Saturday, October 1, 2016

How to Write a Scary Story that Readers Will Love: Get 'Em Moving - Then Get 'Em Writing

Scary Story Writing 101

The truth is: Every story that contains a compelling conflict contains elements of a scary story. 

But when it comes to writing a story that compels readers to stick around and find out whether the main characters end up as victors or victims - the mood-setting elements in the horror story genre become master manipulators of readers' emotions.  

Setting the Stage

One of the most effective ways to demonstrate how to create conflicts-that-readers-gobble-up is to read scary stories aloud to students.  

Three of my go-to mentor texts that work with students of all ages include: Share a Scare, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Scary Story Mentor Texts

Share a Scare by Nancy Loewen - This book not only offers every reader a series of cringe-worthy moments, but it walks readers step-by-step through the process the author used to create them.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand - The short, classic urban legends in this collection are perfect for conducting mini-lessons that never fail to captivate audiences - young and old.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz The chilling short stories in this trilogy only take a few minutes to read, and the stories are categorized by the type of "scare" they offer. (This link goes to the 2011 boxed set, but if you can find the 1981 version, the creepy illustrations in that set add to the spookiness of the tales.)

Scary Story Elements

It doesn’t matter if students are in third grade or if they’re seniors in high school - almost everybody loves a good scare.

Classic horror stories, urban legends, and ghost stories, however, amp up the fear factor by adding a few extra cringe-worthy elements like…

… a Something’s Not Right Character,

... an “Uh-Oh” Moment, and

… Darkness that Foreshadows an Unknown Danger.   

And more often than not, characters get into terrifying situations after 
  • Breaking a rule,
  • Ignoring a warning,
  • Making a bad decision, or
  • Trusting a stranger.
But regardless of how they got themselves into a scary situation in the first place, the magic happens as they go about trying to make a situation right that has gone terribly wrong. 

Unfortunately, one of the tragic parts of this genre is that many of these characters don’t ever get to learn from their mistakes. The only silver lining is that maybe we, the readers, can.

The easiest way to get students started writing scary stories is to (1) read them a few of your favorite spooky tales, (2) hang scary, captioned pics around the room so groups of students can rotate through them and brainstorm story ideas (e.g. Gab & Go Stations), (3) post the scary story elements on the board, and (4) have students free-write for 12 minutes.
Sample Photo Prompt for a Gab & Go Station

If you'd like to pick up a set of captioned photo prompts with step-by-step plans to use in mini-lessons or at learning centers, they're available here:

Scary Story Writing 101
The next blog post in this active student engagement series is How to Host a Character MeetUp.

That's it for now, so until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.