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Create a mysterious setting in 8 easy steps

October 23, 2013 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

What makes Halloween stories so scary and exciting? It must be a combination of a spine-chilling plot and a powerful build-up to and description of each scene. This blog focuses on how your students can use the mysterious atmosphere of Halloween as inspiration for writing a short text which could also be the beginning of a longer story. We build up the sequence step by step, but you can adapt any of the stages to your own needs and lesson objectives. This lesson can be even more fun if you ask your students to bring in scary music to create a spooky atmosphere.

Create a mysterious setting in 8 easy steps

1. Introduction and visualisation. 

  • Ask your students to close their eyes and think of a scary place they have been to or seen in a film/TV series.

2. How does the place make you feel? 

  • Now ask your students to describe how they feel. What physical sensations does the place give them? Brainstorm words and phrases and write them on the board for everyone to see and access. Use different colours for adjectives, verbs and nouns.

3. Look at some atmospheric illustrations.


The illustrations above are taken from the following readers. Click on the titles for a larger version of the page from the reader.

4. Discussion questions

When the students have looked at the images, choose one (either ask them to vote for their favourite or pick one you think is most appropriate  for their level) and ask questions like the following. Remember that lower level groups will find it easier to describe and think about what is happening in the picture, higher levels on their emotions/sensations.

  • What does this image make you feel?
  • Where is it set?
  • Focus on the question words: Where? How? When? Who? What?
  • Focus on the senses: What can you see, hear, feel, smell, taste?
  • Compare it to the place you thought of in step 2. How is it similar/different?
  • What happened before/after this picture?

5. Describe the images. 

Collect words and phrases (you can use a dictionary) that describe the image. Describe the scene first (what's going on in the picture?), and then collect nouns to describe the details. Then, talk about the colours, the light and what feelings they give you. For example, colours can be:

  • dark, dull, depressing, violent, gloomy, faint, dim, muted
  • vibrant, vivid, brilliant, bright, glowing, rich
  • clashing, harmonious, contrasting, complementary

6. Read an extract from the story.

Give your students the text that describes the image you are focussing on. As they are reading the text, ask them to underline or circle the words that strongly relate to the scene. Ask them to write sentences with the words.

Take notes about the scenes following this structure:

Extract from Zadie’s Last Race by Martyn Hobbs

  • Environment: ‘the air was cold’, ‘a touch of frost on the parked cars’, ‘yellow streetlamps’
  • Time: ‘a dark autumn evening’, ‘October was coming to an end’
  • Place: ‘on the parked cars’, ‘in their back gardens’, ‘along the pavements under yellow streetlamps’
  • Senses: ‘a touch of frost’, ‘exploding bangers or firing rockets’, ‘the rockets screamed and burst into blue, red, green stars’

7. Vocabulary building

Collect words and phrases that give us information about the setting. You can use the charts below to organize the new vocabulary in class. 

a) Make a diagram like the one below and describe the setting. Write nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs in the boxes.

b) Make a mind map with SENSES written in the middle and subgroups with SEE, TOUCH, HEAR, TASTE and SMELL. Collect words to describe these sensations.

8. Writing activity

  • Work alone or in pairs and fill out the same charts for a scary and mysterious scene you have seen in a film or in real life.
  • Write a short paragraph to describe the scene.

Would you like more writing lesson ideas and tips on using illustrations? Check out other posts on this Blog: