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  • Writer's pictureDavid Salariya

How Do Children's Authors Use Pacing To Keep Young Reader's Engaged?

In writing, fiction, picture books and non-fiction books, engaging young readers can be a challenge. Young minds are vibrant, curious, and eager to explore new worlds through life and through the pages of a book.

One of the key elements that can make or break a young readers reading experience is pacing.

A well-paced story can captivate a young reader's attention, but if it's not, it can lead to disinterest and distraction.

Imagine the story you are writing as a set of beats.

Each beat should be significant to the tale, advancing the action and the protagonist's journey steadily. Each beat should convey a similar level of momentum. Each beat should only cover what is relevant to the tale, and you should cut any unnecessary exposition or dialogue.

1920's cheerleaders  in starts and stripes 'keeping the beat' or pacing
Keeping the beat!

Keeping the beat!

You can create suspense by increasing the action, tension, and consequences with each beat; alternate rising action with beats that are more restful but build other things, such as emotional depth or tension; or move at a consistent pace towards your literary goal, so the reader becomes increasingly invested in each plot point.

Essentially, you want your story to have a cadence based on compelling storytelling. The rhythm can change speed and tempo as long as it suits the narrative's goal and keeps the plot and character development going forward.

Understanding pacing is like finding the perfect rhythm in a dance. It's the heartbeat of your story, dictating how quickly or slowly events unfold.

Pantomime cows dancing in a perfect rhythm to illustrate 'rhythm' in writing
Pacing is the perfect rhythm

So, how can you handle pacing to keep young readers engaged?

Let’s dive in!

To keep young readers engaged, maintain a balanced pace by starting with a baited hook, using varying sentence structures, and strategically placing cliffhangers and chapter breaks. Consider the readers attention span, balance action with reflection, and revise your manuscript based on feedback to create a captivating reading experience.

So with the mini answer in place, let's start our exploration by finding out more about pacing and what it means.

As James Scott Bell, author of Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books) aptly states:

"Pacing is the tempo of the story, the speed at which it moves."

For young readers, this tempo is particularly important, their minds are like sponges, absorbing information and emotions at a rapid pace.

A story that moves too slowly may lose their interest, while one that rushes through events can leave them feeling overwhelmed or confused.

A balanced pace, therefore, is key to keeping young readers engaged. It allows them to become fully immersed in the story, connecting with the characters and experiencing the ups and downs of the plot.

Think of pacing as the engine that drives your narrative forward, ensuring that each chapter unfolds naturally while maintaining the reader's curiosity and anticipation.

Start with a Baited Hook

Starting your story with a strong hook is a way of casting a spell that captivates your readers from the very first sentence. Crafting the first line of your children's book is crucial as it sets the tone and captures the young reader's attention from the very beginning. In those initial moments, you have a brief window to captivate their interest, so it's essential to make every word count.

How do famous children's authors start their books?

Consider these examples from well known children's books, where the opening lines effectively draw readers into the story:

  1. "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines...". - Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (1939)

  2. "Dear Mr. Hillard, Please forgive this letter coming from a complete stranger but you may recall meeting me at the Haddock Arts Festival last summer." Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine

  3. "Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy." - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)

  4. "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit." - The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

  5. "Where's Papa going with that axe?" - Charlotte's Web by E.B. White (1952)

  6. "Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy." - The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)

  7. "The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day." - The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (1957)

  8. "It was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips." - The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)

  9. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997)

  10. "There is one mirror in my house." - The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (2003)

It's your golden opportunity to make a memorable first impression, enticing young minds to dive deeper into your world of imagination.

Pacing is visual - in illustrated non-fiction and picture books

Sketches by David Salariya when working out the series designs for How Would You Survive As A Viking?
How Would You Survive As A Viking? Thumbnail sketches by David Salariya to work out pacing for a non-fiction book.
Double page spread from How Would You Survive As A Viking? Series created and designed by David Salariya, Written by Jacqueline Morley illustrated by Mark Bergin
Double page spread from How Would You Survive As A Viking? Written by Jacqueline Morley, illustrated By Mark Bergin, Published by Franklin Watts 1993

Double page spread from How Would You Survive as a Viking?

The flat plan of thumbnail sketches (above) show how I was working out the flow of this non-fiction book about Vikings, I was using picture strips round the spreads to go into detailed sequences about life and had planned the book in the way that a child would explore their world - starting after a longish introduction to the age of the Vikings to start with 'the family', then move on to the home, food and continued through the stages to the rituals of death.

