The Classic Ghost Stories Podcast
A Ghost Story Every Week
How to Write a Ghost Story
How to write a ghost story: point of view and choice of tense.
One of the first things to do when deciding how to write your ghost story, is to choose a point of view. There are many writing books written on point of view and tense, but here are my thoughts:
Your primary aim is to create a chill. You need to get the reader feeling along with the main character as that person makes his or her way through the story. Because of this many ghost stories are written in the first person. ‘I hear a noise…’ ‘My heart thumps in my chest..’
You will see that I have gone into first person present tense. There is such a thing as the narrative present and when telling stories in ordinary life, people will start to relate an incident in the present tense. For example:
I was walking down this road, then I see a car coming at me. I jump out the way, and I hit a telegraph pole. The car drives off without even stopping. But it was okay. I wasn’t hurt.
Tony Walker, a few minutes ago.
Writing a whole novel in the present tense is fashionable at the moment. If you look back at classic stories, very few were written in the present, but go now (I command you!) to your local bookstore, pick up the new best-selling novels, and a good number of those will be in the present tense.
Carmilla by J Sheridan Le Fanu is written in the first person, present tense because it is supposed to reflect the main character (or protagonist) Laura writing in her journal for Dr Hesselius.
*In Styria, we, though by no means magnificent people, inhabit a castle, or schloss. A small income, in that part of the world, goes a great way. Eight or nine hundred a year does wonders. Scantily enough ours would have answered among wealthy people at home. My father is English, and I bear an English name, although I never saw England. But here, in this lonely and primitive place, where everything is so marvellously cheap, I really don’t see how ever so much more money would at all materially add to our comforts, or even luxuries.
Carmilla, Chapter 1
However, within the same chapter, Le Fanu slips into the first person past tense. Whether this is intentional or accidental, it’s hard to say. Certainly doing that would earn him condemnation from modern writing coaches and intense slagging off in fiction writing online fora.
I and my father constituted the family at the schloss. My mother, a Styrian lady, died in my infancy, but I had a good-natured governess, who had been with me from, I might almost say, my infancy. I could not remember the time when her fat, benignant face was not a familiar picture in my memory.
It’s fair to say that writing in the past tense is the traditional way to compose a story.
Classic ghost stories were more than not, written in the third person. That is to say,
He walked the long passageway, his footsteps echoing among the serried suits of armour.
Tony Walker, just now
But the choice of past tense over present tense, is not such a hard and fast rule as choosing first person over third person. I would go so far as to say that there are very few ghost stories written before 2000 that use the present tense, but nearly half use the first person point of view and probably just over half use the third person.
You can argue that using first person makes a story experience more immediate, so why wouldn’t you always use it? Why would you ever pick the third person?
There is a reason and this goes to my distinction between a ghost story and a horror story. Very often, most usually, the main character in a ghost story survives. They may be shaken or they may be uplifted by their supernatural experience, but by and large, they survive. However, in a horror story, there is a good chance they will come to a bad end.
In this case, how did they communicate the story to you? Now, we all know this is a fiction. It never happened, but for some reason we like to stick to the convention that we are being told a story ‘as if’ it really happened, and if it really happened, and the geezer in it died, then how come he’s telling it to the audience?
One way I got round this, was by having the main character type it up on his computer, and there the story was blinking on the screen, awaiting a reader. (Luckily the monster didn’t smash it up.) This is a modern version of the epistolary horror story. Dracula is an epistolary story in that it is told in letters and journal entries. Heck, there’s even a sub-genre called Epistolary Horror
But an easier rule for how to write a classic ghost story, is to write in the third person from the point of view of an all-seeing narrator: the voice in the sky, who sees everything, even in locked rooms. This does create a little distance between your audience and your main character, but it saves you having to explain how anyone found out about the horrific incident.
How to Write A Ghost Story: Make the Environment Hostile
What don’t people like? Cold, rain, snow, dark, being lost, an environment where you can’t see very far or your movement is hampered like a marsh or a forest. Yes, make your audience shiver and pine with the protagonist as he or she gets more and more desperate, is separated from all help, and gets colder and more scared. The thing is you have to create a plausible reason why the protagonist gets themselves into this fix. If you simply have them go to the attic in the killer clown’s house, people will ask: really?
In Amelia Edward’s The Phantom Coach , our man gets lost on the moors of Northern England, the snow is falling, the light is fading. But he’s been out shooting so he has good reason to have got himself into this pickle.
Well! It was just twenty years ago, and within a day or two of the end of the grouse season. I had been out all day with my gun, and had had no sport to speak of. The wind was due east; the month, December; the place, a bleak wide moor in the far north of England. And I had lost my way. It was not a pleasant place in which to lose one’s way, with the first feathery flakes of a coming snowstorm just fluttering down upon the heather, and the leaden evening closing in all around. I shaded my eyes with my hand, and stared anxiously into the gathering darkness, where the purple moorland melted into a range of low hills, some ten or twelve miles distant. Not the faintest smoke-wreath, not the tiniest cultivated patch, or fence, or sheep-track, met my eyes in any direction. There was nothing for it but to walk on, and take my chance of finding what shelter I could, by the way. So I shouldered my gun again, and pushed wearily forward; for I had been on foot since an hour after daybreak, and had eaten nothing since breakfast.
The Phantom Coach, by Amelia Edwards
He has every good reason to be lost, and he’s hungry too!
In Frank Cowper’s Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk our protagonist goes hunting duck in a dreary marshland. He finds a derelict ship, clambers aboard and then loses his boat and is marooned!
*What could have caused the splash, that luckless splash, I wondered. There was surely no one else on board the ship, and certainly no one could get out here without mud-pattens or a boat. I looked round. All was perfectly still Nothing broke the monotony of the grey scene–sodden and damp and lifeless. A chill breeze came up from the southwest, bringing with it a raw mist, which was blotting out the dark distance, and fast limiting my horizon. The day was drawing in, and I must be thinking of going home. As I turned round, my attention was arrested by seeing a duck-punt glide past me in the now rapidly falling water, which was swirling by the mud-bank on which the vessel lay. But there was no one in her. A dreadful thought struck me. It must be my boat, and how shall I get home? I ran to the stern and looked over.The duck-punt was gone.The frayed and stranded end of the painter told me how it had happened. I had not allowed for the fall of the tide, and the strain of the punt, as the water fell away, had snapped the line, old and rotten as it was. I hurried to the bows, and jumping on to the bitts, saw my punt peacefully drifting away, some quarter of a mile off. It was perfectly evident I could not hope to get her again.
Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk, Frank Cowper
There Must be a Gothic Building!
In Carmilla, the Gothic focus is the traditional castle, suitably set in a forest.
