Grabbing and Keeping Kids’ Attention with Rebecca Shelley

Another of my favorite conference classes was about writing books that would grab and keep kids’ attention. The class was given by Rebecca Shelley, author of Red Dragon Codex and Brass Dragon Codex.

The first thing we covered was Know Your Audience – who are you writing to?

When it comes to kids, there are two major types of readers – the reluctant reader and the avid reader:

Reluctant Reader have their brains in the fast lain

  • Brains wire for information age- able to process lare amounts of information quickly
  • Super Smashbrothers vs. Space Invaders – she talked about how when most of us remember playing games that are slow paced such as Space Invaders these kids are able to keep up with fast paced very involving games such as Super Smashbrothers.
  • Twenty-minute TV plotlines – if it is too complicated, they’ll loose interest – it has to keep moving quickly
  • YouTube entertainment – Reading should be entertainment
  • Intimidated by thick books and large chunks of text

Avid Readers: The Harry Potter generation

  • Have developed neural pathways for deep reading.
  • Are confident in their reading ability
  • Are a growing demographic, but still a minority

Remember they are diferent audiences and to experiment and practice writing for both.

As a side note about paragraph length – I can’t begin to count the number of times it was mentioned in the various classes I attened that focused on YA and Middle grade lit that when writing for the younger audiences the paragraphs have to be shorter.

Once we deciphered the two different reading groups we focused on writing for the Reluctant Reader:


  • Lots of white space
  • Short, varied paragraphs
  • Varied sentence lengths
  • Proper word choices
  • Plenty of plot-moving dialogue

Characterization – for reluctant readers it is like a caricature – in fact she would often refer to caricaturization

  • The Mona Lisa vs the Ninja Turtles – She talked about giving characters a only few defining traits that would be memorable.  The example of Ninja Turtles went to how each turtle had a specific color and how it related to their temperment – the read one was the angry one, etc.  – another illustration she made was how it was done in Spiderwick – there are little portraits that tell the kids exactly what the characters look like, saving pages of detail for kids who would be impatient with it.
  • Complex characters expressed in digest


  • Hook and twist every two to four pages
  1. Clear and vital character motivation and emotions – she repeated a few times the ever important “clear and vital character motivation” – going back to the characterization class I wrote about yesterday – Motivations are SO IMPORTANT!!
  2. Proper grounding (setting expressed by sensory details through close 3rd person point of view)

So – I have to break in and talk about the sensory details a moment, because I need to do this more. She talked about being sure we used ALL five senses – we most often rely on sight and sound, and she stressed focusing on touch, smell, and taste as well.

The reader needs to be inside the character and experiencing their world through their senses. By using all 5 senses every 2-4 pages, and in the beginning of every scene, the reader will be grounded and hooked.

  • Twist – something has to change every 2 pages – snappy dialogue, humor, conflict, action, revelation, danger – keep it moving

Physical Action

  • Slapstick, battles, chase scenes, etc.
  • More action, less sitting around thinking and planning
  • Action must be interlaced with setting and character to be meaningful

Cliff hangers: Bait and Hook

She gave the comparison of fishing.  A fisherman waits for the nibble and then jerks the pool, hooking the fish.  The end of the chapter is like throwing the bait in the water, the beginning of the next chapter is the hook so we can reel them in.

  • Physical threat cliff hanger
  • Emotional cliffhanger
  • Puzzle cliff hanger
  • Mystery cliff hanger

Write to your strengths and understand you audience:

Recognizing what kind of writer you are will help you find your market.

I must say I was always an avid reader – and so I think I tend to write to that market. My kids love both kinds of books and while I enjoy them too, I always find myself yearning for just a bit more when I read books for the reluctant reader. Honestly, though, before this class I had never considered them as two seperate audiences, and I look forward to putting these ideas into practice.  And many of the points made can apply to either audience.


Filed under Writing

5 responses to “Grabbing and Keeping Kids’ Attention with Rebecca Shelley

  1. This is exactly what I needed to read/learn.
    The novel I’m working on is a Young Adult novel. I didn’t get to attend conference and I would have most certainly been in this class.
    I’m always complaining to my writing coach that my paragraphs are too short. But after reading this I feel much better about it. I have lots of dialog that moves the story along quickly, using a lot of the tips you posted.
    I’m excited. I must be writing to the reluctant reader, although I test marketed my first draft to several “avid” readers – who couldn’t put it down.
    I still have lots to improve and love all the suggestions you listed. (I Wish I could have been there, but grateful you’re sharing what you learned!)
    I’m going to print your last two posts and read them over and over.
    Thanks so much…I’m soaking it all up!

  2. Valerie Ipson

    I am sorry I missed this class. I did love all the ones I attended…there were just too many good choices, I guess! Thanks for posting and letting us read your notes!

  3. I appreciate any efforts to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it.

    That’s because I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

    My blog, Books for Boys recently reached # 1 on Google.

    Keep up your good work concerning reading.

    Max Elliot Anderson

  4. Thanks for sharing your notes, I couldn’t make this class, and though I write for women, it’s still good to review writing basics (and let’s face it, most of this applies, at least a little, to any audience).

  5. Thanks for this summary. I hadn’t thought about separating the audiences either. Using all the senses for every scene was an intriguing idea & seems like one of the points that could be applied to either audience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s