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October 18, 2010 Everyone Loves a Mystery By Nancy Barile
Grades 6–8, 9–12


    Most teens love mysteries. They like reading them, writing them, watching them on TV and in films, and they like solving them. And since, in many cases, creative writing has been pushed to the side by high stakes testing that requires only one type of writing — usually literary analysis — writing a mystery is a great opportunity for students to explore their creative sides. What better time to write a great, spine-tingling mystery than Halloween?


    To set the mood, I like to read a few a scary stories from The Best Ghost Stories Evera fabulous collection of spooky stories from Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Washington Irving, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry James, to name a few. Students are usually inspired by these stories, and they are able to point out just what makes them so successful: strong settings, plot twists, eerie characterization, edge-of-your-seat suspense, vivid imagery, and surprise endings. After reading a few stories from this book, the students are ready to craft their own stories.

    To get the ball rolling and put a new twist on the assignment, I present the students with a few stock beginnings for their mysteries and then challenge them to make interesting and original stories out of these generic introductions.

    Writing Prompts:

    1. I had just started my first babysitting job in a strange part of town. I was babysitting two little children: a boy of two and a girl of four. The children lived in an old, ramshackle house in a desolate area. I had just gotten the children to bed when, suddenly, an intense storm hit. Thunder crashed, and lightening lit up the house, causing the lights to flicker. Just then, the phone began to ring.

    2. My boy/girlfriend and I were driving to my family's cabin in Maine. We got a late start because we both had basketball practice after school. We'd been driving for about two hours when we realized we had driven off the main highway and were now on a dark, desolate road, which looked like it headed nowhere. Suddenly, the engine sputtered and died.

    3. One day my friends and I decided to go camping in the woods of Vermont. The woods were part of an area that used to be a hospital for people with mental issues. We started hiking early in the day, but, as it started getting dark, we realized we were a few miles from camp. Then it started to rain. We saw an old, abandoned house in the distance, and we decided to get out of the rain and stay there for the night.

    4. One night I had a sleepover with four of my friends. My parents were out for the evening, so we had the house to ourselves. We decided to play with the Ouija board. As we started asking the board questions, it began acting erratically, spelling out strange words and moving around the board in a crazy manner.


    I like to use the printable entitled "Ingredients for a Mystery" for this assignment because it provides a handy checklist for students about to create their own mystery. Again, the challenge for students is to turn these trite and hackneyed beginnings into imaginative and inspired stories.

    The lesson encompasses Common Core Writing Standard #3, which requires students to write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured sequences. It also hits Standard 4, which asks that students produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. Another great thing about this assignment is that it covers Standard 5: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose or audience.

    The resulting stories were original, suspenseful, and clever. They rose up against their clichéd beginnings to become truly creative and exciting. 

    Mustafa took intro #1 and created a story that railed against the intrusive technology that pervades today's society, including texting, Facebook, and instant messaging. Dana took a historical approach to intro #3 that uncovered a deranged World War II doctor, whose ghost haunted the premises. Tanisha's modern day allegory, built off of intro number 4, was a social commentary that took a shot at our celebrity culture.

    Finally, it's always fun to add an "audience" for the stories by submitting them to a writing contest — you can almost always find one during the Halloween season. We're submitting ours to a nearby town's Annual Halloween Ghost Story Writing Contest.  I will let you know in a future post if we have any winners!


    ~ Nancy


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