How to write a spooky forest in middle grade or YA

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Hey – what was that noise? It sounded like a twig breaking but there’s nobody else around here, right? Must’ve been my imagination. Okay, stop – did you hear that? No, it wasn’t an owl. I’m telling you I heard a voice. I think they’re laughing. We’ve got to get out of here. Which way’s home again?

Hello, authors! Welcome to another guide to writing a spooky setting in a novel for children or teenagers. Way back in 2020, this blog post on writing a creepy graveyard scene became my most popular post ever and it continues to bring readers to the site every day. So I figured you might like some more where that came from!

Spooky forests and woods are a major trope in horror and dark fantasy and it’s no surprise: they’re scary! Sure, forests can be peaceful and brilliant for our mental health but that’s what makes them the perfect horror setting. Taking something we usually associate with relaxation and the beauty of nature and plonking a serial killer or demon in the middle is a surefire way to mess with readers and challenge their assumptions.

So, why else do forests and woods work so well in spooky stories?

  • They’re quiet, particularly at night when the birds are asleep!
  • They’re usually pretty still so you notice every little movement
  • The sound of wind whistling through the trees and leaves crunching underfoot can shift from magical and romantic to downright terrifying when you’re alone and think something’s following you
  • There aren’t usually many distinctive features or signposts so it’s easy to get lost
  • They’re usually pretty big which can make you feel alone and isolated if there’s nobody around
  • Surrounded by tall trees it’s hard to see into the distance which can make you feel vulnerable with no ideas what’s coming
  • They’re usually fairly remote and if you’re deep in the forest you might be miles from a road or house
  • It’ll probably get pitch black at night since there are no street lights

So, now we know why your character might be nervous walking through a forest at night. But how do you write the setting so it feels realistic and atmospheric?

Visit a forest!

As always, the absolute best way to write any location is to visit it yourself and take notes. Focus on all your senses and ask yourself these questions:

  1. What sounds do you hear?
  2. How might somebody who’s scared and alone mis-identify those sounds in the dark? As ghosts, attackers, a coven of witches?
  3. What can you see when it’s light and when it’s dark?
  4. What animals are around? Which birds? Be specific. What do they look like? Sound like?
  5. How are the trees moving?
  6. How do you feel when you’re here alone?
  7. How do you feel when you’re with a friend?
  8. What’s the difference between how you experience this setting in the daytime and how you experience it at night?

Author Mark Cassell published a notebook that helps writers record the locations they visit and it’s really helpful for reminding you to use all your senses and notice little details you might not usually spot. He asks you to look up at the sky and down at the ground and record colours, lighting, graffiti and signs. So grab this (or any) notebook and head to the woods!

Another useful book is Tina Welling’s Writing Wild, about how writers can explore nature and feel more connected with the world around them and then use that in their work. The book’s tagline is ‘Forming a creative partnership with nature’ which sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? Give it a go and see if it inspires you to experience those forests and woods from a different angle.

Read The Rural Setting Thesaurus

Once again, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi come to the rescue with The Rural Setting Thesaurus. I’ve chosen a few of the details that feel most suited to a spooky scene;

Sights: Sun-dappled leaves creating flickering shadows on the ground, animal trails disappearing into the undergrowth, dead leaves caught in clumps of moss, pine cones dotting the ground like spilled trinkets

Sounds: The hum of insects, the scrabble of claws against tree bark, limbs crashing to the ground in a windstorm, rain pattering to the dirt floor, yips at night, the whine of a bee or fly

Smells: Pine, wildflower scents, an earthy smell of decomposing leaves, rotting wood, stagnant pool of water, sun-heated earth

Textures and sensations: A falling leaf falling in one’s hair, branches scraping the skin, leaves slick with dew, walking into a spiderweb

Watch clips and movies

Check out videos of spooky forests and woodlands, including scenes from horror films:

Read how other MG and YA authors did it

Here’s an extract from page 100 of Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall, a YA horror about a group of teenagers walking through the woods to find their missing friend. Honestly I could have chosen any paragraph from this book – they’re all perfectly packed with spooky wood vibes:

We move forward cautiously. It’s silent now. The stone road continues out ahead, our flashlights fading long before it does in the distance. The trees stand thick around us; mostly evergreens now, the ground littered with dry needles, bleached of color. I’ve never been this deep in Briar Glen Woods. If we’re even in Briar Glen anymore.

‘Do you hear anything?’ Jeremy asks. ‘is she still there?’

‘I can’t tell,’ I say. I try to speak loudly enough for him to understand easily, but it’s hard with the night pressing back, a threat that makes my voice thin as paper.

‘I don’t like this,’ Mel says.

‘Shh,’ Miranda says, holding up a hand. ‘Listen.’

The scream comes again. We all jump. Mel screams, too, cutting it off with a hand clamped over her mouth, and our flashlight beams leap toward the sound, scrambling over roots and branches, and then mine finds it, pinned by the light where it crouches, hunching its black wings up toward its blunt blade of a beak. A solitary crow.

‘Is that…?’ Anthony says.

‘It was just a bird?’ Trina says.

The crow screams again.

There’s so much sensory description here that really evokes a cold, dark nighttime wood. Silence broken by the scream of a crow and panicked whispers. Fading flashlights, dry and colourless pine needles, tree roots. And I love the tension in this scene: everybody’s on the edge of cracking up and every noise is loaded with threat. There’s no doubt danger lurks in this particular wood!

And here’s The Collector by K.R. Alexander:

‘What was that?’ I asked. I didn’t want to climb down and see. I was too full from the spaghetti Mom had cooked to move.

‘That noise.’

‘I don’t–’

She yelped, and before I could finish the sentence she was scrambling up the ladder. She nearly crushed my homework when she came up.

‘Careful!’ I yelled, but she shushed me immediately and pointed one shaking hand toward the woods.

I went quiet.

For a while I didn’t hear anything except my heart and Anna’s quick breaking. A few minutes passed. I was just about to tell her to go back down and keep playing, because she was being silly, and I had to finish my homework before it got dark.

Then something rustled in the woods.

My skin got goose bumps, even though it was warm and the sun was still shining above the trees.

‘What–’ I whispered. Another rustle cut me off, creeping around and snapping bushes.

I heard a voice.

An old woman’s voice.

‘Joooosieeeeeee,’ it hissed. Like wind in a graveyard.

Again, so much spooky sensory detail here: goose bumps, rustling, snapping, quick breathing, wind in a graveyard. It’s not difficult to imagine being in their shoes.

Consider how your target audience would interact with this setting

The most important thing to bear in mind is how children or teenagers would experience this spooky wood. If there are no adults around, how might that change their behaviour? Do they start off feeling brave and independent, exploring the wilderness and enjoying nature? What happens to change the mood?

Thanks so much for reading, lovely writer! Want empowering, feel-good writing chat and fairy dust in your inbox? Plus receive a PDF of my recommended writing craft books for children’s and YA writers (including go-to genre guides and Children’s Lit MA reading list) AND £20 Wolf Credit to spend with me! Sign up today!

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes