Writing Craft: Suspense in Middle Grade Novels

For a long time I didn't understand suspense - I thought that unless I was writing a mystery or thriller that it didn't really apply to my stories.

Well. That might be why those early stories are stashed now in a dark drawer. ALL writing involves suspense. Or, at least it should. This is one of the many areas of writing where I am still learning.

Earlier this year I heard picture book author/illustrator Rowboat Watkins proclaim during his Ezra Jack Keats award speech that "picture books are the art of seduction."

Yes, even picture books involve suspense! The whole goal is to keep the reader turning the pages.

So how does one do this? Here are three ideas that resonate with me:

1. Make the reader promises. This is the part where you drop the breadcrumbs, doling out information little by little. Or using Rowboat's analogy, think of it as a strip tease: a bit more skin and then more and then more and more. I know this is where I have often failed -- giving too much information too soon. (An editor whose name I cannot recall at another conference said specifically when writing opening pages to err on the side of intrigue... information slows down the start of a book.) Often this oversharing is related to how we writers are discovering our stories as we go. So, in those early drafts we put everything we know right there on the page. During revision, we need to tease that out strategically and also eliminate anything that's unnecessary.

2. Make the reader worry. When I do school visits related to my historical middle grade novel LEAVING GEE'S BEND, many readers cite Ludelphia's time on the river as their favorite part of the book. Because Ludelphia was out of her comfort zone, on a storm-swollen river, all alone, and she couldn't swim. Would she get injured? Would she make it? If so, how? This is also the part where we be get to be the mean, evil writers and make our characters struggle through the worst thing that can possibly happen to them. It's hard! But essential for creating suspense.

3. Make the reader wait. Lee Child said in this New York Times piece, "So don't bake cakes. Make your family hungry instead." Hold out as long as you can to make the reader comfortable/satisfied. This doesn't mean nonstop action. This means breaks between the action. This is where you cut to another scene/character. This is where someone comes in and interrupts a conversation just when the pivotal question has been posed. It's this kind of attention that creates the biggest emotional payoff.

So: go forth and make your readers hungry!

Irene Latham is the award winning author of two novels for children LEAVING GEE'S BEND and DON'T FEED THE BOY. Named the winner of the 2016 International Literary Association-Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, her current focus is on poetry for children. Titles include DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST, which was named an SCBWI Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor book, FRESH DELICIOUS:Poems from the Farmers' Market, and WHEN THE SUN SHINES ON ANTARCTICA. irenelatham.com


  1. Creating Suspense is a work in progress for me as well Irene. I enjoyed this post and the suggestions.

  2. I need to tune this in with the revision stage. Thanks. I had to read straight through Ludelphia's journey, a page turner!


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