The hook was the in the title 'How Would YOU Survive? I used odd questions at the foot of the pages which acted as a device for the reader to be directed to a related subject on a different page an enabled the reader to interact and be able to go through the book in different ways - I always liked using old encyclopaedias as a way of looking for information as it was the journey to finding that information which would be exciting and often inspired many ideas. The How Would You Survive books were later developed into CD Roms.

How do authors of books for adults start their books?

So, how can you craft a compelling hook that opening sentence which makes the reader intrigued and resonates with readers? Here are some quotes from masters of the art of the opening lines for books for adult readers. Adults are the same as children; they will decide if they’re interested within seconds.

  1. "Call me Ishmael". Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

  2. "It was the best of times it was the worst of times..." - A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

  3. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". - Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

  4. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." - Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

  5. "It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love." Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1985)

  6. "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen". - 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

  7. "In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since". - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

  8. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were". - Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)

  9. "It was love at first sight". - Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

  10. "We agreed to meet a few hours after the funeral". - Spare by Prince Harry (2023)

Each of these lines hooks the reader's attention with its intrigue, setting the stage for what's to come in the story.

You can begin with action-packed scenes that immediately grab their attention, or introduce intriguing characters and situations which spark curiosity.

Perhaps start with a mystery to solve, a magical moment, or a relatable dilemma that young readers can identify with.

Remember, the goal is to create an emotional connection right from the start, making them eager to turn the page and discover what happens next.

By setting the tone and pace early on, you'll lay a strong foundation for an engaging and memorable storytelling journey.

Vary Sentence Structure and Length

Variety is the spice of life, and it's also the secret ingredient to keeping young readers engaged!

Mixing up your sentence structure and length is like adding different flavours to a dish, creating a rich and dynamic reading experience.

Short sentences can pack a punch, injecting urgency and excitement into your narrative. They propel the story forward, keeping young minds on the edge of their seats.

On the other hand, longer sentences offer a chance to delve deeper into details, painting vivid pictures and enriching the storytelling.

They provide a moment of pause, allowing readers to absorb information and connect with the characters on a deeper level.

Educational researcher Dr. Timothy Shanahan couldn't have said it better:

"Varying sentence length and structure can help maintain reader interest and comprehension."

So, as you weave your tale, remember to play with sentence lengths like a skilled musician plays with notes, creating a harmonious melody that resonates with young readers.

This rhythmic dance between short and long sentences will keep young readers engaged, and eager to follow along with every twist and turn of your story.

Masked dancers on Lusitania as example of what happens next? The clue is on the Lifebelt 'Lusitania'
What happens next? A visual cliffhanger - the clue is written on the lifebelt

Use Cliffhangers and Chapter Breaks Wisely

Ah, the art of the cliffhanger and the well-timed chapter break - two powerful storytelling tools that can work wonders in keeping young readers hooked!

Think of cliffhangers as tantalizing breadcrumbs that you sprinkle throughout your story, enticing young minds to eagerly follow the trail you've laid out.

A cliffhanger can be a mysterious revelation, a sudden twist, or an unresolved conflict that leaves readers on the edge of their seats, yearning for more.

But remember, patience is key! Don't reveal too much too soon. Keep them guessing, keep them wondering, and most importantly, keep them reading!

Chapter breaks offer a moment of respite, a chance for readers to catch their breath and reflect on what they've just experienced.

Chapter breaks serve as natural pauses, allowing young readers to digest the events of the chapter and build anticipation for what lies ahead.

So, as you craft your story, use cliffhangers and chapter breaks wisely like a master puppeteer moving the strings of your readers' emotions!

Consider Your Audience's Attention Span

Understanding your audience's attention span is a little like knowing the tempo of the music you're playing. It's crucial to hit the right notes to keep the rhythm flowing smoothly!

Children, with their boundless energy and curiosity, often have shorter attention spans compared to adults.

As child development experts have pointed out, toddlers may focus for just 2-5 minutes, while older children can maintain attention for 10-20 minutes.

So, how can you keep the tempo just right for these young readers?

For younger children, shorter, snappier scenes with frequent breaks can work wonders in keeping their attention.

For older children with slightly longer attention spans, you can afford to delve a bit deeper into the narrative, but remember to keep the momentum going with engaging plot twists and character developments.

By tailoring your pacing to suit the specific age group you're writing for, you'll create a reading experience that's not only enjoyable but also perfectly attuned to the rhythms of a young mind

Balance Action with Reflection

Striking the right balance between action and reflection is crucial for any children’s author.

Too much of one and not enough of the other can throw off the rhythm, leaving young readers either overwhelmed or disengaged.

Action-packed sequences certainly have their place, injecting excitement and adrenaline into your story.

They're the rollercoaster rides that keep young readers on the edge of their seats, eagerly flipping through the pages to see what happens next.

