Some of you know that I’m working on my garden. Because of the bright sun that hits the back of my house, the plants usually burn up and die despite my diligently watering them each day. Will I be able to get my garden to flourish this year? Will it look nice? This is tension or you can call it suspense. Do you need it in a children’s story? Yes!
Even the youngest readers need tension in their picture books. Middle grade readers need more tension, and you need even more for young adults. So, just how do you accomplish this? It’s not really that hard and I have some suggestions.
The power of three. Do you remember learning about the power of three? It goes like this:
- Your main character wants to accomplish something but there’s a problem. He/she thinks they have the problem solved.
- The main character (along with his/friends, dog, or whoever) set out to accomplish they goal only to find a problem ruining their plans of reaching the goal. This can be an obstacle caused by the antagonist. That might be the school bully, time for supper, the weather, a disability, or anything else you can think of. For a gentle picture book, it could be that your main character is learning the alphabet when her mind goes blank at the letter M. Do any of these heroes/ give up? No. He or she wouldn’t be a good main character if they gave up. Now, he/she may stop and have doubts on whether the goal can be accomplished.
- Instead, the hero/heroine goes back and re-thinks the problem and starts over again with the help of friends or the trusty dog. This time he/she reaches his goal.
Shorter sentences. Increase tension by using shorter sentences or try using short, incomplete sentences that end in an ellipse. This is a great way to increase tension for middle grade and up. Study how this technique was used in the Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling or Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke. This way really keeps your reader turning those pages and feeling breathless by the time the hero/heroine reaches the goal. In Harry’s case, it was always during the battle scenes with Lord Voldemort. In the Inkheart series the problem was escaping killers, getting out of the bookworld, and back home.
Increasing Problems. Increasing the problems in a picture book can be created with relative ease. Take the example I used above about the heroine learning the alphabet, gets to the letter M, and her mind goes blank. That’s a problem. You could use other common obstacles like little brother not sharing and he starts screaming about it, a lost toy, and so one. But for middle grade books and up the stakes are higher. It could be the school bully stealing the heroine/hero’s lunch money thus forcing him to go all day on an empty stomach. It could be the theft of a new coat forcing him to walk home from school in the middle of winter shivering. This raises questions in the reader’s mind that must be answered. Will the hero confront the bully after school? Will it turn into a fist fight in front of the whole universe? What about the problem of the stolen coat? What happens? Does the hero simply go to the teacher and leave it up to her to get his coat back? What happens? The older the child is, the more you raise the stakes. The more obstacles get in the way too. Or your antagonist has a following willing to do anything he says…a gang. Like I said, raise the stakes!
Time limit. Is there a certain period of time the hero/heroine has to get the problem resolved? Take homework. It usually must be finished by the next day. Or is the main character making a birthday present for Mom and it should be finished by her birthday. This is another way of putting and raising tension in your story.
I hope I gave you some ideas on how to make your book fun and exciting for readers. Remember, without tension in your children’s book (or any book), it’ll fall flat.