Short stories are a great way to engage students and teach meaningful skills without having to enter into long units. Middle schoolers love a good suspenseful story that can be covered in a single class period. You can teach plot, theme, characterization, figurative language, foreshadowing, and pretty much any of the literature standards with a good short story unit all while keeping your students hooked. Here’s a list of great suspenseful short stories and some ideas for lessons to go along with them!
1. Sorry, Wrong Number by Lucille Fletcher
A woman who is confined to her bed overhears a murder plot. Through a series of phone calls, she attempts to uncover the truth but finds that the mystery goes even deeper. This story was originally a radio program, so it lends itself really well to a reader’s theater style lesson in the classroom. Find a YouTube reading of the radio program here. If you’re using the 7th Grade HMH Collections textbook, you will find the script for Sorry, Wrong Number in Collection 2.
2. The Wife’s Story by Ursula K. Le Guin
This suspenseful story puts a twist on the classic tale of the werewolf. It’s perfect for teaching elements of suspense, and it’s fun to watch your students figure out what is really happening! This is a great addition to any suspense unit.
3. The Landlady by Roald Dahl
A young man on a business trip decides to stay at quaint bed and breakfast. The old lady running the place seems sweet, but she is hiding a dark secret in plain sight.
4. The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
A big-game hunter finds himself on an island where everything is not as it seems. This is a great story to use as discussion or lesson about theme. Explore the ideas of hunting versus murder as you guide your students through this classic short story.
5. A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury
This science fiction short story features a futuristic setting in which the main character, a hunter named Eckels, travels back in time to hunt a T-rex. Pair this story with The Most Dangerous Game to have your students compare the themes in these two suspenseful short stories.
6. The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs
This classic middle school short story is full of suspense. A mysterious monkey paw grants its owner three wishes but with each wish comes dire consequences. Teach foreshadowing with The Monkey’s Paw and check out this concentration game that helps students digest the difficult vocabulary found in this short story.
7. The Lady or the Tiger? by Frank Stockton
A man accused of a crime is forced into an arena by the king where he must choose his own fate by selecting one of two doors. This story leaves the reader hanging a little so it makes for a great way to discuss resolution with your students.
8. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
This is another middle school ELA must-read. A small town holds an event once a year called “The Lottery” in which one member of the community is randomly selected. Have your students make predictions about what happens to the lottery “winner” as you read.
9. All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury
A class of children are eagerly awaiting the brief appearance of the sun as they must endure nearly endless rain on their home planet of Venus. This short story is great for highlighting descriptive language.
10. Charles by Shirley Jackson
A boy begins kindergarten and comes home each day to tell his family about a troublemaker in his class. The ending has a wonderful twist always delights middle school students. The text is easy to read so I often use it early in the year to help students feel confident with comprehension. As a warm-up or bell ringer before reading this story in class, I like to have my students complete a quick write about any incident from their kindergarten year. The answers are entertaining and it leads us perfectly into this story.
Suspenseful short stories with plot twists are a great way to pull in even your most reluctant readers. What’s great about all these stories listed here is that they are all readily available online for free. You can use some or all of these to craft a suspense unit that places emphasis of the development of theme. In my own suspense unit, I usually choose a story or two and have my students create alternate endings. this is a great way to allow your students to have some creative freedom which is a valuable part of helping students blossom as writers.
These stories are perfect for setting up discussions because students generally like them so much that they will gladly chatter away. Ask students what they would do in the same situation as a particular character. Do they agree with the actions of that character? Have them debate over which parts are realistic vs. unrealistic.