Soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive factor attachment protein receptors (SNAREs) are universal molecular engines that drive membrane fusion. Particularly, synaptic SNAREs mediate fast calcium-triggered fusion of neurotransmitter-containing vesicles with plasma membranes for synaptic transmission, the basis of all thought and action. During membrane fusion, complementary SNAREs located on two apposed membranes (often called t- and v-SNAREs) join together to assemble into a parallel four-helix bundle, releasing the energy to overcome the energy barrier for fusion. A long-standing hypothesis suggests that SNAREs act like a zipper to draw the two membranes into proximity and thereby force them to fuse. However, a quantitative test of this SNARE zippering hypothesis was hindered by difficulties to determine the energetics and kinetics of SNARE assembly and to identify the relevant folding intermediates. Here, we first review different approaches that have been applied to study SNARE assembly and then focus on high-resolution optical tweezers (OTs). We summarize the folding energies, kinetics, and pathways of both wild-type and mutant SNARE complexes derived from this new approach. These results show that synaptic SNAREs assemble in four distinct stages with different functions: slow N-terminal domain (NTD) association initiates SNARE assembly; a middle domain (MD) suspends and controls SNARE assembly; and rapid sequential zippering of the C-terminal domain (CTD) and the linker domain (LD) directly drive membrane fusion. In addition, the kinetics and pathway of the stage-wise assembly are shared by other SNARE complexes. These measurements prove the SNARE zippering hypothesis and suggest new mechanisms for SNARE assembly regulated by other proteins.