Monday, November 21, 2016

Writing Thrillers for Kids by Donna Galanti

Do you love to be scared? I do (when I know it’s safe)! Haunted houses. Hayrides. Rollercoasters. Adventure rides. (and yes, that's me with my family on a ride!).

I got so scared once in a haunted house that I whacked the “ghosts” with the teddy bear from my costume. The management turned on all the lights and asked me to leave. Oops.

Just last Halloween my friend dared me to do Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary, a haunted house at an abandoned prison. I was very proud that I didn’t whack anyone this time!

But I still get scared of real places as a grown up. Of our dark garage. Of our creepy old cellar. Of nighttime when taking the trash cans out. My heart pip-pops waiting for that creature or boogeyman to grab me. I know he could be. My imagination tells me so.

And thriller movies are fun to get scared by – but I think it’s even more fun for me to watch my son watching them. When he was younger he would yell at the characters, “save yourselves!” then jump up and down, cover his eyes, and hug me in fright – whether it was Jurassic Park, Twister, or Dante’s Peak. I think the same elements in thriller movies cross over into thriller books.

Basic elements of a thriller:
Incorporate plot twists to shock the audience
Tease viewers to keep them hanging on until the end
A hero, or band of heroes, opposing an enemy while on a quest
The threat of death or capture is always looming

Here is a snapshot of my favorite thrillers for kids:
The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen
The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan
Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry
City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Double Vision by F.T. Bradley

As my son became an avid and selective reader, I discovered that kids love to be thrilled not just in movies but in books too. I started reading some of the thrillers my son had on his bookshelf like Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan and Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo. In doing this I began to see patterns in these kid adventure tales – and I began applying what I learned, along with general thriller elements, to create my own stories.

10-steps I discovered for writing kid thrillers:
  •  Put the kids in charge. Kids don’t want to read about grownups having adventures.
  • Which leads into…have the kids figure out how to take the bad guys down – not grownups. Kids want to see themselves as the hero, not Mom or Dad or their teacher.
  •  Whatever scary situations the kids find themselves in – they must navigate their way out.
  • Don’t dwell on the dark stuff. Make it happen fast without gory detail – kids can use their imagination.
  • Give them friends in their travels. Life is hard without friends! And a kid needs friends to help him along his scary adventure.
  • Through story events have the kids discover their own strength and courage to overcome the bad things happening to them.
  • Make all seemed lost! End the chapters on cliffhangers to encourage kids to keep turning the pages and find out what happens next.
  • Have it work out in the end, or at least partially, even if all seems doomed for a while.
  • Add humor! Interjecting a dollop of funny can alleviate the tension in the scariest of scenes and lighten the moment.
  • Make it a series. Have a final resolution to the story but leave it open for more stories down the road for the characters. Kids love to follow their beloved characters into new adventures.

As you can see, I love to read and write thrillers for kids. And that’s just what I did with creating the Lightning Road series. Here’s the book trailer for book 2 in the series, Joshua and the Arrow Realm. Do you think the story has the elements of a kid’s thriller?

What are your favorite kid thrillers to read? If you write kid thrillers, what are some thriller elements you include?


  1. Hoodoo, Fuzzy Mud and The Night Gardener are a few that come to mind.

  2. Oh, I really enjoyed Fuzzy Mud Brenda and a quick read. I'll check out Hoodoo and The Night Gardener. Thanks!

  3. While I agree that kids want to be taken on an adventure. It doesn't always have to star kids. Otherwise comics like Batman wouldn't work for them. I think kids just have to be into the adventure and the reading material is respectful of their audience.

  4. Good point Sheena-kay! Kids can enjoy many different types of stories and heroes if appropriate for their level but if they are the star of a middle grade story, they should be the ones taking action and making decisions of course! :) I was specifically speaking of middle grade thrillers here with kids as the main characters but you open up a much wider range of reading that spans kid to adult. Now I wonder if anyone else can jump in with thrillers for kids that don't star kids? That would be an interesting list.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!