Over all this the schloss shows its many-windowed front; its towers, and its Gothic chapel.Nothing can be more picturesque or solitary. It stands on a slight eminence in a forest. The road, very old and narrow, passes in front of its drawbridge, never raised in my time, and its moat, stocked with perch, and sailed over by many swans, and floating on its surface white fleets of water lilies.The forest opens in an irregular and very picturesque glade before its gate, and at the right a steep Gothic bridge carries the road over a stream that winds in deep shadow through the wood. I have said that this is a very lonely place. Judge whether I say truth. Looking from the hall door towards the road, the forest in which our castle stands extends fifteen miles to the right, and twelve to the left. The nearest inhabited village is about seven of your English miles to the left.
From Carmilla by J Sheridan Le Fanu
In Charlotte Riddell’s The Open Door the Gothic habitation is an old abandoned English mansion.
*It was a long avenue, but at length I stood in front of the Hall–a square, solid-looking, old-fashioned house, three stories high, with no basement; a flight of steps up to the principal entrance; four windows to the right of the door, four windows to the left; the whole building flanked and backed with trees; all the blinds pulled down, a dead silence brooding over the place: the sun westering behind the great trees studding the park. I took all this in as I approached, and afterwards as I stood for a moment under the ample porch; then, remembering the business which had brought me so far, I fitted the great key in the lock, turned the handle, and entered Ladlow Hall.For a minute–stepping out of the bright sunlight–the place looked to me so dark that I could scarcely distinguish the objects by which I was surrounded; but my eyes soon grew accustomed to the comparative darkness, and I found I was in an immense hall, lighted from the roof, a magnificent old oak staircase conducted to the upper rooms.The floor was of black and white marble. There were two fireplaces, fitted with dogs for burning wood; around the walls hung pictures, antlers, and horns, and in odd niches and corners stood groups of statues, and the figures of men in complete suits of armour.
The Open Door , Charlotte Riddell
In Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk the gothic habitation is the haunted ship.
The old vessel lay nearly upright in the soft mud, and a glance soon told she would never be used again. Her gear and rigging were, all rotten, and everything valuable had been removed. She was a brig of some two hundred tons, and had been a fine vessel, no doubt. To me there is always a world of romance in a deserted ship. The places she has been to, the scenes she has witnessed, the possibilities of crime, of adventure–all these thoughts crowd upon me when I see an old hulk lying deserted and forgotten–left to rot upon the mud of some lonely creek.
Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk
And we see here that the derelict ship, like Carmilla’s schloss, has an air of adventure and mystery. There is something romantic about it, and so the Gothic habitation must have the horrible and the enchanting about it. They are in fact fairy habitations, no matter how disguised.
One of the most disguised Gothic Habitations and therefore most ingenious, appears in The Old Portrait by Hume Nisbet. Here the Gothic habitation containing the horrific, dangerous but sensually alluring vampiress is an old picture frame.
The frame, also, I noticed for the first time, in its details appeared to have been designed with the intention of carrying out the idea of life in death; what had before looked like scroll-work of flowers and fruit were loathsome snake-like worms twined amongst charnel-house bones which they half covered in a decorative fashion; a hideous design in spite of its exquisite workmanship, that made me shudder and wish that I had left the cleaning to be done by daylight.
The Old Portrait by Hume Nisbet
In Cynthia Asquith’s The Corner Shop , The Gothic Habitation as I am calling it, is the antique shop. In H G Well’s Magic Shop , it is the Toyshop. The Gothic habitation must be set apart from the world. It is an unusual place, not normally encountered and it may be terrifying or enchanting or both.
The message here when considering how to write a ghost story, is to put in a place or object that is fires the imagination of your reader, and transports them to the realm of Faerie. Because that’s what we’re doing after all.
As they say in that classic story, Lud in The Mist the country folk do not clearly distinguish between fairies and the dead. They are both called The Silent People, and ghost stories are in fact a kind of fairy story, where otherworldly denizens come to teach humans about right and wrong, even where they themselves give a bad example.
A Classic Ghost Story Needs Lots of Description
The glade through which we had just walked lay before us. At our left the narrow road wound away under clumps of lordly trees, and was lost to sight amid the thickening forest. At the right the same road crosses the steep and picturesque bridge, near which stands a ruined tower which once guarded that pass; and beyond the bridge an abrupt eminence rises, covered with trees, and showing in the shadows some grey ivy-clustered rocks.Over the sward and low grounds a thin film of mist was stealing like smoke, marking the distances with a transparent veil; and here and there we could see the river faintly flashing in the moonlight.
Carmilla, Chapter 2
A Classic Ghost Story Needs a Monster In The Shadows
M R James believed that ghost stories erred when they were too blatant. That meant being too obvious with their monster. The scriptwriters among you may be familiar with the late Blake Snyder’s manual on Scriptwriting called Save The Cat . It’s a must read book really, but one of the story templates Monster In The House , encapsulates most ghost and horror stories. Think of the Sci Fi movie Alien – the monster in the starship. For a good part, and probably the most effective part, of the movie, we do not see the monster. In the recent horror movie The Ritual, again, for the best part of the movie, we do not see the monster.
In classic ghost stories, most of the time we do not see the monster. In Algernon Blackwood’s The Kit Bag
the scariest effects are the sounds and sensations of the thing unseen on the stairs. In Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk the ghost action is never seen because it’s pitch dark, but we hear and feel the effect of the ghost. A fantastically effective modern ghost story, Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter , takes place in the Arctic Winter when it is dark all the time. We are aware of something moving in the dark, but we can’t see it.
In A M Burrage’s Smee , the twelve guests are playing hide and seek in the dark in a large house, when they realise there are thirteen people playing. One of them is dead.
The classic ghost stories that have supernatural things crawling around in the dark, often end with the protagonist being a mere witness to the supernatural occurrence. The problem with that is that it lessens the threat for the protagonist, and decreases the dramatic tension, so decreasing the scare effect for the reader.
I guess, as in most modern stories, the monster has to emerge from the darkness towards the end and actually threaten the characters.
One story where the tension is built in the dark, and the threat is real, only illuminated at the end when the lights go on, is Ray Bradbury’s The October Game . Strictly speaking this is a horror story rather than a ghost story.
So when writing your ghost story, I would suggest you keep the monster off-stage until the final denouement.
A Classic Ghost Story Needs Foreshadowing
The set-up is a large part of a ghost story. We have talked about a hostile environment, to put the main character far from help. Then we have him encounter the gothic habitation, the place that the wonders will take place: a setting quite extraordinary. In both of these sections we will see a lot of description using all the senses.
Meanwhile, the snow began to come down with ominous steadiness, and the wind fell. After this, the cold became more intense, and the night came rapidly up. As for me, my prospects darkened with the darkening sky, and my heart grew heavy as I thought how my young wife was already watching for me through the window of our little inn parlour, and thought of all the suffering in store for her throughout this weary night.
The Phantom Coach
Ideally, we are going to draw on all the senses to put our reader in that extraordinary place.
The afternoon was closing in, and the hall, which had no fire lighted in it, looked dark and gloomy; but we did not stay there a moment. The old servant, who had opened the door for us, bowed to Mr. Henry, and took us in through the door at the further side of the great organ, and led us through several smaller halls and passages into the west drawing-room, where he said that Miss Furnivall was sitting. Poor little Miss Rosamond held very tight to me, as if she were scared and lost in that great place; and as for myself, I was not much better. The west drawing-room was very cheerful-looking, with a warm fire in it, and plenty of good, comfortable furniture about.
