How to Create Suspense Writing Lesson

Suspense is one of those literary elements we all want to know how to use, especially when we are telling or writing a good story and want others to pay attention.  This SHORT narrative writing exercise will teach students how to create suspense, and it is guaranteed to be one of your favorite lessons of the year!  

You’ll want to start by talking to your students about what suspense is and how authors create it.  You can have a discussion about stories or books they’ve read that made them sit on the edge of their seats with anticipation.  You can also talk about movies that foster suspenseful engagement. 

 I usually complete this lesson in the first nine weeks right after we’ve read suspenseful stories like “Lamb to the Slaughter,” “The Tell-Tale heart”  “The Monkey’s Paw,” or my favorite, “Duffy’s Jacket”.  

We make an anchor chart titled How to Create Suspense, listing all of the ways that authors of these stories create suspense.  We also discuss literary elements like dramatic irony, unreliable narrators, and foreshadowing.  We talk about how authors use pacing techniques to slow down their stories in the right places in order to capture their readers with just the right amount of tension.  Once we’ve learned all of the literary devices and techniques that create suspense, it’s time to use this quick narrative writing exercise, allowing students to create their own tiny stories full of suspense!  This would be perfect for October or close to Halloween, but truly, it is a lesson that can be used any time of the year. 

 I found this quick narrative writing  lesson years ago online, and it is one that I’ve always held on to just because the kids LOVE it.  It truly teaches them how to use pacing to create suspense.  I have even found that it helps me when telling stories, as the exercise has taught me how to hold attention at the right places.  Here’s how it works. 

How to Create Suspense Narrative Writing Exercise Directions

  • Have your students take out a sheet of paper or open a Google Doc if you want them to type. 
  • Explain to students that  it is important that they must follow your prompts and not get ahead of you.  Tell them that they will be writing one sentence at a time to create a “tiny suspenseful story” and that you will guide them in what they will write by telling them what to do each step of the way.   
  • Have students begin by writing the following line.   He thought he heard something.  Tell them they can choose whether to use a girl or a boy as the character, so instead of saying He, they could write She.  You could also allow them to write it in the first person point of view and use I thought I heard something.  
  • Now, lead your students to add more sentences by providing the following prompts.  Provide time for students to write their sentence before moving to the next.  1.  What did it sound like?  2.  What was your character thinking?  3.  What did your character smell that was out of the ordinary?  4.  What memory did this scent bring up in your character’s mind?  5. Now, connect this memory to the present moment for your character.  6.  Have your character notice something different or not quite right.  Maybe he/she sees something strange or notices something he/she didn’t notice before.  7.  Have a question go through your character’s mind.  8.  What does your character want to do right now?  9.  Have your character take some sort of action.  10.  Put an obstacle in the way, something that keeps the character from doing what he/she wanted to do.  11.  Have your character either return to the memory he/she had for courage or think of something else that gives him/her courage.  12.  Have your character move closer to the sound or smell.  13.  Let your character discover what it really was.  Maybe it was nothing, or maybe it was something!
  • You can print a copy of the sentence prompts by clicking here.

After students are done writing, they will most likely be eager to read their stories to the class. Allow time for this and celebrate all of the different ways that they created suspense.  To debrief, discuss how the pacing was used to create tension and how they can use this strategy in future narratives.

We also combined this lesson with our favorite Thanksgiving writing activity, write about Thanksgiving from the turkey’s point of view.  If you want a way to use this writing exercise on suspense in a humorous way around the holidays, this Thanksgiving version is for you!  You can download the FREE resource from our TpT store by clicking here.

Why Short Narrative Writing Exercises Make Sense for Middle School ELA

One reason these narrative writing exercises are so beneficial to us is because they are short.  This lesson on suspense can be completed in one class period.  As middle school ELA teachers, we have so much to cover in one year.  Our students also have short attention spans, and middle schoolers feel accomplished when they can complete an assignment in class, without having to finish on their own. 

For us, short narrative writing lessons are essential to teach the narrative writing standards.  We teach in SC, and our students have to write a text dependent analysis essay on the end of the year on our state standardized test.  The very real pressure of preparing students for that type of writing assignment can be stressful.  Responding to a TDA is a FEAT for middle schoolers, but teaching students to analyze, explain, and provide evidence for their analysis truly is important because this is the type of writing they will be expected to do throughout high school and college.   The problem is that it takes all year to effectively prepare our students to be proficient analyzers alone, not to mention proficient writers.  There just doesn’t seem to be enough time to spend on writing narratives too.  That’s why we sprinkle in short narrative writing assignments like the one discussed in this blog. 

