Students love to write suspenseful stories, especially around Halloween. They can be a fun diversion in a secondary Language Arts classroom which can sometimes be dominated by essays. But if done properly, they can also teach students a great deal about how stories are constructed using suspense and imagery to create a particular mood. In this post I will address how I teach students about the technique of creating suspense and some of the texts I’ve used to model it. In the second post I will explain how I use writing suspense to teach literary devices. In the third post I will cover how we write the story.
First off, I allow students to write a suspenseful non-fiction story about something that happened to them, or I let them write a fiction piece. However, I tell them they cannot write a horror story. There should be no blood or violence, even implied. Too often students fall into basic horror story tropes that they don’t do particularly well. Also, as you’ll find out in a later post, they aren’t writing a story that is a piece of flash fiction (or three-minute fiction) rather than a full length story. You can certainly do that; however, I find that students need some boundaries or they’ll write too much. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but many students tend to lose control of their writing that way.
The Basics of Suspense
You can do a search for “how to create suspense in writing” and find a lot of good handouts like this one. But the idea is pretty simple: you make your reader wait for something they want to know. There are a couple of ways to do this.
- Slow the story down. Many young writers get to an exciting point in a story and speed up the action. The trick is to slow it down by adding details. One way you can do this is to get inside the character’s head and describe what they are feeling. You can also describe in great detail the setting, the slow walk to open the door, and various other things.
- Withhold information. Don’t immediately tell your reader what was in the box. Make them wait. Linger over the person’s expression first. Send them out of the room and out of the house. Have them scream “thank you!” or, “Why would you think I would like this?”
- Put in a hard decision. Give the character a tough decision to make and have them weigh in their mind what to do. Too many students give the character a choice but then solve it too quickly. Make them weigh the pros and cons by getting inside the character’s head. Better yet, give them two undesirable outcomes and have them choose from those.
I have a couple of model texts that I use with students that get them thinking about suspense. I try to use several different genres as well to help them understand how suspense can be used in a variety of settings. The links to the stories are at the end of the post.
“The Listeners” – Walter de la Mare
This is a frequently anthologized poem with an air of mystery about it. Suspense is created because the traveler knocks on the door a couple of times and receives no answers, and there’s some ghostly listeners as well. Why is he there? What’s the deal with the cryptic message he delivers?
“The Storm” – McKnight Malmar
I love using this story to teach suspense. For one thing, it’s the type of story that students would like to be able to write. A woman is home alone during a storm and believes that someone is looking in the house. She goes to the basement and finds a dead body. I have the students read and annotate looking for examples of the ways to create suspense described above. The part where the woman goes down into the basement and discovers the body is a textbook case of how to create suspense. I usually ask my students what would happen if we simply read that she went downstairs, opened the trunk, and found the body. There’s an awful lot of great imagery in the story as well.
“The Ravine” – Ray Bradbury
This story is a part of the novel Dandelion Wine and describes an older woman taking a shortcut across a ravine to get home, all with the threat of The Lonely One lurking in the background. This is another example of a story that kids would like to be able to write and works particularly well with middle school students. I tend to use “The Storm” over this one because to be honest, it’s a little corny and a little too long. But it would still work well. The chapter that makes up the story is on page 124 in the link. There’s also a pretty cool radio adaptation of the story here.
“The Dare” – Roger Hoffman
This is a nonfiction piece about a boy who is dared to jump in between the wheels of a moving train, stay there for a minute, and roll out the other side. It’s a great example of how you can create suspense as we find out whether or not the narrator will succeed. This is a quick newspaper article.
These selections are the ones that I use in class as models for suspense. In the next post I talk about how to use these works to teach literary devices.