The Old Nurse’s Story
‘One foggy evening, at the end of a day of enforced idleness in my chambers – I had just been called to the Bar – I was rather dejectedly walking back to my lodgings when my attention was drawn to the brightly lit window of a shop. Seeing the word “Antiques” on its sign-boar, and remembering that I owed a wedding present to a lover of 4 bric-à-brac, I grasped the handle of the green door. Opening with one of those cheerful jingle-jangle bells, it admitted me into large rambling premises, thickly crowded with all the traditional treasure and trash of a curiosity shop. Suits of armour, warming-pans, cracked, misted mirrors, church vestments, spinning-wheels, brass kettles, chandeliers, gongs, chess-men – furniture of every size and every period. Despite all the clutter, there was none of the dusty gloom one associates with such collections. Far from being dingy, the room was brightly lit and a crackling fire leaped up the chimney. In fact, the atmosphere was so warm and cheerful that after the cold dank fog outside it struck me as most agreeable.
The Corner Shop
But a large part of the job is to place information early on that seems unremarkable enough, but which is essential to the unfolding plot and particularly the ending. The Russian playwright, Chekov famously said that everything that has no place in the story should be removed, and only objects that are necessary to the plot should remain. This cues up an object and the wily reader will know that if Chekov mentions a pistol in Act I, it will be used by the end of the play.
August Heat does this in that we know that when:
A sudden impulse made me enter. A man was sitting with his back towards me, busy at work on a slab of curiously veined marble. *
That this piece of marble will be relevant. As indeed it is.
A Classic Ghost Story Needs Misdirection
Not all ghost stories do that, but it is something that readers love. Misdirection is the main card played by writers of crime fictions. You place the pistol in Act I, and the experienced reader thinks, ‘Aha!’ that will be relevant by the end. The fun thing is confounding the expectation of the reader so that it is relevant in an unexpected way.
For example in the Corner Shop, we are introduced to a grey-faced man who we are led to believe right through the story that he is one of the servants. And, then at the very end it transpires that we, and the protagonist have been wrong about that in a way that suddenly illuminates the central point of the story.
‘“Meet him?” she echoed in amazement as the footsteps neared. ‘“Yes, I may stay and see your father, mayn’t I? I heard your sister say he would soon be here.” ‘“Oh, now I understand!” she exclaimed. “You mean Bessie’s father! But Bessie and I are only step-sisters. My poor father died years and years ago.”’
One classic misdirection, often found in ghost stories is central to M. Night Shyalam’s Sixth Sense where famously at the end, Bruce Willis’s character realises that it is he who is the ghost. We find this in On The Brighton Road , where the tramp perhaps never realises he’s dead, though the reader does finally twig this at the end. This is a common motif in ghost stories, that of the dead not realising they are dead, and in fact I have used it myself, to good effect. Though it seems corny, when I’m doing a live reading of this particular story: The Hitcher (to be found in this collection Cumbrian Ghost Stories I always hear the ‘oh!’ from the audience and that makes me feel warm inside. Unlike the main character of The Hitcher.
When you are considering how to write a ghost story, I would urge you to consider this simple trick. After all, as it is often said, the oldies are the goodies!
To Be Classic A Ghost Story Needs a Moral Message
Since Biblical times, ghosts have returned to the living with the exhortation to do good and eschew evil. Sometimes they urge revenge, such as Hamlet’s father’s ghost in Shakespeare’s play of that name. Sometimes they come to accuse murderer’s as does Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth , but usually they are very concerned with right and wrong among the living, and redressing the moral balance.
When you’re thinking about how to write a ghost story, though there are many ghost stories written without a moral message, the audiences love to have their sense of right and wrong tickled, so whether you have your ghost urge revenge, punish the wicked or reward the good (after a little struggle obviously), put in a morally acceptable message. Good should prevail if you want to keep those One Stars at bay.
Please note, the book links to Amazon are affiliate links and if you buy from them I get a small commission.
Schalken the painter by j. sheridan le fanu.
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Last updated on Jun 20, 2022
How to Write a Horror Story: 7 Tips for Writing Horror
In our era of highly commercialized crime and thriller novels, it may seem like zeitgeist-defining horror books are a thing of the past. Indeed, Stephen King was once the perennial bestselling author in the world, and children in the 90s devoured Goosebumps books like The Blob devoured, well, everything.
But let’s not forget there’s a huge base of horror fans today, desperate for their next fix . So if you’re hoping to become the next Crown Prince of Dread, your dream can still come true! Here are seven steps to writing truly chilling horror:
1. Start with a fear factor
2. pick a horror story subgenre, 3. let readers experience the stakes, 4. create suspense through point of view, 5. consider plot twists to surprise your audience, 6. put your characters in compelling danger, 7. use your imagination.
The most important part of any horror story is naturally going to be its fear factor . People don’t read horror for easy entertainment; they read it to be titillated and terrorized. That said, here are a few elements you can use to seriously scare the pants off your reader.
Fears that have some sort of logical or biological foundation are often the most potent in horror. Darkness, heights, snakes, and spiders — all these are extremely common phobias rooted in instinct. As a result, they tend to be very effective at frightening readers.
This is especially true when terror befalls innocent characters apropos of nothing: a killer traps them in their house for no apparent reason, or they’re suddenly mugged by a stranger with a revolver. As horror writer Karen Woodward says, “The beating undead heart of horror is the knowledge that bad things happen to good people.”
Monsters and supernatural entities
These stretch beyond the realm of logic and into the realm of the “uncanny,” as Freud called it. We all know that vampires , werewolves, and ghosts aren’t real, but that doesn’t mean they can’t shake us to our core. In fact, it’s the very uncertainty they arouse that makes them so sinister: what if monsters are really out there, we’ve just never seen them? This fear is one of the most prevalent in horror, but if you decide to write in this vein, your story has to be pretty convincing.
Another great means of scaring people is to tap into societal tensions and concerns — a tactic especially prevalent in horror movies. Just in recent memory, Get Out tackles the idea of underlying racism in modern America, The Babadook examines mental health, and It Follows is about the stigma of casual sex. However, societal tensions can also easily be embodied in the pages of a horror story, as in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery .
The right atmosphere for your story depends on what kind of horror you want to write. To use cinematic examples again, are you going for more Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Silence of the Lambs? The tone and atmosphere of your story will hang upon its subgenre.
- Thriller-horror employs psychological fear, often occurring near the beginning of horror stories before very much has happened
- Gross-out horror involves vivid descriptions of spurting blood, hacked-up flesh, and gouged-out organs in order to shock the reader; think gore movies of the 70s
- Classic horror harks back to the Gothic (or Southern Gothic ) genre, with spooky settings and bone-chilling characters like those of Dracula and Frankenstein
- Terror provokes a feeling of all-pervasive dread, which can either serve as the climax of your story or be sustained throughout
It’s also possible to combine subgenres, especially as your story progress. You might begin with a sense of thrilling psychological horror, then move into gothic undertones, which culminates in utter terror.