If you teach in a state that requires students to write a text dependent analysis essay, and you need some help in how to teach them in an effective, process approached way that works, we have a complete course on effectively teaching students how to write a text dependent analysis, including a free mini course providing the first steps of teaching students the difference between summary and analysis.   Our free course has presentations, handouts, and lessons that you can use ASAP in your classroom.  If you like what’s in the free course, ask your administration about purchasing our complete course on teaching students to write TDA essays.  You’ll have everything you need to effectively teach every step of the process! 

Middle School ELA Halloween Lesson~ Our Collection

If you are looking for a fun Middle School ELA Halloween lesson, we are here to share our best and most memorable ones from over the years. We’ve been teaching for quite some time, to say the least, so we have collected several fun and engaging middle school ELA Halloween lessons.  In fact, we have so many fun ones to choose from that now is is hard to figure out the one that we want to use in our classrooms each Halloween season.

Of course, any good scary story is perfect for a memorable middle school ELA  Halloween lesson. Dim your classroom lights, play some spooky organ music while your students are entering the room, start your fog machine.  Okay, maybe not a fog machine, but you could put up a picture of fog on your screen!   Then, read one of the following stories.  We’re going to sprinkle in some of the spooktacular fun we’ve had while reading these favorites of ours!  It’s worth the read!

Perfect Stories for a Middle School ELA Halloween Lesson

  • “The Highwayman” ~Actually, this isn’t a story, but it’s a narrative poem that tells a ghost story. It makes the perfect middle school ELA Halloween lesson because it’s short and captivating.  After reading it, discuss with your students how the poetic elements such as repetition and rhythm help contribute to the spooky mood of the poem.  I always have one or two kids that have good rhythm keep the beat on their desks while I read it aloud. Afterwards, you can have your students write their own story or poem about Bess and the Highwayman and how they continue to haunt to this day.  If you’d like some other standards-based activities for this poem, we have a “Highwayman” Teaching unit in our TpT store. 
  • “Three Skeleton Key” by George G. Toudouze is not that scary, but it is truly a disturbing short story, for lack of a better word. It’s not too disturbing for middle schoolers though.  Our middle schoolers love it! It’s about three men who find themselves trapped in a lighthouse, and that lighthouse ends up being attacked by rats. Thousands of starving rats are literally trying to get into the lighthouse and eat the men alive. I’ll never forget one year we were reading this story, and Tammy (my colleague) and I found remote controlled rats.  Right in the middle of the story, we electronically ran those suckers out into the middle of our class. For a split second, our students were stunned and afraid, but then they saw that they were mechanical, and we all laughed and laughed.   It brought some fun, which is important to incorporate in your ELA class from time to time. This story used to be in our Holt textbook, but you could probably find it online.  You can also find this story on Actively learn, a free website that provides stories that you could send to your students.  We also have a teaching unit for “Three Skeleton Key” in our TpT store.
  • “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” ~This is a teleplay written for The Twilight Zone.   It’s about a neighborhood where all sorts of strange things start happening after a flash shoots across the sky. First, their power goes out; then the phone lines stop working. Then, other strange things start to occur.  One little boy who reads comic books tells the neighbors that he read about aliens, disguised as humans, who visited a town and caused problems.  This causes the neighbors to be suspicious of one another, and the conflict arises because the neighbors start to blame one another.    One year before I read the story, I staged several spooky happenings to occur in my classroom. I arranged for Tammy to call my room three or four times and just hang up. This occurred before we read the story. My phone would ring. I would answer it saying, ” Hello, hello?”  And I’d tell my class,  “Well, I don’t know what’s going on. Someone must be messing with me.”   I also set an alarm to go off by itself, and I said, “I don’t know what  is happening in this classroom today.  Something strange is going on.” At this point, we would start reading the play.  So, I already had their imaginations primed before we even started.  Then, in the middle of reading it,  I would stop and look at my kids as seriously as I could and I would say, “I’m here to tell you that I’m not really your teacher. I’m an alien. If you go to that door, you’ll find it locked.” Now, mind you,  these were seventh graders, so they could handle this little prank.  For a few seconds, the look in their eyes would tell me that they actually believed that I was an alien, and then we would all crack up laughing and go on with our lives.  Check out our TpT unit for “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” if you need more standards-based activities.
  • “Sorry, Wrong Number” and “The Hitchhiker,” both by Lucille Fletcher are also great plays that would serve as perfect spooky middle school ELA Halloween lessons!
  • “Duffy’s Jacket” by Bruce Coville is one of the BEST stories to use around Halloween. It’s the perfect length to read in one class period, and it’s one of the most suspenseful short stories for this age group. It’s about these three kids who go on a camping trip with their moms.  They end up staying in an old hunting lodge, and the moms leave the kids in the lodge one night while they go  go to town. While the kids are there alone, something comes after them.  It first shows up scratching at the door.  When we read this story, we always use sound effects of the scratch scratch scratch part. There’s also one part of the story where a door falls down, and we bang our hands on the table at that point just to watch our students jump.  At that point, they are all so into the story, they make easy targets.  The ending of this story is almost like a “gotcha” kind of thing,  so it builds tension and then has a comical ending.  Kids love it.  We have a complete teaching unit for this story too!
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart”~ When I read this story, I always find a sound effect of a heart beating and press play at the times when the narrator hears the old man’s beating heart.

