Write a Children's
Book in 14 Days
Readers With Tension
by Laura Backes
Tension. Without it, life would be--let's
face it--boring. So would fiction. Tension works with
conflict to raise the emotional level of the text to a
boiling point. It forces the reader to become invested in
the story. But many children's book writers
are afraid to apply too much tension to their plots. They
think kids can't handle it. Think again.
"Tension" is a loaded word, and can be
misleading. A better way of thinking about tension might
be to constantly raise the stakes for your character, so
she has to work to get what she wants. In her book
"Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities
That Keep Readers Captivated", Nancy Kress says,
"Fiction...demands a pattern of mounting tension.
Thus, if you are shaping real-life events into fiction,
you must rearrange them into the kind of pattern...that
puts ever increasing pressure on your protagonist."
Tension is what hooks readers of any age and keeps them
turning the pages. Authors employ many methods of
increasing the pressure on their characters. Here are a
few you can try:
A time limit presents automatic pressure. If your
character has to reach her goal by a certain time, or
assent to failure, the stakes are raised from the
beginning of the story. If you then place unforeseen
obstacles in your character's way, all the better. The
clock can provide mental tension (it's a personal goal
for your character to accomplish something within a
designated time period), emotional tension (the character
will suffer embarrassment or shame if the task is not
completed on time), or impending danger (harm will come
to the character or someone he cares about when the time
The way you craft conversations between characters can
effectively elevate the tension in subtle or overt ways.
If your protagonist wants something from the other
character but doesn't want that character to know,
tension underlies the seemingly innocent conversation.
Another character may want information from your
protagonist, who sidesteps the issue. Or, the dialogue
can be openly confrontational. In any case, the exchange
pushes the story to the next plot point.
Well written fiction has ebbs and flows to the pacing of
the story. Each time your character hits a crisis point,
the pacing speeds up. Once that crisis is solved, the
story can take on a more leisurely pace, giving your
protagonist (and the reader) a brief break. But soon
another crisis presents itself, this one greater than
that last. The "ebbs" get shorter as the plot
speeds up, finally culminating in the climax. Your reader
anticipates these peaks in the tension, and is pulled
through the story.
Short, choppy sentences with active verbs signal tension.
Think of the text mirroring your protagonist's racing
heart. Long, meandering sentences filled with adjectives
and adverbs imply a relaxed pace. Varying the format of
the text will shoot tension into key moments of each
Each story requires a different kind of tension. Gentle
picture books for young readers might simply put an
obstacle in the character's path that needs to be
overcome by the end of the book. The tension could come
from the protagonist's humorous missteps as she reaches
her goal. The stakes are much higher in young adult
novels, in which the tension may come from life-changing
situations. But tension, in whatever form, must be
present for a book to sell in today's competitive market.
And besides, tension makes the story more fun to
read...and to write.
Copyright Children's Book Insider, LLC
Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book
Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For
more information about writing children's books,
including free articles, market tips, insider
secrets and much more, visit Children's Book
Insider's home on the web at http://write4kids.com