Building suspense in writing KS2 – How to write stories with tension, atmosphere and suspense
These creative writing ideas and examples will help pupils use compelling language to keep the reader on the edge of their seat…
- by Teachwire
One of the areas of creative fiction writing that pupils consistently fail to incorporate into their work is the technique of building suspense in writing.
The following simple steps from nasen education director Alison Wilcox will have an immediate impact on children’s writing…
Building suspense in writing KS2 advice
Use your senses
As well as sight, think about what your character can hear, smell, touch and taste.
This will enable the reader to feel the tension, the anticipation, the warning of approaching danger etc. more easily. For example:
- The footsteps were louder. Another creak, another shuffle, just down the corridor. Now only seconds away.
- The sound of the wind among the trees suddenly stopped.
- The world was completely still. Nothing moved, not a leaf quivered, but over the silence brooded a ghostly calm and the whisper of his smoking breath as it rose in gasps and lingered in the frosty air.
- Her foot kicked something round, hollow, something which rolled away into the shadows.
- He ducked as something dark rushed through the air and brushed his head with its icy fingers.
- Trish cupped her fingers around her nose and mouth, but the stench of graveyards and decay wafting up from the darkness seeped through her fingers and made her retch.
- She took out a handful of green powder from her purse and tossed it on the fire. Within seconds, a very sweet and heady scent filled the room.
- The drink was bitter and stung her throat as she swallowed it. She could feel it scorching through her veins.
Suspense writing checklist
Looking for teaching resources? Use this handy suspense writing checklist for KS2 which summarises the advice in this article.
Use darkness to help the reader paint a picture
A good tip for building suspense in writing in KS2 is to focus on darkness. This means that the character(s) has to rely on his/her other senses and makes it easier to include sounds, touch and smells, which adds to the tension.
Add detail and description to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and create really spine-tingling stories.
Giving a setting an atmosphere is more than stating that ‘it was dark’. For example, adding more descriptive detail could give you:
She lay motionless in the darkness and listened to the night. It was an unsettling, menacing darkness, full of dancing shadows and the occasional creak and rustle from the house. A tingling sixth sense warned Kitty not to move.
Keep things building throughout your writing
By gradually adding to the atmosphere you are creating, you increase tension; making the setting scary and the action scenes exciting.
Think about putting in details such as background noises, flickering lights, dark shadows and tricky terrain such as muddy or uneven ground during a chase. For example:
- The batteries in her torch were running low and the beam kept flickering and fading as she moved it from side to side.
- Rob couldn’t tell where the steps were coming from. He quickened his pace, but the ground was uneven and he stumbled, crashing to the ground.
Use the weather to build suspense
Weather and darkness can to be used to great effect to create a scary atmosphere and tension:
- Howling winds
- Mist or fog
- Ferocious storms
- Relentless rain
- Dusk, shadows
- Pitch black
- It was taking too long. The shadows spread and lengthened. She looked at her watch again.
- She should have heard something by now. All day she had been haunted by the feeling that she was being followed, and her fear grew as night fell. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what lurked in the shadows.
- A cold, shivering wind blew on the back of her neck and ears like the touch of cold fingers. Suddenly, the whole world seemed unnaturally dark, as if it had been drained of all light.
- The wind was ferocious, gaining in power all the time, until it screamed over the house and beat like a fist against the walls.
As before, adding detail and description will give the reader a more vivid sense of what is happening:
It was quiet. Too quiet! The birds had fallen silent and even the wind seemed to have died down. All was as still as death and dark as the grave.
Give readers a clue
Include hints to the reader of the danger to come, or indications that the danger is getting closer. Think about:
- Entering the danger zone – what’s lurking outside, at the top of the stairs?
- A feeling of being followed/watched
- Fear of discovery in a hiding place as footsteps/voices, thuds, crashes get closer.
Consider how punctuation can enhance your suspense story
Include a sentence that holds back essential information from the reader until its ending, using colons, commas and repeated full stops to delay the revelation.
- Climbing the ladder, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks.
- She heard the shuffle of footsteps, the scrape of metal. Silence. A shadow loomed over her. She dropped to her knees. Silhouetted in the flickering light was….
Refer to time
Build a sense of tension by making frequent references to time (the ‘ticking clock’ effect):
- Could he make it in time?
- He searched desperately for a way to escape. Frantic now… time was running out.
- The next few seconds unfolded in horrifying slow motion.
- For fatal seconds he stared, unable to think or move. And as he faltered, the jaws of the trap closed around him.
Vary your word, sentence and paragraph length
Vary the length of words, sentences and paragraphs to increase the pace and tension – this is a great way of building suspense in writing in KS2.
Use short words, for example, ‘at once’, rather than, ‘immediately’.
Place several short sentences consecutively: She ducked. He lunged.
Include one or two-word sentences. For example: ‘Oh no!’ or ‘Coming closer. Too close.’
Convey action with partial sentences
When the action is fast, use partial sentences:
He had to get to the others. Had to reach the attic. He staggered, stumbled, scrambled. Five steps more.
Use short paragraphs – some may be a single line.
Include lots of verbs to convey action and create a fast pace; use several verbs in a single sentence.
Alison Wilcox is education director at nasen.
Suspense writing examples
This free building suspense in writing KS2 PDF from literacy expert Pie Corbett features an original tension writing example and classroom activities to help pupils with their own tension story ideas.
Use this building suspense in writing KS2 senses template and exclusive scary extract from author Gabriel Dylan to help KS2 pupils develop their descriptiuve writing. Read more from Gabriel below…
How to teach pupils to write scary stories
Step into the dark depths of scary scene-setting, and help pupils develop their descriptive writing skills by tapping into the senses, with this advice from teacher and author Gabriel Dylan…
When I sit down to write one of my scary stories, it’s usually the setting that pops into my head first. How can we create a scary scene for a story though?
I’m always on the lookout for creepy-looking places where I can set my stories – overgrown canals, derelict factories, remote beaches. I always try to have a phone with me, or a camera, so that I can grab a couple of quick pictures to inspire me later.
In fact, there’s a spooky farm that I walk past most days that fuelled my imagination for the main location for my book, Shiver Point: A Tap at the Window.
Using the senses
I enjoy pretty much all of the writing process, but crafting a scary scene is the bit I like the most, and it’s here that I always try to focus on setting, and making the scene as atmospheric as I can. If you can convey the setting well, so that the reader experiences a little of the characters’ fear and uncertainty, I think you’re on the right tracks.
When I’m first drafting a scene like this, the technique I find most useful in bringing things to life is using the senses – trying to zoom in on what the characters can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and how they’re feeling about where they’ve found themselves – I even have a descriptive writing template sheet that helps me if I’m struggling!
As well as a writer, I’m also a teacher, and there are a few techniques for teaching descriptive writing and setting that I use again and again.
Creating mood and atmosphere
One that I start with when I’m trying to teach setting is to get my pupils to take apart an extract where you can see the senses in action. For example, take a look at an extract from Shiver Point: It Came from the Wood and see how many of the senses your pupils can spot.
I’m a very visual person, so I always find myself focusing on what the character can see first, and how I can use that to convey mood and atmosphere to the reader. Often a word bank can help here, to capture the mood of the story and its location (e.g. abandoned, eerie, crumbling, sinister, shadowy, gloomy, etc). What the character doesn’t see can work well here too: shadows, silhouettes, movement at the corner of their eye.
Hearing is right up there too. I find that when I write, there’s lots of dripping, scuttling, whispering, and unseen footsteps; all the kind of sounds that create a foreboding atmosphere, while hinting that something else is out there, waiting to pounce on the characters.
For most readers, the thought of what might be out there is worse than what they finally see, so I try to play on that too, and bring in the reader’s worst fears.
I don’t use the other senses as much, but I try to dip into them all to create a rounded, vivid picture. The feel of rain running down a character’s neck, or a creature slithering up their arm; the smell of a derelict building… all these things can help to make the reader uneasy.
Hearing the character’s thoughts
Although technically not one of the senses, I’ve included what the character feels on my senses chart. This is a good one to use in a scary scene, whether in the first or third person, as it can let the reader know exactly what is going through the character’s mind, and how they’re feeling.
Again, playing on the character’s imagination can crank up the tension and suspense. Sometimes I use an inner monologue, so we can actually get inside the character’s head:
‘He wished he wasn’t on his own.
He wished he’d brought a torch.
But more than anything, he wished he’d gone to the toilet before he left home.’
This can be a useful exercise for your class. Can children jot down some ideas about what a character might be thinking or feeling when in a scary scene? You could use the extract from Shiver Point, or pick a scene from any scary book your pupils enjoy.
“Can children jot down some ideas about what a character might be thinking or feeling when in a scary scene?”
Using visual cues
Another thing that helps with my English classes is to use visual cues to help them get started, such as photographs (I have some from the spooky farm I mentioned earlier, but you can also find stock images online). I always imagine an abandoned tractor from the spooky farm coming to life at night, once no one is around!
Often, when we’re looking at an image, I split my class into groups and get them to imagine they are part of the scene. I give them a sense each, and then they feed back to the rest of the class with their ideas on what descriptive words and phrases they associate with the image.
“I split my class into groups and get them to imagine they are part of the scene”
Film clips can work well here too – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the opening of Raiders of The Lost Ark and got my pupils to write a short piece of descriptive writing where they imagine the traps waiting for them, and the tarantulas crawling over their clothes.
A tool I often use to build suspense is the weather; the moan of the wind, the hiss of falling rain, the rumble of thunder overhead.
One thing I’ve found useful with my classes when writing scary stories is to play YouTube clips of storms or bad weather. Ask pupils to come up with a bank of words that they can use in their subsequent writing to give their stories a foreboding mood. Nothing sets the scene for scary writing like a stormy night!
To scaffold, you could start by giving them some ideas such as howling, rumbling, flashing, deafening, etc.
Make things competitive
The last tactic I find useful when teaching setting and descriptive writing is to make things competitive. Once we’ve read some examples and looked at some images or clips, I set my pupils off to write the scariest or most suspenseful piece they can.
Even pupils who aren’t naturally inclined towards English can do really well here, and they are usually super keen to share their work and read it out.
You can employ the senses chart again; perhaps using it as scaffolding for children who might be a bit apprehensive about writing from scratch.
Ask them to plot out three senses they’d like to use in their scene. Then think about what in their image or clip could prompt these senses to fire up.
Gabriel Dylan is a teacher and author of Shiver Point: It Came from the Woods (£7.99, Piccadilly Press).