Whatever Halloween story that you choose, see if you can do something a little fun along with it.  I promise you, not only will your students have fun, but you will too. Teaching ELA can be so stressful at times; it’s important to have fun along with your students.  It really will help you love your job even more!   Just make sure it’s nothing too scary!

In addition to these stories, we also have plenty of fun and memorable writing activities that would be perfect for a middle school ELA Halloween lesson!  At some point in our career, we’ve completed all of these.  They’re all so great that it makes it hard to choose which one to do this Halloween! Our list is below, and we will start with a lighthearted one, one that isn’t spooky at all but involves candy! 

Perfect Writing Activities for Halloween

  • Pop Rocks Poetry ~You’ll want to teach a lesson on imagery first and provide plenty of great examples of imagery from literature.  Then, provide each student with a small bag of Pop Rocks.  Recently, we’ve found Pop Rocks at the Dollar Tree, but they are now a different brand (Hawaiian Punch).  The original ones are at Dollar General in our area, and they may be easy to find around Halloween.   Give students a “Pop Rocks Poetry” notetaking handout for them to write their descriptions on.   First, all together as a class, have students first shake the bag of Pop Rocks and listen to the sound that makes.  Have them record words that describe that sound on their hand-out.  Next, students should open the bag and smell them, and then record words that describe the smell.  Encourage them to write similes and metaphors.  After this, tell your students to put a few of the rocks in their hands and study them.  Ask students to write what they look like and feel like, providing as much detail and figurative language as possible.  Finally, have all students put a handful in their mouth all together.  Instruct them to open their mouths and be very still and quiet so that the class can listen to what it sounds like.  It’s pretty loud when everyone does this at the same time.   Record words to describe this sound on the page.  Finally, have them describe the taste.  Once students have all of these descriptions, instruct them to write a Pop Rocks poem, pulling in the words, descriptions, similes, and metaphors that they recorded. Our free packet contains a sample poem too!
  • Another fun poetry lesson is Halloween lunes.  Lunes are short poems that are silly. The first line has three words, the second line has five words, and the third line has three words.  One Halloween, we had our students write body part lunes.  We bought those body part gummies, the ones that have individually wrapped feet, eyeballs, ears, brains, and hands.  We gave each student one of these and then told them they had to write a lune about it.  They had a ton of fun, and loved reading them out loud!
  • Candy corn haiku are fun too!  Simply review the rules for writing haiku.  Give your students some candy corn, and have them write a few of those poems to share with their classmates. Then, let them enjoy eating the candy corn.
  • Body Beast Poetry~ Body beast as in lice, mites, bed bugs, leeches, etc.  Gross. Huh?  We know it, but our middle schoolers loved it.  This activity incorporates some research.  Students choose one body beast to research, make a list of facts, and then they have to weave at least three facts into a poem that they write about their beast.

We are so happy to have you here reading our blog!  We want to say thank you by providing you with this FREE resource that will give you all of the printables that you need for lunes, Pop Rock poetry, body beast poetry, candy corn haiku, and even a few others.  We’d love for you to follow us on TpT, Instagram, Facebook, and of course our Podcast, which is titled Two Middle School ELA Teachers.  

One more thing…(We’ve been teaching so long, we just have soooo many things to share!)  Another way that you can spend Halloween class time is with an episode of The Twilight Zone. In fact, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”  mentioned earlier is a Twilight Zone episode.   That show was popular when we were kids, but the episodes are now on Netflix.  We’ve created a wealth of resources to accompany four different episodes, and these are all seriously standards based… Students will write objective summaries, determine themes, and more.  You can check out our Twilight Zone bundle in our TpT store if you’d like by clicking here.  Oh, and one other resource we have that would make the perfect middle school ELA Halloween lesson is our Dead Verbs funeral activity!  This is a great lesson to teach students the importance of word choice! 

I think that’s about it.  It looks like Halloween Day is on a school day for most this year!  We hope you have a spooktacular time in your own ELA class this year for Halloween!  

Narrative Writing for Middle School ELA – Development of a Theme

During the first nine weeks, we cover narrative writing.  This is a way to teach standards like how to develop a theme.  We use quick narrative writing assignments simply because we have SO much to teach.  Teaching narrative writing makes sense for us to do in the first nine weeks because we read a lot of short stories and can peek at how authors of these stories develop their theme.  during this time.  If you’re interested in seeing what we do for the first nine weeks of school and how we fit everything in, we have a free resource in our TpT store called 7th Grade ELA, a Glimpse into our Yearly Plans, that maps it all out and even gives helpful links that  you can use.  

Now, let’s get started on this quick narrative writing lesson!

What standards will you cover?

One of the standards for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades is for students to analyze the development of theme.  The narrative writing exercise we are going to tell you about today will cover that standard while at the same time provide a creative and fun narrative writing opportunity.  

Here’s what you do! Put your students in small groups – three works best. Give each group a theme statement.  Tell them that their job is to write a quick story that teaches that theme.  Before writing, they need to do some planning.  They will ask themselves questions about the characters, setting, and plot.

In order to create this theme, who should my characters be?  What type of personalities should they have?  What should their flaws be?  Their strengths?

Where should this story take place in order for readers to conclude the theme?

What should be the main conflict?  How should the story begin?   What will be the turning point of the story?  How will we end it?

Once students have done their planning, they should write their quick story.  Make sure students understand that this story is just a writing exercise, so it doesn’t have to be perfect.  Their job is to quickly write a story, developing the theme they were given. 

After writing the story, give students some questions to think through HOW they developed their theme.  Why did you choose the characters you did?  What did you use the most to develop the theme?   Did the setting contribute to the theme or could the story take place somewhere else?

After the stories are written…more look more at how the theme was developed

When time is up, take up each groups’ story.   Give each group a copy of all of the theme statements, each one labeled with a number   Read each story out loud, one by one, and have the class guess which theme belongs to that story by matching the number corresponding to the theme statement to the story.  

Once the students have had time to choose the theme, reveal the true theme statement that the group was assigned.  Then, engage the group who wrote the story in explaining how they developed the theme.

Some things to help you use this activity today…

This is a list of theme statements that you can use. 

We also have a product in our TpT store that includes a PowerPoint to teach theme and development, handouts for the students, and even a poem with a prompt for analyzing the development of theme in it.  There is even a sample essay included.  And, it of course all of the things we talked about!   A meaningful and engaging way to allow your students to understand the ways authors develop theme is now at your fingertips!

Happy teaching!


7. Strong Verb Paragraphs ~ An Effective Narrative Writing Exercise for Middle School ELA

This is the first episode in a series on using short narrative writing exercises in your middle school ELA classroom.  We will be telling you all about strong verb paragraphs – how to write them, why they work, and how you can impliment them immediately.  Check out all of the mentioned freebies in our show notes at

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Strong Verb Paragraphs ~ Effective Narrative Writing Exercise for Middle School ELA

Sometimes, we need short writing assignments, rather than long ones to fit everything into our ELA class time.  Writing strong verb paragraphs is an effective narrative writing exercise for middle school ELA because it is quick and fun.  As ELA teachers, we have so much to cover each nine weeks.  It seems impossible to have students write narratives, poems, arguments, as well as expository and informative pieces, which are all part of the ELA standards.    

Tammy and I have been teaching for a long time, and while we certainly don’t know it all, we have figured out a few things.  One way that we cover the writing standards is by adding short and fun writing exercises, like strong verb paragraphs. 

What are strong verb paragraphs?

Strong verb paragraphs are paragraphs that consist of seven sentences that only allow strong verbs in the middle five sentences.  Students can write these paragraphs independently or with a partner.  Along with an interesting narrative prompt, provide students with the following rules.

  1. Write a paragraph that has seven sentences.
  2. Only your first and last sentences can have helping verbs or a linking verb in them. The other sentences must have strong action verbs.
  3. Choose the most vivid verbs, ones that help your reader picture something. You may use the list of helping verbs to help you avoid them.
  4. Underline the verb in each sentence.
  5. Do not repeat any action verbs in your paragraph. In other words, each sentence needs to have its own original verb.
  6. Read back over your paragraph to make sure you do not have any fragments or run-on sentences.

It is helpful to provide students with a list of helping verbs and linking verbs.  Also, before allowing students to jump in and write their own strong verb paragraph, provide them with a good example. You can even write one together as a class first!

Why have your students write strong verb paragraphs?