But no matter what type of horror you’re working with, it should be deeply potent for your reader — and yourself! “If you manage to creep yourself out with your own writing, it's usually a pretty good sign that you're onto something,” editor Harrison Demchick says.
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In order for readers to truly thrill at your horror story, you need to make them aware of the stakes. Clearly establish the main problem or motivation for your character(s) , and what they have to lose if they don’t figure it out. These stakes and motivations might involve:
Survival. The most basic objective of characters in any horror story is to survive. However, there are nuances that accompany that goal. Perhaps their objective isn't just to stay alive, but to defeat their murderous nemesis while doing it — whether that’s another person, an evil spirit, or even themselves, if it’s a Jekyll and Hyde-type scenario.
Protecting loved ones. The more people the protagonist has to keep safe, the higher the stakes. Many horrific tales peak with a threat of death not to the main character, but to one or several of their loved ones (as in Phantom of the Opera or Red Dragon ).
Cracking unsolved mysteries. Because some horror stories aren’t about escaping peril in the present, but rather about uncovering the terrors of the past. This especially true in subgenres like cosmic horror , which have to do with the great mysteries of the universe, often involving ancient history.
Again, as with atmosphere, you can always merge different kinds of stakes. For instance, you might have a character trying to solve some mysterious murders that happened years ago, only to find out that they’re the next target!
The main thing to remember when it comes to horror — especially horror stories — is that straightforward stakes tend to have the greatest impact. Says author Chuck Wendig, of his perfect recipe for horror: “Plain stakes, stabbed hard through the breastbone.”
Bonus tip! Need help conjuring stakes and suspense? Try reading some masterfully crafted true crime — which can be even scarier than bone fide horror, since it actually happened.
Your reader should feel a kinship with your main character, such that when the stakes are high, they feel their own heart start to beat faster. This can be achieved through either first person or third person limited point of view. (When writing horror, you’ll want to avoid third person omniscient, which can distance your reader and lessen their investment in the story.)
We'll get into only the major POV's to consider in this post, but if you want a full point of view masterclass, check out our free course below.
Understanding Point of View
Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.
First person POV
Speaking of beating hearts, for a great example of first person narration in horror, look no further than The Tell-Tale Heart . Many of Poe’s stories involve deranged first-person narrators ( The Black Cat , The Cask of Amontillado ) but none are more notorious than this one, in which the main character is driven to murder his elderly housemate. Notice Poe’s chilling use of first person POV from the very first lines of the story:
It’s true! Yes, I have been ill, very ill. But why do you say that I have lost control of my mind, why do you say that I am mad? Can you not see that I have full control of my mind? Indeed, the illness only made my mind, my feelings, my senses stronger… I could hear sounds I had never heard before. I heard sounds from heaven; and I heard sounds from hell!
First person POV is excellent for hooking your reader at the beginning, and keeping them in suspense throughout your story. However, it might be too intense for longer, more intricate pieces, and may be difficult to execute if you’re trying to conceal something from your readers.
It’s also worth thinking about the implications of first person, past tense POV in a horror story — it suggests they’ve lived to tell the tale, which might ruin your dramatic ending. Therefore if you do decide to use first person narration, you should probably keep it in present tense.
Third person POV
If you find yourself struggling to make first person POV work, consider a third person limited perspective instead. This kind of narration is often used in longer-form horror, popularized by the likes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz . Look how it’s used here in King’s 1974 novel Carrie , in the description of its eponymous character:
Carrie stood among [the other girls] stolidly, a frog among swans. She was a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color… She looked the part of the sacrificial goat, the constant butt, believer in left-handed monkey wrenches, perpetual foul-up, and she was.
This narration paints an intimate picture of the character, while still allowing the freedom for commentary in a way that first person narration doesn’t as much. Third person limited narration also works well for building to a certain atmosphere, rather than jumping right into it, as Poe’s narrator does — which is part of why third person is better for lengthier pieces. (See more of King's masterful use of POV to wrack up tension in our Guide to King! )
Alternately, if you’re committed to having a first person narrator but you don’t want to reveal everything to your readers, an unreliable narrator could be your perfect solution! Many mystery and thriller novels employ unreliable narration in order to work up to a big twist without giving away too much. So whether or not you’ll want an unreliable narrator probably depends on how you end your story: straight down the line or with a twist.
Plot twists are exciting, memorable, and help bring previous uncertainty into focus, releasing tension by revealing the truth. However, they’re also notoriously difficult to come up with , and extremely tricky to pull off — you have to carefully hint at a twist, while making sure it’s not too predictable or clichéd.
So: to twist or not to twist? That is the question.
Big plot twists in horror writing tend to follow the beaten path: the victim turns out to be the killer, the person who we thought was dead isn’t really, or — worst of all — it was all in their head the whole time! But keep in mind that small, subtle plot twists can be just as (if not more) effective.
Take William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily . After Emily dies, the villagers discover the corpse of a long-vanished traveler in one of her spare beds — along with a strand of silver hair. While the discovery of the body might be gruesome, it’s the presence of Emily’s hair (suggesting she enjoyed cuddling with a cadaver) that really haunts you.
Not to twist
The ending of your story doesn't have to come out of left field to shock and horrify readers. The classic horror approach leaves the reader in suspense as to precisely what will happen, then concludes with a violent showdown (think slasher films).
In this approach, while the showdown itself might not be a surprise, the scenes leading up to it build tension and anticipation for the climax. That way, when the big moment does arrive, it still packs a dramatic punch.
“A horror novel, like any story, is about a character or characters trying to achieve a goal based upon their individual wants and needs,” says Demchick. “If you let concept overwhelm character, you'll lose much of what makes horror as engaging as it can be.”
To scare your characters, you need to have a solid understanding of their psyche. Filling out a character profile template is a great start to fleshing out believable characters, so give ours a try.
Reedsy’s Character Profile Template
A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.
As you write, you need to stay conscious of basic storytelling techniques and not get carried away with the drama of horror. It might help, before you begin, to answer these questions about your characters and plot:
- What fear or struggle must your protagonist overcome?
- What decision do they make to put them in this situation?
- How will they defeat or escape their adversary, if at all?
- What are the ultimate consequences of their actions?
This will help you create a basic outline for your horror story, which you can embellish to create atmosphere and suspense. In plot-driven genre stories, a thorough outline and emotionally resonant elements are vital for keeping your reader invested.
A great horror story balances drama with realism and suspense with relief, even with the occasional stroke of humor. Gillian Flynn is the master of this technique — as seen in this excerpt from her horror story The Grownup , wherein the narrator is scheming how to capitalize on her “spiritual cleansing” services:
I could go into business for myself, and when people asked me, “What do you do?” I’d say, I’m an entrepreneur in that haughty way entrepreneurs had. Maybe Susan and I would become friends. Maybe she’d invite me to a book club. I’d sit by a fire and nibble on Brie and say, I’m a small business owner, an entrepreneur, if you will.
