Creating Spooky (and Not-so-spooky) Settings

In spooky stories, setting certainly cannot be generic. It’s the place that often makes the story spooky. A haunted house. A dark forest. A dank basement. A graveyard. Of course, “normal,” everyday places can be spooky as well—depending on what’s happening and how well you use the setting. But, if you can’t convey the spookiness (or any other aspect), then even inherently scary places will come off generic, too. So I wanted to share a few tips of conveying and using the setting in your stories.

Spooky settings cannot be generic!

Setting Tips:

  • Know your world. Build a complete one in your head. Know what things look like, where they are, what they sound like, what they smell like, etc. Otherwise, you can’t portray setting convincingly on paper.
  • Only share a bits and pieces of the world, though. Think of the world/setting of your story as an iceberg. You need to know the whole thing, but you’re only going to show the reader the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
  • Show the setting through your POV character’s eyes. Imagine you’ve put VR goggles on your POV character. What does he or she notice? (BTW, I think the real trick in writing well is striving to keep your reader connected to the story and the world through your POV character’s eyes. Little things like POV slips or lack of setting, for instance, distance the reader from the story.)
  • Select really concrete details to help your reader visualize the setting. Don’t just say the door opened. The oaken slab creaked open.
  • Don’t drop big blocks of exposition to explain setting (or the world). You can’t totally avoid exposition, but huge blocks of it will knock your reader right out of those VR goggles.
  • Do sprinkle clues about the setting and world throughout the action and dialogue. (Not in the dialogue, though. Interweave very brief setting descriptions or directions between what characters say.)
  • Establish the setting every time you open or close a scene—and whenever you change location within a scene. You don’t need to spell out where the characters are in the first sentence but do give the reader some hints within the first few sentences.
  • Don’t forget all the senses. But don’t overdo it—or under do it. Think about what the POV character would notice.
  • Use setting to reflect the mood of the character. If the POV character is scared, for instance, this is going to color how she sees the world around her. Plus you can convey that fear (or joy or sadness) through how you describe the setting.
  • Use setting to show the passage of time.
  • Use setting to foreshadow events.
  • Use setting to ….

I could go on about setting, but you get the idea.  If you want to know more about uses of setting, look into Eudora Welty’s “Place in Fiction.” She felt setting was an underappreciated tool in our writer’s toolkit.

BTW, I did a session on creating a sense of place in fiction at the Roanoke Regional Writers’ Conference this year. I talked about setting and about to imbue it with a particular sense of place. See the first entry under Fiction on my For Writers’ page.

Happy reading–and spooky writing!

Angie

“An intriguing blend of history and magic” – Kirkus
angiesmibert.com
@amsmibert

Spooky Collaborative Stories in the Classroom

Mystery at the Mansion. The Serial House. Circus Gone Wrong. The Photo. Sewer Circus. Did we Spookies write these fine scary tales? No! A class of Junior Spookies (Spooky Irregulars, maybe?) at Northside Middle School did. Mrs. Forney’s class of amazing 7th graders even published them in an anthology called, aptly enough, A Collection of Short Stories from an Amazing Group of Seventh Graders. I had the distinct honor to hear them read their collaborative stories on Feb 15th in the NMS library.

Mrs. Forney’s class of amazing 7th graders (and me) posing with their amazing anthology.

Work on their stories, though, started about a month before that. Librarian Lauren Sprouse contacted Spooky MG to set up a free 30-minute Skype Q&A session for Mrs. Forney’s English class. She let the students listen to the collaborative story we did for the Reading to Your Kids podcast. This inspired the class to write their own collaborative stories! When they Skyped with us in January, the students were armed with questions not only for us about our own books and writing but also about the whole collaborative story writing process. The class left the Skype session pumped to work on their own group stories. Since I live in the same city, I happily agreed to go hear the tales once they were done!

How did they do it? First, Mrs. Forney took notes on our answers to the students’ questions and gave each a copy to help them write their stories. She adapted how we wrote our collaborative story to suit her class. We had worked from a writing prompt given to us by the podcast host, and then each of us wrote a segment of the story without really planning what came next. Luckily, it worked out pretty well. Mrs. Forney provided each of her groups with a prompt.  However, she let each group brainstorm, write, and revise its story together. She’s extremely proud of both their stories and how hard they worked! And I was impressed with the stories, too!

On the morning of February 15th, after all the groups read their awesome stories, I turned the tables on them—and asked them questions about their process. They shared that the hardest parts were coming up with the ideas and then editing/revising the stories. Some groups eagerly talked about how they came up with great names for the characters, often based on people they knew or even family members. We talked a bit more about writing in general–until it was time for photos. (See above!)

You can do this, too!Are you a librarian or teacher who’d like to do something similar with your class? Here’s a super quick lesson plan/checklist for teaching Spooky collaborative stories in your classroom:

  • Schedule a free 30-minute Skype Q&A with us!
  • Listen to our collaborative story podcast.
  • Have students prep questions for Skype Q&A.
  • Grill us with questions!
  • Break students into groups of 3-5 students.
  • Assign each group a writing prompt.
  • Set aside class or library time for each group to brainstorm ideas, write drafts, revise, and practice reading. (NMS students took about a month to do this, along with other class work.)
  • Publish stories in a booklet, complete with student signatures and a cool cover!

Try this variation: Instead collaborating, your students could write their individual own spooky stories based on a theme or prompt.

If your school is in the Roanoke, Virginia area, I’m happy to listen to more stories! I won’t speak for the other Spookies, but you might be able to persuade one that lives near your school to make a visit. OR you could schedule a follow-up Skype for us to listen to stories!

Of course, you don’t have to write collaborative stories to Skype with us!