Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Writing a composition isn’t a linear process.
It isn’t just about improving your grammar, memorizing better vocabulary, or making sure you plan out your story using a plot graph beforehand.
Rather, students need to learn a variety of skills, such as:
Reading comprehension (paying attention to key words and phrases in the composition question)
Planning a sequence and fleshing out concepts
Analyzing the links between ideas
Communicating these ideas and their links well
Using a range of literary devices well (similes, metaphors, hyperbole, etc.)
They also need to execute all these skills concurrently while writing a composition, so it’s little wonder that many primary school students struggle to do so.But by far one of the biggest areas that students struggle with is in developing their storylines effectively. This is a problem especially for upper primary students heading toward the PSLE.
In this article, we’ll talk about one technique that students can use to improve their composition writing: suspense.
What is Suspense?
To quote Reedsy,
Suspense is the tension a reader feels when they’re not sure what will happen in a story — either during a single scene/chapter or throughout its overall arc. You might create suspense around anything that stokes readers’ curiosity, whether it’s a love triangle or a killer on the loose.
In a primary school composition, darkness, sounds, and actions are often used to build suspense. However, the effective use of vocabulary will work just as well.
Suspense in Action
Take a look at this example:
“Don’t do it!" I pleaded silently. Desperate, I tried to back away, but my body pressed firmly against something solid. There was nowhere to retreat. I was hopelessly trapped.
Here, the words in bold help to create that sense of suspense. The character’s silent pleading and retreating tell you that he or she is in a dangerous situation – but you’re wondering what on earth the danger is and how the protagonist got there in the first place. Also note that you get a little bit of detail about the setting and the main character – but not much. Why is he or she merely pleading silently? Why not yell out for help? What is that “something solid” preventing the protagonist from getting away? This is when it works to your advantage to not give away the 5W’s and 1H from the start.
As the story continues, you get a bit more detail:
A bright light flickered to life above my head. My eyes watered with the effort of keeping them open against the glare. I gripped the edge of my rumpled shirt with clammy fingers. After what seemed like ages, a masked man approached, wielding a sharp tool menacingly. My blood ran cold.
Now you see the use of a glaring light and more actions to heighten the sense of danger. More questions arise: is he or she in a building? Why is there such a bright light? Why is the protagonist gripping a shirt rather than something more solid – like a weapon? Why is the man wearing a mask?
Let’s finish the story to find out what’s going on:
“God, please save me!” I whimpered to myself, almost hysterical. “I’ll give you anything you want! I promise to do all your bidding from now on!”
Then, without warning, the man’s hands plunged rapidly towards my face. I let out a strangled cry.
I just had my very first tooth removed by the dentist.
Source: Reader’s Digest – 100-Word Story Schools Competition Booklet
Ah, the context becomes clear.That’s why there was that bright light – and why the protagonist was trapped and gripping a shirt rather than a weapon. (If the character had gripped the edge of the dentist chair rather than the shirt, it would’ve been too obvious.)
Important note here: It’s only possible to use suspense effectively when you’ve adequately planned out the story beforehand. Without good planning (such as with a plot graph), students are very likely to veer off topic – and lose precious points for their continuous writing.
Tips on How to Build Suspense
Now that we’ve gone through what suspense looks like, let’s talk about how to teach students to use it in their composition writing.
1. Zoom In / Zoom Out
One mistake we often see with a weak plot is in the lack of detail. Generally, this happens because students take for granted that readers will know the context. They then jump right into making sure the key events (and at least one of the given pictures) are inside the story, but don’t embellish the story enough.
To counter this, it helps to have the student first zoom out to consider every part of the setting & characters.
In the tooth-extraction story above, for instance, the writer thought about all the different elements present in a dentist’s office: the closed room, the reclining chair, the bright light, the fear people often have when getting their teeth pulled out, and even the mask dentists wear.
She then zoomed in to emphasize the details in a way that would exaggerate the danger.
The reclining chair became something that trapped the protagonist instead. The bright light blinded her and made it harder for her to defend herself. The friendly dentist with extraction forceps becomes a masked man with a sharp tool.
2. Take Your Time
In the story above, the entire tooth extraction process probably only took a few minutes. Yet the writer takes four whole paragraphs to describe the situation. Only in the very last line do you find out what the story was all about.
The key takeaway here is to take your time fleshing out those details.
You definitely don’t want your entire storyline to unfold in a single paragraph – the rising action, climax, and falling action should take up at least three paragraphs.
Of course, you don’t want to go overboard here. Not every single detail is important, and if you’re going to take four paragraphs to reveal the ending, it had better be worth the wait.
It’s also important to make sure you choose details that are particularly relevant as you build up to the climax – going out of point is one of the most common mistakes (and carries the heaviest penalty).
3. Pile On the Problems
Life is unpredictable. The protagonist shouldn’t have everything going well for him or her.
By creating more problems or a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for the protagonist, it complicates the story and adds tension.
Is the composition topic about winning a competition? Make it so the protagonist is the unlikely candidate for a winner.
Is it about a heroic act? Go into the fear, peer pressure, or perhaps personality characteristics that made it a challenging feat.
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