Weekly Workout (First in our New Home – Huzzah) – Creating Suspense

 ea243f2c6115816d9ada9041b65a3120(artwork by Gizem Vural)

I didn’t think I had a weekly workout this week because I have so many book launch things going on (yay), but then a friend of mine asked if I had an exercise she could use for middle school students that involved CREATING SUSPENSE.

I realized I hadn’t done much work on suspense, with middle school or adult students, so I decided to include the exercise I came up with here.

Yes, this is geared towards 7th graders, but I think the lesson works for adult-types, too.

suspense is all about tension and about what you do know vs. what you don’t know

Suppose a girl wrote a hideously embarrassing love note to a boy, with no intention of ever giving it to him. But her best friend, thinking she’s being super helpful, sticks it in his mailbox late one night. The next day, when the girl finds out, she realizes she MUST GET THAT LETTER BACK!

Which one of these creates the most suspense:

1) She calls up the boy’s parents, tells them of the mistake, and asks if they can tear up the letter.
2) She fakes being sick so she can stay home from school, then after her parents leave for work, she sneaks over to the boys house to steal the letter back from his mailbox.

Obviously, #2, but why? Because the tension is drawn out, the stakes get higher, and there’s more “waiting to see what happens.” We know less, but our minds fill in what could happen, which is both embarrassment and trouble. (Embarrassment is probably one of the things readers will sympathize the most. God how we hate to be embarrassed.)

We know the girl’s parents can call home any minute, but we don’t know if and when they will. We know the girl could get caught rifling through the mailbox and have to explain herself. But we don’t even know if anyone will be home at the boy’s house. There’s suspense around the question of Will She Get Caught?

Let’s suppose she chooses #2, fakes an illness, and sneaks over to the boys house, but JUST as she gets there, his mother takes in the mail. The girl sneaks up to a window and sees his Mom place it on the kitchen table and GO UPSTAIRS. She notices the window is open. Not knowing how much time she has, she decides to sneak in the window and get that letter back!

If the girl rushes in, grabs the letter, and runs home with no problem, the potential suspense is completely deflated. We didn’t feel the danger in our bones, which is where we want it to reach. Let’s see if we can really draw out the tension…

What does the girl hear, see, smell, feel/physically experience, or even taste, if it comes up, that will assist in building the tension in this scene? How can you, as a writer, TURN IT UP A NOTCH?


The window squeaks as she opens it
The girl gets stuck in the window
The girl drops the letter behind the piano, it’s dusty, and it makes her sneeze
The girl smells fresh bakes cookies, and can’t resist grabbing one, only to pull the entire batch onto the floor
The doorbell rings and the mom comes downstairs to get it while the girl is in the kitchen
The girl hides behind the sofa while the mom chats at the door


Pick a scene in which your character must do something illicit or sneaky or just needs to get away with something. A scene in which you want to create tension (could be humorous or frightening). Something she doesn’t want anyone else to know about. Could be anything from having a secret cigarette in the garage to stealing the enemies secret plans. It just needs to have something with stakes. Maybe the mother promised her daughter she’d quit smoking after her grandmother died of lung cancer.


1) SET YOUR TIMER for 7-10 minutes.

Write a series/list of WHAT IF statements of ways to either surprise your protagonist, get in her way, up the stakes, or otherwise threaten to expose her.

What if she drops the cigarette and lights something on fire in the garage?
What if she hears the daughter call her name from inside the house?
What if she gets a tickle in her throat and starts to cough?

Just keep adding things that may even PILE UP later on. She could accidentally light something on fire and THEN hear her daughter’s voice. Or vice versa.

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.

Circle the ones that you really like.


2) SET YOUR TIMER for 10-12 minutes.

Start with the line: In this scene, what my character doesn’t know is

See where this idea takes you. Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.


3) SET YOUR TIMER for 12-15 minutes.

Now write the scene! Using a combination of idea from part one and two. 

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.


And have a great week!





  1. Weekly Workout: Creating Tension | writing to support my teaching habit - […] posted my first post on my new website here: danikadinsmore.com. We’re still tweaking that site, but it’s up and…

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