In order to stand out from the crowd, you need to think about overused trends in horror and make sure your story’s not “been there, done that.” For instance, the “vampire romance” plot is a dead horse with no one left to beat it after all the Twilight, Vampire Diaries, and True Blood hype.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use certain elements of popular trends in your writing. You just have to put a spin on it and make it your own!
For example, zombie horror was already a well-worn genre when Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out in 2009. But by setting it in the regency era and featuring Jane Austen’s well-loved characters, he created a brilliant original work and carved out a brand new audience for zombie fiction. You can also pay homage to well-known horror tropes, like the Duffer brothers of Stranger Things did for Stephen King and Steven Spielberg — and which savvy audiences are sure to appreciate.
It certainly feels sometimes like all the good horror stories have already been written, making your own ideas seem trite. But don’t forget that new horror comes out all the time, and it only takes one great idea to be a hit! So try not to stress out about it, and remember: just by having read through this guide, you’re already that much closer to becoming a literary graveyard smash .
04/11/2018 – 19:34
Thank you so much for writing this article. I am currently writing a short horror story. Sometimes when I write a horror scene, I get really terrified, but after some days it all feels shitty.
↪️ dilinger john replied:
08/05/2019 – 12:28
it happens with everyone don't stress over it and pass your work to someone who will review it. you are a writer and can not be a critic at the same time.
↪️ Shane C replied:
28/09/2019 – 21:15
Sawan -- been writing for 22 years... NEVER judge your own work. You write it -- finish it off -- then have some friends that enjoy horror and reading read your work and give you honest critique. Record their critique or take accurate notes. Repeat this with several friends (but only those you can trust not to try to steal your work, Creative Commons and/or Registered Mail can be your best friend BEFORE this stage). Pick the best one you like, that makes the most sense -- but if several people say "blah blah blah should have happened," or a really close variation throughout reader opinions... Go with it! I know most people hate that, feels like butchering your art (I know I hate it), but use it anyway. It'll likely be more widely received... Just a few pointers.
21/05/2019 – 01:51
This is awesome I love this! I’m writing my own horror novel too.🙂
↪️ Andrew replied:
31/10/2019 – 20:23
what is it?
29/07/2019 – 15:22
i am at the age of sixteen and i decided to write a horror story. thanks a lot!!
Bobette Bryan says:
27/08/2019 – 19:09
Ghosts are real. I've seen many in my lifetime and have had some very terrifying experiences with some.
↪️ smr replied:
03/01/2020 – 13:25
what the hell ??
↪️ John Brown replied:
16/01/2020 – 02:28
Me too! And I think it actually helps with writing horror stories, because you have more experience than most.
John Brown says:
16/01/2020 – 02:27
I’m 14 and I love writing horror novels, but I usually freak my self out too much to keep writing... 😕
Comments are currently closed.
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How to Write Scary Ghost Stories that Terrify Your Readers
by James Colton
Fear is one of the hardest reactions to provoke in writing. Just flip through the pages of any ghost story anthology; how many of them are genuinely scary ? It takes more than tortured groans, rattling chains, and a splattering of gore; anyone can do that . But the art of raising goose bumps? That is an elusive art indeed. If you can write a scary ghost story, you can write anything. Are you ready to inspire nightmares? Then follow me…
Fear of the Unknown
People don’t fear death. No one’s afraid of ghosts. Monsters, murderers, darkness—none of the horror staples are really terrifying. If you rely on your audience being scared simply because your story includes any of the above, you’re doomed to fail. Instead, you must understand where terror truly lies.
Everyone fears the unknown.
People don’t know what comes after death, so they get scared. They don’t know what’s making that noise in the other room, so they call it a ghost and get scared. Darkness could be hiding anything—what exactly, we don’t know—so we get scared.
We fear what we can’t understand. That’s why a touch on your shoulder when you’re all alone is so frightening: it should be impossible. The best ghost stories take full advantage of this. You won’t see the ghost; you’ll only hear it, smell it, feel it. A ghost is like the wind; you see a curtain flutter, and the question remains in your mind, what is it?
When writing your ghost story, don’t be afraid of withholding information. Your readers, by the very act of reading, have activated their imaginations. Use this against them! Don’t bog them down with long descriptions of a gruesome specter; instead, use simple words to sketch a vague impression. Your readers will imagine the rest, filling in the gaps with whatever scares them most.
Another way you can introduce an element of the unknown is to limit how often you use trope words. If you’re constantly mentioning ghosts or vampires, then the reader knows exactly what they’re up against. By not attaching a label to your entity, you produce doubt. Doubt makes people uncomfortable, which makes them easier to scare.
Examples of the Unknown
Something is not right.
Why is it that one smile can put you at ease, while another makes you want to get out of the room as quickly as possible? Does it reveal just a few too many teeth? Are the eyes above it just a little bit soulless? Is the accompanying laughter a tad too enthusiastic?
We may not be able to tell what , but something is…off. Something friendly has been distorted. You were climbing a familiar staircase, and the last step was missing. You were listening to a pleasant tune, but that one note—was it off-key? What’s wrong with this picture?
This is a natural extension of our fear of the unknown. A defense mechanism. It tips us off that someone around us bears a sickness that we don’t want to catch, that someone is pretending to be something they’re not. In the realm of robotics and computer graphics, it is called the uncanny valley . When something comes so close to being real, but falls short in some subtle way. This is why mannequins, dolls, and clowns are common phobias.
So how can you leverage this in your ghost story? There’s the obvious: characters with slightly deformed features or unnatural movements. Houses with strange angles. Unexpected behavior works as well.
Then there’s the more subtle: mentioning a detail that would be innocuous anywhere else, but in this particular scenario is out of place. There’s nothing quite like a child’s laughter—especially coming from your basement at 3 in the morning. Is it really a child? Or something like a child?
You can also work it into your writing style. Phrase something in an odd way. Intentionally break the rules of grammar. Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll come across as illiterate instead of terrifying.
Examples of the Uncanny
What are the most iconic ghosts you can think of? How are they described? I’ll bet the words that just drifted through your mind weren’t college-level terms like ectoplasmic , ominous , or stygian . Rather, you probably imagined something white, something tall, a shadow.
You reached for simple terms that your brain could instantly understand.
Amateur writers often gravitate toward heavy descriptions. This is likely the result of high-school English teachers encouraging them to be more creative and expand their vocabulary. But let me remind you of a very important fact: you aren’t writing a ghost story to impress your high-school English teacher. You’re not trying to prove how clever you are.
You’re trying to scare people.
At best, advanced or overly descriptive words are harder to process. At worst, they lead to overwriting and the dreaded pit of silliness.
Simple words, on the other hand, are subtle. They conjure clear sensations in our minds, sensations that we didn’t expect. If you’ve set up your scene properly, everyday words that are innocent by themselves will take on new, sinister meanings.
If you have trouble with this, Lean on the basic structure of the English sentence: subject, verb, object.
