9 Ways to Use Suspense to Keep Kids Engaged in Fiction

In Writing Mysteries (1992, edited by Sue Grafton), children’s author Joan Lowery Nixon contributed this great list of 9 points for keeping children engaged with suspense.

The mystery plot for today’s impatient young readers is fast-paced and filled with action. Writers should pull out all the stops and use any and every technique for establishing suspense. These are a few ways in which this can be done:

  1. Use the description of the setting to help create and maintain suspense.
  2. Your main character makes a mistake, which is obvious to the readers, and takes a wrong course of action.
  3. Time is rapidly running out. Will the main character make it?
  4. The main character needs some information, and the person who has it is tantalizingly slow to come forward with it. The delay tantalizes readers too.
  5. Suspicion can be thrown on someone the main character has trusted. Maybe it’s just the reader who becomes suspicious, and the main character is innocently unaware. When will the main character wake up and discover the danger she’s in?
  6. Unexpected surprises can make a sudden shift in the story’s direction. Was that a wrong turn or a right one? Read and find out.
  7. Readers are made aware that something dangerous or frightening will happen to the main character, but they don’t know when it will take place.
  8. Peculiar characters may fit only certain stories, but when they do appear they add suspense.
  9. Chapters should end with dangling questions, creating such suspenseful curiosity that young readers can’t put the book down and must go on to the next chapter.

Joan Lowery Nixon passed away in 2003 at age 76. Her story is amazing: a four-time winner of the Edgar Award with over 140 books published during her career.

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