Building Suspense


Building tension or suspense in a narrative is an advanced writing skill but one that can be explicitly taught, even to young writers. Once students understand 1) that stories have beginnings, middles, and ends and that it is time that navigates the reader through a narrative (story) and 2) how to elaborate by adding specific details like action, dialogue, and description, the writer is ready to bring the reader into the story even more by building tension or suspense. The strategies below are some concrete ways to do this.

Slow Down the Action or Explode a Moment

Teach students to take one important event in the story, stretch it out , and slow down the action by giving a play-by-play description.  For example, if the main character is being chased, the writer can describe.

  • how the character feels
  • what she sees and hears
  • what she is thinking
  • how she is breathing
  • anything she might be saying (aloud or to herself).  

Have students practice this by giving them several scenarios from which to choose and having them ask questions (such as the questions above) that will help them elaborate.  Then invite students to find events in their own narratives that they can “explode”.

Student Sample:

Instead of writing “I fell through the ice.  My friend Matt pulled me out.”, this student writer slowed down the action and gave a play-by-play description.

I was almost to the bottom when I remembered what my mom had said, “Try not to go on the ice.  It’s not very thick.”  I quickly turned the sled, trying not to go on the ice.  But before I could even think, I crashed onto the ice.  The ice started to crack.  I quickly turned around, “Help!” I yelled.  Matt was down in a flash.  I felt water rushing up my leg.  Matt grabbed onto my arm.  I pushed off the ice that was left.  With the pull of Matt and my push I was able to get back on land.

The Magic of Three

The following is an effective technique for building suspense and is described by Barbara Mariconda in The Most Wonderful Writing Lessons Ever.  It is called “the magic of three.”  It is the technique used in stories like The Three Little Pigs, The Three Bears, The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  It works like this:

The First Hint: The character detects something strange.  The hint might be a noise or any other sensory cue.  The main character tries to discover what it is, but finds nothing.  The character reacts.
The Second Hint: The character sees, hears, or feels something again, tries to discover what it is but finds nothing.  The character reacts.
The Third Hint:  The character sees, hears, or feels something again.  The character tries to discover what it is and makes a discovery.

 Student Samples:


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