He opened the door. The room was dark. He stepped inside. Something dripped on his shoulder. He looked up.
If you need something more, pick a single adjective and apply it to either the subject or the object. Don’t apply anything to the verb; it should stand on its own. If it doesn’t, you either used the wrong verb, or the preceding sentences didn’t set up the right context.
Examples of Subtlety
Do you feel afraid.
Emotion is vital in any form of literature, but especially ghost stories. Remember, the end goal is to make your reader feel what the protagonist is feeling: pure, unbridled terror.
Simply telling the reader that your character is scared isn’t enough. You’ve heard the adage “show, don’t tell.” When writing about emotions, try forbidding yourself from using words like:
Instead, show the character’s fear by writing what their body is doing. Write exactly what they’re hearing or smelling, even if it’s only in their head.
But the protagonist is only half of the emotional equation. The other half is the ghost. The scariest ghosts always project some kid of emotion. It doesn’t matter what that emotion is as long as it’s dangerous:
A dangerous emotion doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative one. It could be a positive thing taken in a bad direction. Dysfunctional love, overzealous affection—as long as the ghost’s emotions project some kind of threat, you have the makings a terrifying specter.
Fear isn’t the only emotion you can use when writing a ghost story. Try enhancing the terror with sadness, depression, or anger. Positive emotions can have a tremendous impact as well. Offer a glimmer of hope, then replace it with something awful. The contrast can be unnerving.
Examples of Emotion
A dreadful descent.
Fear must be built up gradually. Think of it like you’re taking the reader on a journey from the safety of their world to the nightmare of yours. Like any journey, it’s a transition from point A to point B. If you skip that transition by presenting your scariest scene right up front, it won’t have any effect. The audience is still comfortably seated at point A: a soft armchair by a warm fire.
That’s not to say you can never start with a spooky scene—in fact, it’s a good way to catch the audience’s interest and entice them to keep reading. Just make sure you save the best for last. Wait until the reader has gotten out of their comfy chair; wait until they’re curled up in the cold, damp corner of the basement. Once a reader is primed, they’re much easier to scare.
This priming process is called foreboding . It’s similar to the more common literary device of foreshadowing, but with an emphasis on the ominous. It helps your reader suspend their disbelief and gradually draws them into your nightmare world.
Start small. In a ghost story, this is the quiet noise, unexpected but not altogether unusual, that the protagonist dismisses, attributing it to natural causes.
Then go a little bit bigger. A more demanding noise that piques the protagonist’s curiosity. Perhaps they investigate, but once more can only shrug their shoulders and move on with life.
Then one night the noise becomes a knocking. Maybe someone is at the front door? But the protagonist looks and no one is there. Now they’re nervous, and maybe the reader is too.
The next night, however, the knocking comes not from the distant front door, but the protagonist’s own bedroom door.
And the wood begins to splinter.
Examples of Foreboding
The end…or is it.
If you want to make your ghost story truly memorable, it needs a killer ending. You want your reader to keep thinking about the story long after they’ve finished it—after the lights are out, when they’re trying to sleep.
The key is to put your scariest scene last. Your scariest scene isn’t necessarily the one in which your character’s life is in the most danger. This is the horror genre, after all; death is expected. Rather, your scariest scene is the one in which your character’s identity , sanity , or relationships are in the most danger.
This may mean leaving the reader with a disturbing question or a terrifying revelation. These reveals will threaten the character’s understanding of the world and trigger the darkest aspects of your reader’s imagination.
Putting your scariest scene last might require a non-linear narration. If your scariest scene takes place three quarters of the way through your story, write around it, then use a flashback at the end to explore the scene in greater detail.
If you’re having trouble coming up with an impactful twist for your ending, try asking yourself these questions:
- What single fact would make this good situation bad, or this bad situation worse?
- What detail would alter the character’s understanding of the situation in a terrifying way?
- How can the situation force the character into a choice?
- How can that choice be bad no matter what the character chooses?
Regardless of how you end your ghost story, be careful not to overextend the ending. After the big reveal, it may be tempting to offer further explanation, but this can dampen the effect. Don’t be afraid to leave some things up to the reader’s imagination. Leave some questions unanswered, some conflicts unresolved. This produces doubt in the reader and forces them to think about your story late into the night.
Examples of Endings
Writing a good ghost story is hard, but when your readers say they can no longer walk down dark hallways and complain of trouble sleeping, that feeling is totally worth it!
To sum up, here are the main things to keep in mind when writing a ghost story:
- Use the unknown to turn your readers’ imagination against them
- Exploit the uncanny valley to make your readers uncomfortable
- Write simple language to paint a sinister picture
- Create empathy to manipulate your readers’ emotions
- Build the fear gradually before springing your scariest scene
Finally, the most important advice I can give you is this: read . Immerse yourself in the genre, and you’ll find you naturally improve. A good place to start would be my own library of horror stories .
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How to Write a Scary Story
Last Updated: February 10, 2023 References Approved
This article was co-authored by Christopher Taylor, PhD . Christopher Taylor is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Austin Community College in Texas. He received his PhD in English Literature and Medieval Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. There are 15 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. This article received 12 testimonials and 86% of readers who voted found it helpful, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 340,998 times.
Do you like nightmarish tales that give you goosebumps? Do you get freaked out by stories of suspense? Scary stories, like any story, will follow a basic format that includes developing the premise, setting and characters. But scary stories also rely on tension that builds throughout the story to a frightening or horrific climax. Find inspiration in real life, drawing on your own fears, and write a story that scares you silly.
Sample Scary Stories
Developing the Premise
- The fear of the unknown is one of the most powerful devices for a good scary story. People fear what they don’t know.
- For example, if you fear being trapped in an elevator, ask yourself, “What if I was stuck in an elevator with a dead person?” Or, “What if the elevator mirror was a door into an evil world?”
- Make sure to keep the climax of your story in mind as you develop the setting.
- Or, add a twist to a familiar horror trope, like a vampire who enjoys cake instead of blood, or a man trapped in a dumpster rather than a coffin.
- Another way to generate story ideas is to use writing prompts. These could be as simple as writing a suspenseful story about staying at a haunted hotel. You might use a prompt about an important party gone wrong or an envious friend who begins to act strangely towards you. Use the prompts to generate a story idea you connect with.
- Other supporting characters (family member, best friend, love interest, etc.)
- Minor characters (postal worker, gas station attendant, etc.)
- Name, age, physical description (include height, weight, eye color, hair color, etc.)
- Personality traits
- Likes and dislikes
- Family history
- Best friend and worst enemy
- Five things the character would never leave home without
- Be clear about what will happen if the character does not get what they want. The stakes of the story, or the consequences if the character does not achieve their desires, is what drives the story forward. The stakes also build tension and suspense for your reader.
- Try giving your villain a distinguishing gesture that they use often, such as clenching their fists or twitching their nose.
- Give your villain a deep booming voice, a soft raspy voice, a creaky nasally voice, or a very mad voice.
