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!