This exercise teaches students to choose their words wisely, essentially making them better writers for life! Writing the paragraphs takes one class period, instead of weeks, making this the perfect writing exercise for middle school ELA classes.  What makes these fun are the prompts that you provide and the challenge to complete it correctly.   At first, your students may find it hard to write sentences without linking verbs or helping verbs, but encourage them that as they practice, they will get better.   Another thing that makes this exercise fun is that kids usually love hearing their paragraph read aloud. They will beam with pride as their story is read aloud and usually laugh at all of the funny sentences that their classmates wrote too.   Here are some sample narrative prompts for strong verb paragraphs:

  • Write a paragraph telling about a time an alien visited our school.
  • Write a paragraph telling about a time a food fight broke out in the lunchroom.
  • Write a paragraph telling about a time a group of kids spent the night in a haunted house.

Before Writing the Paragraphs, Begin with Sentences

Before your students write strong verb paragraphs, you may want to begin with sentences.  Present students with sentences that have a verb that isn’t specific and then read another sentence with a strong action verb that can be visualized.  Look at the following examples:

Suddenly, my dog, Meatball, ran through the living room. 

Suddenly, my dog, Meatball, bulldozed through the living room.

 I made my way through the sea of people to take a better look. 

I wormed my way through the sea of people to take a better look.

The next step is to teach students to take sentences that have linking verbs that tell and not show and teach them to transform those sentences into sentences that show instead of tell.  Turning sentences with linking verbs into sentences with action verbs is a little bit harder, but once students see examples and watch you brainstorm and model how to do this, they will feel confident in crafting these sentences themselves.

Take a look at the following examples:

Example sentence with a linking verb that tellsHe was mad.

To guide students in revising this sentence, ask students what actions mad people do.  Make a list of these actions, and then rewrite the sentence replacing the linking verb was with these words.

He slammed his book down on the desk, stomped across the room, and slammed the door on his way out. 

Explain to the class that with this sentence, you don’t have to tell that the boy was mad.  We know it based on his actions.  The sentence with the strong verbs shows instead of tells!

Here’s another example:

The troll was ugly.

The ugly troll’s green teeth jutted out over his long, flaky chin. The warts on his nose multiplied by the hour, and his razor-sharp toenails scraped the ground when he walked.

After these whole class and individual practices with sentences, you’ll be ready for the strong verb paragraphs.  Consider writing one as a whole class together first, then assigning one to a small group or to students working with a partner.

Click here to grab a printable copy of the strong verb paragraph rules.  If you want a complete resource, complete with a presentation for teaching, strong verb mini lessons, printable strong verb prompts, and example paragraphs, check out our Strong Verb Paragraph resource on TpT.

We use strong verb paragraphs during the first nine weeks.  If you would like to see exactly what we teach in the first nine weeks, click here to download our free first nine weeks plans.  If you’d like to see our yearly plans, click here to download a glimpse into our 7th grade ELA yearly plans.

If you’re looking for an effective process-approach method to teach your students to write text dependent analysis essays, we have a complete course, complete with instructional videos for you and EVERYTHING needed to teach the entire process to your middle schoolers.  Click here to enroll in the first section of the course completely free!   If you like the free course, consider asking your administration to purchase the complete course.

5. Three Reasons Why Bell Ringers Make Sense in the Middle School ELA Classroom

Using bell ringers in the middle school ELA classroom can help you keep your sanity when it comes to trying to fit everything in!  This episode will help you learn the advantages of using bell ringers or warm ups at the beginning of class, and we will talk about the ones that we rely on in our own classrooms!  Be sure and check out our show notes at  

We will put a link there to ten FREE bell ringers that we believe work for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade! 

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2. Four Activities for the First Day Back to School in Middle School ELA

Listen to four activities to make your first day back to school in the middle school ELA classroom a success!  We will cover everything that you need, including what to do when students first enter your room, which rules and procedures work for us, two fun and creative icebreakers, and a first day writing activity that your students will love!   Be sure to view our shownotes after listening to print free resources mentioned! 

Head to the Show Notes: 

Happy Teaching!  Shannon and Tammy

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Organizational Tips for Teachers to Save Your Sanity

We will share two of our favorite tips that help keep us sane throughout the school year!  You can implement these simple and effective ideas into your classroom today!    Read our shownotes at  

We would love for you to follow us on Instagram and on our TpT store.  

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4 Four Tips to Make Grading Easy in the ELA Classroom

Learn four ways that you can make grading easy in your ELA classroom.  There is so much to teach in ELA, and this often means too much to grade.  As ELA teachers, we simply cannot grade everything.  We must work smarter, not harder when it comes to grading! 

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