7 Ways to Make a Young Reader’s Hair Stand Up

Children often want to get the thrill of suspense from their novels. It doesn’t have to be the knuckle-biting fear of a haunted house or the threat of nuclear annihilation. It can be the fear that Susie will not get to the birthday party, Jason will never find his horse or Michelle won’t make the soccer team. Whatever the fear, writers need to create tension and pace in their work so that readers share their apprehension.

There are some techniques writers use to create that tension. Writers:


marion-crook-featuredmarion-cook bookThis guest post is by Marion Crook. Crook wrote a series of four YA mysteries and three MG mystery-adventure books. As well, James Lorimer Ltd. published her two sports stories for the YA market. Alternately with fiction, she wrote nonfiction and researched with teens and wrote books on suicide prevention, eating disorders and adoption. After more than twenty published books, she put together what she learned about writing and produced Writing for Children and Young Adults for Self-Counsel Press. After a PhD in education, she taught at university then retired to writing adult mysteries and non-fiction. She is agented by Creative Media, New York. Connect with Crook at marioncrookauthor.com and on Twitter @author_mcrook.


1. Create suspenseful plots

All stories need a plot that in itself creates tension. Whether you write a 16 page picture book for four-year-olds or a 14 chapter book for middle grade readers, make sure your book for children has conflict in the plot. What question is the plot answering? Will Judy get to school without stepping in a mud puddle? Will Sasha evade the forces of evil and fly triumphantly to her home? There will be one central question that drives the plot. The obstacles you place in the way of answering that question or preventing the protagonist from achieving his or her goals create the tension.

2. Choose words that increase tension.

Your choice of words can reflect increasing tension in the story. You can write: Mary did not want to go to school. There is little tension in that sentence. You can also write: Mary’s heart beat fast as she neared the schoolyard. The first sentence brings up a mild: I wonder why she doesn’t want to go to school. The second makes her fear obvious and the reader’s question more imperative: What’s going on at school?

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3. Set up conflict

Conflict occurs not only in the plot and in the choice of words but in the opposing needs and wants of the characters. Each character has a goal and thwarting that goal gives rise to conflict and therefore to tension. The more directly opposite the goals of the protagonist and the antagonist, the greater the conflict and the greater the tension.

You can set up conflict between secondary characters, even friends. If you write your story in scenes, you can consider some kind of conflict in each scene, even if it is slight such as moving a recalcitrant dog off a couch. You can create conflict with inanimate objects, like cars that won’t start, pens that break, and computers that fail to compute. Conflict creates interest and should move the plot forward.

4. Create doubt about a successful outcome

If your protagonist is so competent and self-reliant that success is probable there will be little tension. The reader must be in doubt that success is possible. The more personal, important and seemingly impossible to accomplish the goal, the greater the tension. Don’t make life too easy for the protagonist.


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5. Use setting to heighten emotion

Writers of children’s stories use settings to heighten emotion, calm a mood, imply danger or lull the reader into a relaxed pace. The use of storms, dark, wind, crashing waves, sirens, vacant buildings, and haunted houses can increase tension. Calm lakes, sunny meadows and sandy beaches can be calming and relaxing settings but the addition of a snake in the meadow and a rising tide on the beach can change the setting from serene to scary in one sentence. You may want to do that.

6. Draft sentences to augment tension

Generally, the greater the tension, the shorter the sentences. This is particularly effective if your style of writing uses longer sentences and you begin to shorten them as the pace increases. To check your pacing, read your story aloud. You will, no doubt, increase your speed of reading when the tension increases and slow it when you want a relaxed section. Pay attention to the length of your sentences in those sections where you increase your speed. Pare out any extraneous words.

7. Report emotional responses

The protagonist can contribute to rising tension in the story by registering emotional responses to the action. She can tell us she is concerned, afraid, worried or terrified. We can appreciate the action from her point of view and enter into her emotional responses.

Creating a story that allows the reader to get excited, even apprehensive about the outcome for the protagonist involves many writing skills. First, you must have a protagonist the readers care about and then you must make the story exciting. The suggestion above can help move the story from mundane to marvelous. If you have a story you have written, take one or two paragraphs and critique them using the criteria set out here. See if you can make a difference in those paragraphs so you have a more dramatic story that impels the reader to read on.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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