To Add Tension, Use Short Sentences and Words

woman with boxing glove on left hand hitting man on chin
Thank you to Ryan McGuire and Pixaby for this image called “Argument>”

“To Add Tension, Use Short Sentences and Words” by Joan Y. Edwards

As a writer, the way your put your story together helps the reader get excited about your story. Where there is stress, anxiety, or tension, shorten your sentences and your words for the action.
If things are going smoothly and no change is in the wind, long sentences relax the reader. Don’t make them too long! Don’t make all the sentences the same length. You don’t want to put the reader to sleep or get bored. You want each sentence to add to the spark of your story.
Here are a few examples from books or movies to help you understand the use of short sentences to increase the tension, anxiety for your action.

1. Tomorrow Never Dies by Bruce Feirstein

Can you feature the humor that would come about with a James Bond movie with the script with a lot of long dialogue when James Bond is hanging in the air over a waterfall.
Instead of: “There has to be an easier way to earn
a living.” suppose he said,
“I’ve done a study of different occupations in the United States and Russia: teacher, policeman, cashier, football player, and doctor. One of them has to be an easier way to  earn a living. “


2. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

“Where’Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
The opening paragraphs of the book are short. A lot of friction going on because Fern’s father is planning to kill the runt of the litter of pigs. It would have been harder to read a long drawn out description of the pig, the farm, and of Fern, what she was wearing, etc.

3. Back to the Future by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale 

Go to line 210  of script-
Marty’s afraid that Brown will be killed by the terrorists. Notice the short sentences and short words at the part where he’s going back to the future.
Marty says, “Oh No. I’m too late.”

4. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

In 1936 Margaret Mitchell wrote a  history of the Civil War in Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O”Hara says, “Where shall I go?”
Rhett Butler says: Frankly, my dear. I don’t give a …..


5. Liar, Liar written by Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur

Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar has a tough time convincing himself that the pen is blue after his son wishes that his father wouldn’t lie again. Here’s the scene on YouTube: Liar Liar – Jim Carrey – The Pen is Blue Scene (HD) – YouTube

6. Dial M for Murder (1954) by English playwright Frederick Knott.

Caught by the Wrong Key Scene (10/10)
In each of the six examples above, the sentences and words are short to help create tension, and suspense in books or movies.

What are some of your favorite sentences or groups of sentences that give readers the full tension of the story because of their brevity in words or length?

Thank you to the people who left a comment and shared their writing.

For the Contest – However, no one posted a story about the woman hitting the man in the chin with the boxing glove.


Bridget McNulty. “Pacing in Writing:”
Earnsy Liu. Technical Communications Association. “How Many Words Make a Sentence?”
Joslyn Chase. The Write “Story Pacing:”
Quinton Collins. “The rhythm, the pace, the mind control: Syntax in writing:”

Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards, Author
Copyright © 2009-2021 Joan Y. Edwards

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12 thoughts on “To Add Tension, Use Short Sentences and Words”

  1. From my first book ‘Cindy where are you?’ Mary is part of the build up, she is the subject of child abuse by her step father.

    She heard the foot steps on the creaking floorboards of the stairs, she drew her knees to her chest. As she said ‘oh no please, not again, please.’ The door creaked open her step father walked in as he unzipped his trousers saying ‘time to be kind to me again.’………………………………………

    This book was taken from experience as Detective Sergeant in the UK police where I served for 30 years. Unfortunately it reaches into the dark places of reality.

    Mary retreats into herself and from another comment in the book. Mary sat quietly trying to escape the dark fingers of depression that sought her in the crevices of her mind.

    And another, she cut herself with broken glass, the pain was better than being raped by her stepfather.

    Just a couple phrases to add tension and for someone to try and enter into the world of a child in fear of going home to be abused. The loneliness she and many others felt in her position. Some of my books are not for the feint harted, but they are from real cases.

    Happy writing, David

    1. Dear David,
      Thank you for writing. Thank you for sharing parts of your book where the tension is high. Child abuse is very sad and unfortunately, a very real problem in all parts of our world.

      Never Give Up

  2. Hi Joan,

    ‘Don’t make them all the same length’ – absolutely, this even more so than ‘don’t make sentences too long’ (as of course that is perfectly acceptable in a more literary style). That variety adds rhythm; spice. Thank you for referencing our articles as a resource.

    Kind regards,

    1. Dear Melanie,
      Thank you for writing, Thanks for telling me that using short words and sentences is good advice when you want to increase tension. I love your writing.

      Never Give Up

  3. Joan,

    I like the idea of a contest based on the picture here. I don’t plan to participate, but I certainly hope others will. I will be wrestling with my new flower bed preparation and planting instead. Here is an example based on my project:

    Linda bends over and swings her grubbing hoe. Take that…and that, you unwanted grass! (my best attempt at short lines to create tension and hopefully a little humor.)

    1. Dear Linda,
      Thank you for writing. Thank you for sharing a scene with us. I love your paragraph showing tension from your viewpoint as a gardener. It was to the point and definitely humorous!

      Never Give Up

    1. Dear Shawn,
      Thank you for writing. I’m glad you think that short sentences definitely add more punch. Also, that sentences that are too long may lose the reader’s attention! I hope you are doing well.
      Never Give Up

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