10 August 2017

How to write suspense: Stories from our Write to the End of Your Novel course

Photography for Curtis Brown Creative
by Jack Hadley From Our Students

During our six-week Write to the End of Your Novel course, the second of our three online novel-writing courses, Anna Davis sets a number of writing tasks which are designed to get students thinking about different elements of the writing process. In week four the topic in question is how to write suspense.

Anna gives students three prompts and allows them 800 words to write a suspenseful piece. The prompt which students are always particularly drawn to is this one: ‘A woman, alone in the house, gets up in the middle of the night and spies, through the window, a man in her back garden’. The results are always intriguing, and we thought we’d share with you two attempts from the last course.


I shut the front door behind them and the letter box rattles. It makes me jump. I’m not used to all the sounds coming from my new house yet. It’s only been a week.

I can hear them walking up the path giggling, and I crouch down and open the flap.

‘Bugger off you two’ —more laughter— ‘you’ve drunk all my wine so bugger off.’

The laughter dies away as they disappear up the street and I think of my neighbours. Have we been too loud? The old man next door doesn’t know me yet. I haven’t had time to show him I’m more than that woman on her own with a kid – he gave me a funny look when I passed him in the street yesterday. I’m not sure I’ve ingratiated myself with him tonight.

I’ve had too much to drink. I know this because I can feel an inane grin stretched across my mouth, but God, it’s been a great evening. I pirouette the length of the hallway and stop in front of the mirror. My cheeks are flushed and I drop the grin because even alone in the house I don’t want to look ridiculous. Except I’m not alone, because Noah is asleep upstairs and he’ll be up at the crack of dawn cartwheeling round the garden.

‘You need water and you need to go to bed you dirty stop up’ I tell my reflection.

And then the letterbox rattles again.

The wind must be picking up.

I weave my way to the kitchen, turning the lights off behind me as I go. The back door is wide open but I’m convinced I’d closed – I guess Sarah must have been out for a cigarette before she left. I kick it shut with my foot and wonder what I’ve done with the key.

I give the washing up a cursory glance but there’s no way I’m doing that tonight.

I lean over the dirty dishes, my face close to the window, I drop the plug and it hits the ground with a thud.

We’ve had two weeks of heat. Proper heat, the heat that no one knows what to do with, but there’s a breeze flowing through the window now. I let it wash over my face and I take a deep breath and-

I think there’s someone in my garden.

The unmistakeable scrunch of gravel underfoot. The only gravel in the garden is under the kitchen window; the one I have my face pressed against.

I’m elbow deep in the kitchen sink, my friends are long gone, my baby is asleep upstairs and I can say with some certainty – there is someone in my back garden.

So now I’m playing a game and its called ‘don’t let them know you’ve heard them’. It’s not a conscious decision but I’m going with it.

I make a show of wiping my hands on the towel and not looking at the blackness penetrating the window. Where is the back door key?

I pick up my phone from the table and leave the kitchen and all I can think as my heart works its way up into my throat is, I can’t lock the door.

I sprint up the stairs and open Noah’s bedroom door, which overlooks the garden. My lovely boy is fast asleep in his bed, tired from all the fuss of my friends earlier. My hand is shaking as I inch back the curtain, just enough for my eye.

The patio is bathed in an eerie half light from the kitchen and there is a man.

He is dressed in dark clothes, he has his hands on his hips and he is staring straight up at me.

I snap the curtain back into place and drop the phone on the floor. My brain is firing incoherent messages all around my body and any hint of inebriation evaporates.

I picture him in my kitchen, on my stairs, in this room, but I strain my ears and all I can hear is a deafening silence.

It takes every ounce of courage that I have but I peel back the curtain again.
He’s gone.

And then the letter box rattles.



Two months had passed since Katie Hopper moved into her small terraced house. If there was something she wanted to start work on it was the overgrown garden.

One night she woke up and went downstairs for a drink in the kitchen. She had a cold glass of milk in her hand and she looked outside at the clear sky and stars. A plump cat sat looking at her through the glass kitchen door. She put the glass in the sink and saw it had gone. She went back to bed and slept.

The next night, she woke up again. She tossed over to her side but failed to sleep and she went back downstairs for a drink in the kitchen.

It was darker and the sky was cloudy, black and windy. She opened the fridge door and a jar of English mustard fell out. She caught it and poured herself a drink of milk. She went closer to the door – nothing but darkness fed the space.

A branch tapped on the kitchen window. It was too cold to open the door. And then something moved. What was that?

Her breathing picked up a pace, her hands were damp. A thick dark coat moved around and swept over the garden chair. She stopped still. A tall thin man stood with his back to her looking up at the tall leafy Willow tree.

She dropped the glass and watched as it smashed over the floor. She took a deep breath and looked again. She jolted back and knocked into a kitchen chair. She froze. Was the door locked? she thought. She picked up the key. She crouched and turned the key. I must have locked it, she thought.

She turned the key, it clicked and now she was secure. She fixed her eyes on him. He had his back to the door as he looked up at the tree and sky.

She breathed quickly and her heart thumped hard against her chest. She rushed upstairs and looked down into the garden from her bedroom window. His coat swung in the wind but he did not move. She held the phone tightly and shook. She watched from her bedroom his next move.

He started to move across the garden, untangling the branches from the Ivory bush. He spent a bit of time, carefully lifting off the branches and placing them back so they could move freely in the wind. He looked around the garden and walked back behind the tree and disappeared into the bushes.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.

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