One of the great techniques for engaging the reader every word of the way, whether style is Ernest Hemingway tough or Virginia Woolf gentle; whether tone is De Botton affable or Milan Kundera detached; or whether proposition is Hermann Hesse profound or Bertolt Brecht mundane (as in temporal); is by suspending the completion of the message with valuable added information that sustains the reader’s interest (and ideally enriches their mind) all the way to the final reveal. This is known as the periodic/suspensive sentence. I’ll stick with the word “suspensive” from now on because it describes the effect more clearly. Also, it goes with the visual. Note how in the opening sentence, the three italicized subordinate clauses work as qualifying material in the job of delaying the message.

In the suspensive structure, the delaying clauses that lead up to the main clause are called “leaders”. Here are some basic examples:

If you’re the kind of person who likes to cry at the movies, (leader) you’re going to love Casablanca (main clause).

It’s not just a job (leader), it’s an adventure (main clause).

Between the years of 0 and 23 (leaders), I never thought about my future (main clause).

Punctuation-wise, commas, semi-colons and full stops are ways to signal that the leader is finished and we’re approaching the main clause. Or, as in the opening example, the main clause message is about to “pay-off”.

A variation on the combo suspensive sentence technique is to create a cascade of suspensive sentences. Each one builds on the previous, creating an atmosphere of suspense while at the same time, working to refine, sharpen or add to the initial information. Here’s an example:

There is a sure way to engage your reader to the final full stop. You don’t have to punch like Ernest Hemingway or caress like Virginia Woolf. You don’t need to entertain them with De Botton affability or intrigue them with Kundera-like detachment. Not even your propositions have to be so profound as Hermann Hesse or mundane as Bertolt Brecht. You just have to delay the “pay-off” with a series of cascading sentences (italicized here) that sustain the reader’s interest.

Now how you sustain interest is a matter of the quality of the information you use in your delaying sentences. My rule of thumb is to write sentences that deepen understanding and reward the reader for taking the time to read your copy.

Like any compositional technique, you don’t want to over-use it to the point where it becomes quite obvious. This particular technique is used primarily as a means to achieve emphasis. “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end,” so say William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White (The Elements of Style).

It’s very interesting to know that whether it’s a conscious or an unconscious act, we are programmed to almost immediately look for a main clause. And until we find it, our attention level is especially high. What’s more, the delay strategy tends to slow down the reader’s attention. These are two very valuable insights that I recently learnt myself as I was researching for this post. The significance of this human behaviour for us copywriters is nothing less than major. We, who have to work harder to connect with a predominantly reluctant or impatient target audience, will appreciate the suspensive sentence beyond its syntactical effect. Higher interest and slower reading are two of the most sought after states of mind for any writer to engage with, and you’ve got it in one with this most exceptional of writerly techniques. But it does require a fair bit of skillful craftsmanship in your choice and arrangement of words. But now that you are aware of this, practice will make perfect. Here are some key principles to guide you to that perfection:

Make sure the main clause is worth the delay.

Make sure the leaders add value to the content’s proposition.

And plan your suspensive sentence(s) well, make them flow so that you reader “goes with the flow”.

This involves working with compositions of balance, antithesis, parallelism and careful patterns of repetition. These elements of sentence dramatise, intensify and build toward a climax. Let me take you to the top floor of the Tower of Word (as in Leonard Cohen’s A hundred floors above us in the Tower of Song), for a few standard-setting master sentences employing these compositional elements:

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
(The King James Bible, I Corinthians 13)

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
(Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965)

And dig this little beauty:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.
(Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, 1955)

So to sum up, suspensive sentences are shaped by writing a series of leader clauses that build to the main clause leading to a climactic effect. The other variation is writing a series of subordinate clauses that interrupt the main clause before the climactic reveal.

But what will force you to truly master writing the suspensive sentence is to answer this question of your target audience: “Why should I care?” The more emotionally invested your reader is in your story, the more they will suspend disbelief, disinterest or distraction and go with your flow to the final full stop.

8 Comments

  1. Hanna Jacobsen says:

    This technique, more so than any other we have studied so far, completely blows me away. We all know the feeling of reading a sentence so beautifully crafted that we savour every word, but I never realised that there is a scientific, measurable reason behind why it happens. A technique that is fun to apply, enjoyable to read and physically stops the reader from skimming must be the perfect tool.

  2. Renee says:

    “Why should I care?” is the key question in any copy – while suspensive sentences play a key role in answering this query it also seems that you cannot forget a compelling headline and visual start this journey of engagement with various techniques such as the above complementing and expanding on the reader’s relationship with the content

  3. Sergio Vazquez says:

    Having to deal with a reluctant audience, the success of this technique relies definitely on how much added value you get from the leaders. It’s very easy to automatically jump straight to the main clause and not even look at the leaders.

  4. Katie says:

    This would be a hard thing to do because it seems that it needs to be done well for it to work. Writing suspenseful content needs to be good quality and needs to be done in a smooth manner to actually work. And I’m not sure I’m there yet!

  5. Kate says:

    As usual, a really insightful article, and more fodder for the ‘write’ side of my brain; thank you! As a tool for reader engagement, the suspensive sentence, if you get it right, is incredibly powerful.

  6. Michael H says:

    This certainly is a skill. I found it interesting to read your point about “high interest and slower reading” being sought after outcomes. It’s a mystery to me that regardless of mood/energy, good writing can block out everything, resulting in a slower, meaningful read where time seems to stop. I love getting into that space and connecting with each word and savouring it just a little. At the same time, I’ve often found I quicken my reading pace in the last chapter of a book. My mood is often perkier in this last straight too as if I can see the finishing line.

  7. Sarah says:

    It has to be said, with utmost conviction, that the most fulfiling aspect of writing, for me personally and currently, is exploring the ability to suspend or delay a sentence as a means of maintaining the interest of the reader at hand; you.

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