- The tension between what the reader wants for the character and what could happen or go wrong for the character will fuel the story. It will also propel your readers through the story.
- However, don’t go overboard with these mistakes or bad decisions. They should be believable and not merely stupid or inane. For example, don’t have your character, a young babysitter, respond to a masked killer by running outside into the deep, dark woods.
Writing the Story
- Exposition: Set the scene and introduce the characters.
- Inciting incident: Have something happen in the story to start the action.
- Rising action: Continue the story, building excitement and suspense.
- Climax: Include a moment that holds the most tension in the story.
- Falling action: These are events that occur after the climax.
- Resolution: Here, the character solves the main problem.
- Denouement: This is the ending in which the characters resolve any remaining questions.
- ”I was too scared to open my eyes, even though I heard footsteps coming closer.”
- “I wrapped the blankets tighter around me and let out a sick whimper. My chest was tight, my stomach rotten. I would not look. No matter how close those shuffling footsteps came, I would not look. I would not, I would…not…”
- The second example gives the reader more of an insight into the character’s physical feelings.
- Hint at the story’s direction and possible climax by providing small clues or details. You might briefly mention a label on a bottle that will later come in handy for the main character. There might be a sound or voice in a room that will later become a sign of an unnatural presence.
- Another effective way to build tension is to alternate from tense or bizarre moments to quiet moments. Allow your character to take a breath, calm down, and feel safe again. Then, amp up the tension by re-engaging the character in the conflict. This time, make the conflict feel even more serious or threatening.
- Keep in mind that foreshadowing is most effective when the reader and characters are unaware of the significance of the clues until the end of the story.
- Scared, scary
- Terrified, terrifying
- Horrified, horror
Writing a Good Ending
- In Poe’s short story, the climax of the story occurs at the very end. Poe applies more and more pressure to the narrator by having the police visit him. He uses the narrator’s internal struggle to keep his cool and achieve his desire of getting away with murder to create a climax. But by the end of the story, the narrator’s guilt pushes him over the edge and he reveals the body under the floorboards.
- While you want to create a satisfying ending for the reader, you also do not want to make it too closed and settled. The reader should walk away from the story with a lingering feeling of uncertainty.
- Consider if the ending feels like a surprise or an obvious answer. The key to suspense if not to answer the dramatic question too soon. Poe’s short story ends on a high note because the outcome of the narrator’s dilemma is revealed in the last line of the story. The suspense in the story is sustained until the very end.
Finalizing Your Story
- Sometimes, readers may be aware of the answer or ending to the dramatic question upfront. But they may be willing to read the story until the end because the lead up to the ending is engaging and suspenseful. They care enough about the characters and the story to read about the events that lead to the climactic event.
- Print out your story and comb through it carefully.
- Characters: Are the characters believable? Do they engage in action that is realistic?
- Continuity: Does the story make sense? Does it follow a logical order?
- Grammar and mechanics: Is the language readable? Are there run-on sentences, misused words, etc.?
- Dialogue: Are conversations between characters realistic? Was there enough (or too much) dialogue?
- Pacing: Does the story move along at a good pace? Do you get bored in certain areas? Do you think too much happens too quickly in other areas?
- Plot: Does the plot make sense? Does the character’s objective make sense?
- You might find it helpful to take some time away from your story before you try to revise it. Put it aside for a few days or more and then come back to it with fresh eyes.
- “The Monkey’s Paw,” an 18th century tale by William Wymark Jacobs. This story is about three terrible wishes granted by a mystical monkey’s paw.
- “The Tell-Tale Heart,” master horror writer Edgar Allen Poe’s psychologically disturbing story of suspense and murder.  X Research source
- Any horror story by Stephen King. King has written over 200 short stories and uses many different techniques to scare his readers. Read “The Moving Finger” or “The Children of the Corn” to get a sense of King’s style.
- Contemporary writer Joyce Carol Oates’ horror story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” It uses psychological terror to great effect.  X Research source
- Add a mysterious ending. It's cliched, but it'll get readers every time. Something like "And the young boy and his dog were never seen again. And, as legend has it, every fall equinox, the ghost wolf still returns". Get creative, but be sure to leave them hanging, especially if the story is short. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
- If you are conducting research for your scary story in order to make it more realistic, make sure you are careful and sensible. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
You Might Also Like
- ↑ http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/the_premise_of_your_story
- ↑ http://thewritepractice.com/get-freaky/
- ↑ https://thewritepractice.com/get-story-ideas-headlines/
- ↑ http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-conferencesevents/nine-tricks-to-writing-suspense-fiction
- ↑ https://allwritealright.com/how-to-write-a-creepy-character-realistically/
- ↑ http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/10/11/25-things-you-should-know-about-writing-horror/
- ↑ https://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm
- ↑ http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/6-secrets-to-creating-and-sustaining-suspense
- ↑ udleditions.cast.org/craft_elm_foreshadowing.htm
- ↑ http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/the-horror-genre-on-writing-horror-and-avoiding-cliches
- ↑ http://thewritepractice.com/7-steps-to-creating-suspense/
- ↑ https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/plot-reveals/
- ↑ http://literarydevices.net/climax/
- ↑ http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/POE/telltale.html
- ↑ http://celestialtimepiece.com/2015/01/21/where-are-you-going-where-have-you-been/
About This Article
To write a scary story, start with an exciting event that launches the action. For example, you could have the main character find a severed ear while they're out for a walk. As the story progresses, build suspense by making the reader feel empathy towards the characters and creating an immanent danger, like being trapped in a lift. Then, build the climax by adding to the problems your characters confront. Finally, present the climax, which could include a threat to the character's physical or mental wellbeing. For tips on how to develop a theme and characters for your story, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No
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How to write a ghost story
Writing a ghost story – how to start
The fear of ghosts, the main elements when writing ghost stories, how to write a ghost story – the setting, the characters in your ghost story, the mood or atmosphere, your ghost story’s revelation, some dos and don’ts when writing ghost stories, the history of ghost stories, ghost animals, examples from some of my own stories and novels, hallowe’en and all that, authors’ favourite ghost stories, over to you.
Close the curtains, light the fire, curl up in your favourite chair. Maybe the wind is howling round the house, or rain lashing against the windows. Listen. Winter is traditionally the time to read and share ghost stories. Why? Perhaps we all like to be frightened, but only from the comfort of a cosy chair in a warm room. In this post I talk about the history of the ghost story, its main elements and how to write a ghost story of your own. I just hope you won’t scare yourselves too much when you are writing it!
When you start writing your ghost story, you can begin by thinking about or sharing with other people your own experience of ghosts.
Have you ever ‘seen’ a ghost? Many people, especially children, tell me they’ve ‘seen’ or experienced a ghost. Often ‘seeing’ a ghost follows the death of someone very close to you. In the immediate few days afterwards, you seem to see them again. They’re sitting in their favourite chair, or just passing from one room to another. You might even hear their voice, or smell their perfume. This ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ isn’t frightening, but it can be startling, because you really know they’ve died. Even though you know you’re imagining they’re there, for that fleeting moment you believe that you really have seen them.
