3 Narrative Writing Mini-Lessons to Build Suspense
Okay, it is that time of year again. You know. The one where the kids are all excited for candy and dressing up. My students seem to be in a permanent state of sugar-high excitement during the next few weeks.
However, I don’t mind.
I actually like using this excitement over a “spooky” day to encourage my students to get excited about writing. I’m not talking about just any writing, but the kind of writing that builds suspense and makes the reader WANT to read more.
Teaching students to build suspense in their narrative writing often has even the most reluctant writers coming up with spooky tales to tell. If you really want to rekindle some writing excitement with your students, use the following three mini-lessons to teach your students to build suspense in a narrative story.
Here are my 3 favorite narrative writing mini-lessons that will have your students writing spooky Halloween stories that build suspense for their readers.
Set the Spooky Scene
Put the setting of the story in a dangerous place or a place that evokes the emotion of fear in most people (dark alley, haunted house, an abandoned building, or a musty cave). By creating a spooky setting, the author is attempting to make the reader feel uneasy. Use lots of descriptive language including eerie adjectives, and vivid verbs.
Have students spend time brainstorming their setting
What are some words to describe their setting?
Use a thesaurus to write down adjectives that will continue to add uneasiness to your reader.
Have your students look up some of the following words in a thesaurus:
Dark: cloudy, gloomy, murky, shadowy, somber
Scary: alarming, chilling, horrifying, spooky
Uneasy: afraid, apprehensive, fearful, jittery, nervous, tense, suspicious, unsettled
Creepy: eerie, disturbing, ghoulish, menacing, terrifying, ominous
I didn’t want to go into the woods this late in the evening, but I needed to take the dangerous shortcut if I wanted to be home on time. It usually wasn’t this dark so early, but the thick clouds hid the evening moon and cast dark shadows on the gloomy forest floor. A strange, uneasy feeling sent shivers down my spine, but I pushed the fearful thought out of my head as I wandered deeper into the thick trees.
2. The Rule of Three
Create mystery by having some “unknown thing” in your story. Refer to the “unknown” a minimum of three times before giving away what it is. For instance, don’t just tell your audience that you see a monster. Instead, keep your reader in suspense about the monster by describing a sound you hear, a weird feeling you have, or shadow you see, etc. Stretch out the mystery by giving your reader at least three hints “something is there” before you actually come face-to-face with the “unknown” thing.
Have students pick their unknown thing (monster, alien, person, etc.). This will be the mysterious thing they meet in their story
Have students brainstorm 3 ways they want to sense their “unknown thing” and how they react/respond. This might be seeing a shadow, hearing a noise, seeing a light, having a weird feeling, etc. They can use the same one twice (maybe they hear a sound twice).
Hear the sound of a twig snapping >>>> look over my shoulder
See a shadow by my fee >>>> looked again and quicken my pace
Hear a snapping sound again >>>> I turn around slowly, try to let our scream, but can’t
Suddenly, the sound of twigs snapping behind me made me jump. I looked over my shoulder but saw nothing but darkness. As I continued walking, I caught a glimpse of a shadow pass by my feet and dared to look again. Darkness. I quickened my pace but stopped when I heard the same snapping sound only louder and more urgent. This time I turned around slowly with my heart pounding in my chest. When I saw it, I tried to let out a scream, but no sound escaped my lips.
Suddenly, (1. Sound) the sound of twigs snapping behind me made me jump. I looked over my shoulder but saw nothing but darkness. As I continued walking, (2. Shadow) I caught a glimpse of a shadow pass by my feet and dared to look again. Darkness. I quickened my pace but (3. Sound) stopped when I heard the same snapping sound only louder and more urgent. This time I turned around slowly with my heart pounding in my chest. When I saw it, I tried to let out a scream, but no sound escaped my lips.
3. Keep it a Secret...Shh!
Shhh! Don’t let your reader know what your unknown thing or “it” is yet. Describe the “thing.” Refer to it by “it,” but keep what it actually is a secret from your reader. Use 5-sense description to help your reader visualize the “it.”
Remind students that the next part of their story is describing the unknown thing. Students should not reveal what the “thing” is yet. In their writing, they should refer to the mystery thing as “it.”
Students should brainstorm the following:
What does it look like?
What does it sound like?
What is it wearing?
What does it smell like?
I froze as I watched it emerge from the dark bushes. It’s brown and green skin was dry, almost scaly. Dark red eyes glowed within their deep sockets, which sent a chill down my spine. Its body was twisted and coiled and it appeared to slither like a snake. I tried to run, but I felt frozen in my tracks. Soon the monster would be at my feet!
Oh my goodness, I hope you enjoy writing spooky stories with your class as much as I do! Wait until you see what kind of writing your kids create! If you try these lessons and your students write some super spooky stuff, I’d love for you to share it in the comments! I hope you are having a wonderful start to your year and are having fun with writing instruction!
I’m Whitney Ebert, founder of ElementaryWritingCoach.com. As you may have guessed, teaching young authors to develop their craft and feel confident in their writing skills is kind of my thing.
I have 10+ years teaching experience in elementary education, and I've taught every grade level from kindergarten to sixth grade (except first). My teaching passions include interest-based learning, creative technology, project based learning, and building confident writers. Additionally, I have my M.S. in Instructional Media, so I frequently incorporate digital flare into projects and writing assignments.
I live in a sunny beach town with my husband, preschooler and baby. When I'm not teaching, blogging, or designing new lesson plans, you can find me at the beach with the family.
Find out more about The Elementary Writing Coach at www.elementarywritingcoach.com.