was too terrified to move.

Or a compound sentence, like this one:

My heart was jackhammering in my chest and it was all I could do not to whimper or cry out.

Are you starting with a subordinate clause that conveys a clear sense of background and setting first – before turning to the main subject of the sentence, like so:

One early Sunday morning, after staying up way too late writing the night before, I was startled awake by the sound of the big metal door to my apartment being flung open with such force that it hit the wall with a clang. 

Or are you including a parenthetical insertion to add important extra detail in the middle of the sentence, like so:

I was lying on my back with my arms out-flung – which was unusual, normally I sleep curled up in fetal position – and felt horribly unprotected and exposed.

All of these are great sentence structures to use – so long as you don’t use ONLY that one. When you mix it up and use a variety of sentence types in your writing, you create more rhythm and flow and make your writing more compellingly readable.

5. Edit ruthlessly

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when it comes to producing good writing, 90% of the job is good EDITING. When you finish a piece of writing, put it aside for a day or so and return to it with fresh eyes, so you can see its strengths and flaws more clearly.

Then, as you edit out any redundancies, eliminate the details that have no direct bearing on the main topic, and replace weak words & phrases with more powerful ones, be sure to pay attention to your sentences as well.

If you see more than two or three sentences of the same length strung together in a row, mix them up! Maybe you can shorten one of the sentences into two, and go with two short and two long. Or maybe you can string two of them together, and turn them into one long sentence followed by a medium-length one.

By shaking up the structure and adding more rhythm and variety, you will make your writing more compelling and readable – and your readers will reward you by sticking with it to the very end.

Pro tip: print this and put it somewhere you can see it

In closing, I wanted to share this incredible passage by Gary Provost. I love it so much. It’s such a fantastic example of the exact technique it’s talking about. Very meta!

These two paragraphs will help you become a better writer

If you find it challenging to add rhythm and emotional impact to your writing, I encourage you to print up this image and put it somewhere you can see it, so it will inspire you every time you sit down to write. Because the more music you add to your writing, the more it will sing to your readers.

Have fun with it!

Like this article? Share with a friend!
Share on FacebookShare on LinkedInTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

Comments are closed.

css.php