Thrills and Chills: Teaching the Art of Suspense Writing to Kids / Author Kimberly Dana

There is a line in the rock opera “Evita” where the narrator Che’ says with equal parts accusation and admiration, “Get them while they’re young, Evita. Get them while they’re young,” which is to say grow your ranks. In this week’s guest blog, author Kimberly Dana isn’t building a dictatorship; she’s growing young minds to become book lovers and writers with the art of suspense. I was fascinated with her technique…and learned a great deal myself.

Read like they are burning books!

Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford,
Founder Killer Nashville,
Publisher Killer Nashville Magazine

Kimberly Dana

Thrills and Chills: 
Teaching the Art of Suspense Writing to Kids 

By Kimberly Dana

Kids adore the adrenaline rush, so it is no surprise they have an innate attraction to the genre of suspense.  The feelings of tension, uncertainty, doubt and apprehension all parallel the angst of adolescence, resulting in a familiar emotional connection.  Additionally, the physiological response of the pounding beating heart, the spine-prickling shivers, and mind-buzzing thoughts serve up an intoxicating thrill ride kids thrive on. 

Consequently, it makes perfect sense that kids make amazing suspense writers — if given the proper tools.

What are the benefits of teaching suspense writing to kids?

1) Adults want to be glued to the page and kids are no exception — only “the hook” is even more critical in their techno world of iPad, iPod, and iPhone instant gratification (Clearly, this is what the “i” must stand for)! So as teachers, we have our work cut out for us; however, if boredom is the archenemy of a love for literacy, then suspense is the antidote. Suspenseful stories have universal appeal and can magically pique the interest of even the most reluctant of readers, jarring them awake from their ill-fated K-12 “School-is-boring.  Reading is stupid” stupor. A story whereby an ordinary person is thrown into extraordinary circumstances is irresistible. Throw in a ticking clock and a spooky setting, and you just made Jaded Johnny a lifetime reader. Talk about a best practices with synergistic effects!

2) To strengthen our resolve in making book buffs out of reluctant readers, suspenseful stories contain rich literary elements including dark, villainous characters; mysterious motifs of staircases, woods, graveyards, shadows, and confined spaces; and, thought-provoking thematic subjects, such as perception versus reality, good over evil, and isolation and imprisonment.  Suspense stories are not only an entertaining vehicle, they surreptitiously breed critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills from students whom are not otherwise be engaged.

Cheerage Fearage3) Finally, suspenseful stories empower kids by unmasking the cerebral tools and coping skills needed in order to tackle life’s enigmas.  Through exposure to mysterious worlds of dark characters and thematic messages, kids learn to revere intelligence, sagacity, and fearlessness.  Kids love to “get deep” as they debate and argue over the finer points of plot. Insulated by a safe, voyeuristic lens, kids can safely unravel intricate storylines as they earnestly judge the innocent versus the guilty, thereby refining their own sense of morality.  What’s more, suspenseful stories generate rich discussion in literary analysis and are a perfect springboard for developing kids’ own unique writing craft and style.

So how do we teach suspense? The first thing we have to teach kids is what suspense is: A state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen as opposed to what suspense is not: Suspense is not horror. The two are easily confused so when I introduce the concept, I always translate it into kid-speak. I tell my students, “Suspense is not Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. It is much more refined than blood and gore. And therefore, even more terrifying.”

What is the difference?” they ask with bated breath.

“It’s simple,” I tell them. “Horror shows.  Suspense implies. And then I dim the lights, set match to a votive candle, and read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  And when the narrator tears up the planks and proclaims, “Villains…dissemble no more! I admit the deed!  tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!” — I look out into their shiny eyes, burning brightly and begging for more.  So later that week we read suspense-riddled tomes, such as “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Lamb to the Slaughter,” and “The Lottery.”

Once my students are feeling creatively juiced with sordid secrets, villainous vendettas, gothic graveyards, and are up to the task of writing their own stories, it is my modus operandi to get them past “It was a dark and stormy night…”  

This is, of course, how most kids will begin their suspense story.  Not that there is anything wrong with dark and stormy nights. Dark and stormy nights are a perfect setting when building a backdrop for suspense. But in the interest of avoiding clichés, I front-load my kid writers to a special acronymic formula for “writhe-in-your-seat-worthy” suspense writing:  G.E.M. — Gothicism, Expansion of Time, and Magic of Three.

GOTHICISM: All suspense stories should express an element of the gothic genre, such as the supernatural; an eerie, mysterious setting; emotion over passion; or distinctive characters who are lonely, isolated, and/or oppressed.  Throw in a tyrannical villain, a vendetta, or an illicit love affair — you’ve got Goth gold!  Why Gothicism?  It explores the tragic themes of life and the darker side of human nature.  What’s more, kids innately are attracted to it.  Just ask Stephenie Meyer.

EXPANDING TIME: Next, I introduce the art of expanding time using foreshadowing, flashback, and implementing “well, um…maybe…let me see” dialogue.” Expanding time allows the writer to twist, turn, and tangle up the plot. “Tease your audience,” I tell my students. “Pile on the problems and trap your protagonist with a ticking clock.  Every second counts with suspense!” There is an old writing adage that says to write slow scenes fast and fast scenes slow. By delaying the big reveal, we build tension and punch up the plot.

MAGIC OF THREE: Finally, the Magic of Three comes into play. The Magic of Three is a writer’s trick where a series of three hints lead to a major discovery. During the first hint, the protagonist detects something is amiss. The second hint sparks a more intense reaction, but nothing is discovered — yet. And then — BANG! The third hint leads to a discovery or revelation. During the big reveal, I teach kids to use and manipulate red flags and phrases, such as Suddenly, Without warning, In a blink of an eye, Instantly, A moment later, Like a shot, To my shock, and To my horror.

Teaching suspense writing to kids breeds amazing results. Once they learn to tantalize their audience through the craft of anticipation with G.E.M., they recognize the power behind suspense and why audiences are drawn to the genre. More importantly, they appreciate suspense for what it is…the secret sauce of writing.

“So go mine your story, and find your G.E.M.,” I tell my students. “The clock is ticking…”

If you would like to read more about Kimberly Dana’s books please click here.

Featured on NBC’s More at Midday and The Tennessean as a middle school tween expert, Kimberly Dana is a multi-award-winning young adult and children’s author. She is published by the National Council of Teachers of English, Parenthood, Your Teen, About Families, SI Parent, Sonoma Family Life, and the recipient of several writing honors from Writers Digest, Reader Views, the Pacific Northwest Writer Association, and various international book festivals. Other affiliations include the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and EPIC, the Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition, where she serves as a judge for the annual eBook competition. Kimberly’s most recent books include her YA thriller, Cheerage Fearage, middle grade novel Lucy and CeCee’s How to Survive (and Thrive) in Middle SchoolPretty Dollsvoted Best Children’s Book of the Year by Reader Views and Character Building Counts, and Buon Appetito, a children’s picture book that celebrates diversity and the English Language Learner published by Schoolwide Inc. Kimberly has been endorsed by Common Core News and a featured presenter at the Southern Festival of Books, The Carnegie Writers Group, Killer Nashville Writers Conference, and schools nationwide. A lover of photography and experimental cooking, Kimberly lives in Nashville with her husband and spoiled Shih Tzu. Visit her website at

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