With her debut middle-grade novel, Ethan, Suspended, Pamela Ehrenberg proves you don’t have to write thrillers to master the art of suspense.
Before I explain, let’s take a look at the words “suspend” and “suspense.” Both words have their origin in the Latin suspendere, meaning “to hang, stop.”
In this novel, Ethan Oppenheimer is “suspended” in a couple of ways: (1) he has been suspended from school and (2) he is living with his grandparents in a temporary state of suspension while he awaits the outcome of his parents’ marital problems.
Though this book is not a mystery, nor a thriller nor a horror novel but is in fact closer to a quiet coming-of-age story, it does an excellent job of keeping the reader in suspense. I found myself trying to read faster to find out what happens next and staying up well past my already-too-late bedtime to finish “just one more chapter.”
How does Pamela accomplish this?
Through unanswered questions. From the very beginning of her story, she leaves the reader wondering what exactly has happened to Ethan and those around him.
Why was Ethan suspended from school? We know from the book’s prologue that it had something to do with a classmate who was left lying on a “bloodstained sidewalk,” but we do not know what exactly happened to the boy, nor what Ethan’s role was. Not until page 121 – nearly halfway through the book – do we learn the answer to this question.
What is going on between Daron and Diego? Daron is a boy who lives next door to Ethan’s grandparents, and Diego is one of the only kids at Ethan’s new school who will talk to him. (Being the only white kid at an inner-city D.C. school causes some interesting tensions for our hero.)
In chapter two (page 18), Daron’s little brother, Felix, first hints of the tension: "What you don’t want to do is get too friendly with the Spanish kids. Usually they leave us alone and we leave them alone and everything’s okay. It’s when people get too friendly that problems get started."
The book drops references to these "problems" throughout, but we don’t have a clear idea what they are until partway through Chapter 10 (page 100).
The book includes many other "suspenseful" questions. (What will happen to Ethan’s parents? Why has his mother been estranged from his grandparents for so long, and why did he end up at their house for this crisis? What happened to Ethan’s uncle, who died at a young age? Why does his friend, Sharita, miss so much school?)
As a writer who tends to want to explain everything to my readers up front … to fill them in on every character’s backstory and explain every plot point ad infinitum … I greatly appreciate the skill with which Pamela weaves these subtle elements of suspense into her story. There’s no better way to keep readers turning the page than to tease them with lots of unanswered questions.