Crafting the perfect ghost story is a delicate tango of imagination, pacing, and a wicked sense of humor. It’s not enough to place your protagonist in a situation filled with ephemeral beings and hope someone gets a tickle of fear. What the ghost story demands, while not quite your soul, is at least your attention until the grab at the end.
- Characters: While it’s tempting to whip out a ghost from thin air, create a back-story that is believable as well as sympathetic. Every villain has a cuddly side, so even if your ghost is intent on gouging eyeballs, what set her on this course? Layers, people, layers. Is there a connection between your main character and the ghost or ghosts? What makes your protagonist ready to fight? While writing your piece, if a sub-character’s voice is stronger than the rest, try writing it from his or her point of view and see if it makes the story stand out.
One of the most effective tools in writing a ghost story is finding the nefarious in normality. Does a drowning victim haunt the community pool? Do the trees quiver when only certain people walk by? Why does that creepy old man keep giving me quarters when I pass by him at the Piggly Wiggly? Seriously, why? He’s creeping me out. Pick a neighbor. Your familiarity with her habits – while not skirting too close to the truth – gives the story substance.
- Location: We’ve all read haunted house stories. Large, Gothic mansions with billowing curtains and strange stains on the floor. Many true ghost stories are nowhere near an address: a bus, a road, a ferry, or a river. There is no location for loneliness or fear. Take advantage of those feelings and place your story where your reader can imagine himself or herself.
- Plot: So what happens? Boy meets girl – boy loses girl – boy kills himself and turns into revenant then destroys village? I’ve seen worse. In order for a story to work well, there has to be a journey: peace, then conflict, then peace again but not as peaceful as before because the characters are a bit bruised but wiser. As your protagonist grows, mess them up. Make it ugly. What scares you will scare your reader, so put your characters in a terrible place and make your readers uncomfortable. They’ll love it.
- Pacing: Writing has a rhythm. Sometimes the cadence is fast-paced and breathless, but I think ghost stories work well slower. The suspense builds until your reader is holding their breath and then you freak them out. Shirley Jackson gave me the best scare in her book, The Haunting of Hill House, when Eleanor was sleeping in her bed only to feel someone slide in next to her. It wasn’t her friend. I slept with the lights on for a week afterward – and I hunt ghosts for a living. If Jackson had rushed it, that passage would have slipped by me.
- Humor: I think a lot of ghost stories have lost their charm lately. They’re trying to scare you instead of thinking of the long game. A well-placed joke to relieve tension between characters gives the reader a break and you a chance to shift perspective. If one character is always gloomy, a dry wit in an unexpected place changes the tone of the piece and you have new roads to explore.
Writing your own ghost story takes patience. Subtlety, humor, and putting the reader inside the story makes for a great experience and one they will search for again. Good luck!
Bio: Stacey Graham is the author of Haunted Stuff: Demonic Dolls, Screaming Skulls, and Other Creepy Collectibles (Llewellyn); The Girls’ Ghost Hunting Guide (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky); the Zombie Tarot (Quirk); and The Boxcar Children Guide to Adventure: A How-To for Mystery Solving, Make-It-Yourself Projects, and More (Albert Whitman & Co), where she teaches small children how to scare the pants off of people. She writes humorous horror short stories for anthologies, and is a freelance editor. Please visit her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook to say howdy.