Flying Scotsman Illustration by David Salariya
Flying Scotsman - What happens next?

However, it's equally important to slow things down occasionally, allowing for moments of introspection and character development.

These quieter moments offer readers a chance to catch their breath, delve deeper into the characters' emotions, and connect with their journeys on a more personal level.

As the talented children’s author Kate DiCamillo wisely advises,

"Balance is key. Too much action can be exhausting, while too little can be dull.”

Find the right mix to keep readers invested." So, as you craft your story, remember to weave in these moments of reflection and character growth, creating a well-rounded narrative that resonates with young hearts and minds.

Looking for feedback is your trusted co-pilot on your storytelling journey.

While you may know your story inside and out, fresh perspectives from your target audience can offer invaluable insights that you might have overlooked.

Engaging with beta readers, visiting classrooms, or conducting focus groups can be a treasure trove of feedback.

These young readers, with their candid opinions and honest reactions, can provide a unique window into how your story resonates with its intended audience.

Pay close attention to their reactions – are they riveted by the action scenes but lose interest during quieter moments?

Do they eagerly anticipate turning the page, or do they find themselves skipping ahead?

Once you've gathered this feedback, don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and dive into revisions. Adjust the pacing, tweak the plot, and refine the character development based on the insights you've gained.

By being open to feedback and willing to revise, you'll be better equipped to create a story that not only captures young readers' imaginations but also keeps them engaged from start to finish.

Read more in my other article

How to Handle Revisions and Feedback from Young Beta Readers 

Pacing: Keeping Young Readers Engaged? - Final Thoughts

Examine Your Pacing

You’ve written your children's book, you want to make sure the reader will find the pacing to be appropriate. To determine if it will be successful, follow these steps:

Storyboarding, flat plan, thumbnail sketches

Before you write a finished text, arrange your synopsis and pencil roughs to make a flat plan, a story board or quick thumbnail sketches  to help you visualise the pacing in the book and the look of the book as a whole.

Read your text out loud

This is an excellent method for determining pacing since you can listen for natural pauses, exciting moments, or times when the action can drag.

Obtain Input

Give your book to those who have read your work before and those who haven't. Reviewing it with kids in your target age group is also important. Don’t depend on your family for an honest opinion, your family will adore everything you do.

Do you know if the children were bored anywhere?

As the book is read, try and pay attention to the children’s  body language as well. Did they appear particularly agitated at any point?

The children are letting you know which portions are fast-paced and which aren't, so pay attention to the pages they want to linger on and those where they want to go rapidly.

You should keep revising until you get the timing exactly right after checking it.

Pacing can be influenced by font size

A reader's speed at which they scan a text might be slightly influenced by subtle differences in font styles and sizes. A slower, more reflective pace may be encouraged by smaller, more delicate fonts, but larger fonts and bolder letters might convey a sense of urgency.

Dialogue can have effect on pacing

A: Lengthier, more reflective language tends to slow down the rhythm, whereas snappier, faster dialogue frequently picks up the pace. Select the conversation style that, at various points in your story, best fits the desired pace.

The subject of the book affects pacing

Stories in adventure or action genres typically move at a faster pace than those in contemplative or educational genres. When choosing your tempo, keep in mind the conventions of the genre. Different youngsters will love different kinds of books, therefore there is no right or wrong pace.

Having too many characters can affect pacing

Having too many characters can make the story move more slowly because they all need to be introduced and developed. To maintain a steady pace, limit the number of characters to those that are essential to the plot.

Different age groups read at different speeds.

While older children may enjoy more intricate narrative structures that naturally necessitate a slower pace, younger children may need a faster tempo to keep their attention. However, there are many instances where this broad rule is not applicable!

Interactive elements: textures, flaps can slow pacing

Because interactive aspects provide an extra level of involvement, they may encourage the reader to read more slowly. Although it's not always a terrible thing, you should take this into account when working out the pacing in your book.E

Handling pacing to keep young readers engaged as we’ve discovered, is a delicate balance of action, reflection, and rhythm.

By understanding your audience, varying sentence structures, using cliffhangers wisely, and maintaining a balanced pace, you can create a captivating reading experience for young readers.

Let your pacing guide young readers through the truths and lies of your story, keeping them hooked from beginning to end!


Beta Reader

"Beta reader" is an English term originally borrowed from the information technology and software industry, where beta testers attempt to identify problems in a product before its release.

Lusitania - Visual Cliffhanger Clue

RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat on 7 May 1915. The luxury passenger liner was crossing the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool when the German submarine U-20 fired without warning. After a second explosion – the cause of which is still debated – the ship quickly sank.


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