Have you ever had a ghostly experience?
By this I mean something that unnerves you and which has no explanation. I once entered a room in a converted barn that was known as ‘the goose house’. I was alone. As I crossed the room to go to my bed I had the sensation of being pressed against the wall. I couldn’t move or shake the pressure away. I could hardly breathe. My eyes were open, but there was nothing to see. There was absolutely no-one else in the room. After a moment the pressure was released, I was able to step away from the wall and continue to my bed. I have no explanation for this, but when I reported it the next day the owners of the ‘goose house’ said that other guests had had the experience too.
Perhaps people like ghost stories because they like to be afraid. But why do they frighten us?
The fear of ghosts is the fear of the unknown, of experiencing something that is outside our control. We can explore this in our writing by thinking about our own experience of fear. Most people have been afraid at some time or other.
Have you ever been afraid?
Write down how it affected you mentally and physically. Your skin, your temperature, your breathing, your heart, your movement, your voice, your mind? Can you think of anything else?
The setting is actually one of the main characters to consider when writing a ghost story. Once you’ve chosen the setting you’ll begin to have an idea about the other main characters.
So how do you choose a setting? Write down the settings of some of the ghost stories you’ve read. Do they have anything in common?
Now write a list of places you’ve visited that you think might be suitable settings, for their creepiness, their reputation, their remoteness. Anything else?
And, if you think you might like to be adventurous, think of unlikely places for a ghost story.
Choose one to be your setting. You can go with the familiar: castle, old house, graveyard. Try to avoid too many cliches.
Or you could choose a lonely, deserted place, or somewhere that’s difficult to escape from – a ship, a school, an island, an empty, locked theatre…
Or be daring: a shopping mall (moving escalators, shutters, reflecting windows…), a building site (rubble, gantries, cranes, falling masonry…) or underground train systems (rush of passing trains, echoey stations, long passages…). See if you can think of more.
Why is this place being haunted? What connection does the ghost have with this particular place? Did they once live there, work there, die there, fight there…? Was it once a place of peace for them? Is it their territory?
Is it the scene of a crime committed by the ghost, or to the ghost?
Is the ghost trapped there?
Who is the ghost? Is there actually a ghost, or is it imagined? What kind of ghost is it – friendly, not meaning any harm? Lonely? Does the ghost know it is dead? Has the ghost come to make amends, to take revenge, to find something lost, to put something right? Does it want to warn you about something? Or anything else?
The central character/protagonist
Decide whether you’re going to write this story in the first person, so you are the person being haunted. (Or you could be the ghost.) Or is it in the third person – in which case, who is it? Make sure you know who your central character is. What happens to them will affect them deeply, and you want to share their emotions, responses, fears, imaginings and rememberings with the reader.
Is that person alone? Is he or she with other people, but is the only one to see the ghost (like Macbeth when he sees Banquo)? So how will the other characters react? Will they be sceptical, amused, dismissive, annoyed, curious, protective, disbelieving, envious…?
Why has this person come to this place? Is there a connection between the character, the place and the ghost that is haunting it? Or is there something about this person that makes him or her susceptible to ghosts? Are they grieving? Highly imaginative? Ill? Guilty of a crime? Or determined to prove that there are no such things as ghosts or the paranormal?
You can create the mood or atmosphere of the story when you decide what kind of ghost story you’re writing. Is it going to be comical (white sheets, clanking chains, boo!), disturbing, creepy, frightening or absolutely terrifying?
Victorian ghost stories are full of creaking floorboards, flickering candles, shadows, gas lamps – but so were Victorian houses! Could you use today’s houses to create the same atmosphere? Electric lights, window blinds, carpeted floors, central heating…
You are taking your main character on a journey to a certain place, where they will encounter disturbing happenings. They will find out what is happening, and they will do something about it. This is the revelation. When they leave that place, their life will have changed. They will never forget this experience.
Remember this isn’t a detective story. You and your reader don’t have to solve anything, but you do have to resolve it. So the revelation leads to the resolution of the story. What does your character do to put things right? For themselves? For the ghost? Or do they simply run away?
How do you want your reader to feel at the end of the story? My anecdote about my goose house experience wouldn’t work as a ghost story, not as it stands. There’s no development, revelation or resolution. I would need to use my inagination to turn it into a satisfactory story. Are you going to explain everything? Or leave ends untied? Will the reader still be disturbed? Too scared to go to bed? Relieved? Amused? Or quietly, and for a long time afterwards, haunted by the memory of what they have been reading?
Don’t reveal too much too soon. Don’t let everything happen at once. Gradually introduce elements of the haunting.
Roald Dahl said: “The best of ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them.“ A classic example of this is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca . The ghost in this book is never seen; it is the memory of her that haunts every page.
Don’t use cliches – the headless corpse, the white sheet, the undead zombie. Get away from horror, vampires and goths. Don’t try to write a detective story. Don’t let the protagonist or ghost use physical force. The fear is psychological, not physical. The ghost might temporarily harm the mind, but not the body.
Do use surprise and hints. Just when your character thinks things are going to be all right…
What is not fully seen (glimpses, shadows, brief reflections) will be much creepier than a lurking figure with clanking chains.
And what is not properly heard (whispers, sighs, light footsteps) will be much more frightening than wails and shrieks!
Some tutorials on how to write ghost stories keep referring to ‘monsters’ or to ‘horror stories’ or even ‘thrillers’. A classic ghost story should be none of these things.
Do enjoy writing your ghost story. It’s a wonderfully imaginative genre – go for it!
Since ancient times people have believed in ghosts and spirits. In many cultures the dead were buried with precious objects to take into the spirit world with them, as it was believed that the life of the spirit continues after the life of the physical body has ended. The First Ghosts , by Irving Finkel, explores the tradition of ghosts in Assyrian culture of three thousand years BC, and asserts that it is the belief in ghosts that make us human.
Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity by D. Felton shows that ghost stories were as popular in ancient Classical literature as they are today. We still use their concept of the haunted house, the unquiet dead seeking a proper burial, or revenge, or needing to help certain people. Similarly, we use, borrow or perpetuate the same idea of animals sensing the presence of ghosts, and the atmospheric devices of sounds, illusions and smells.
In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the ghosts of the murdered often return to terrify and to seek revenge. Five of Shakespeare’s plays have ghosts who profoundly affect their troubled living relatives and friends.
In Victorian times, it was common practice to attend a seance, to have the ghost of the dead speak to their grieving loved ones and bring them comfort. Dickens was one of the most productive ghost story writers, which he published in his periodial All the Year Round . Other contributors were Wilkie Collins and Mrs Gaskell. Dickens’ most famous ghost story, of course, is A Christmas Carol , where a procession of spirits bring the miserable Scrooge out of his miserly misanthrope to redemption and happiness.
Many ghost stories are written about animals. Favourites are black dogs that haunt the moors, or riderless horses that gallop, panting and steaming, over the same stretch of land, on the same day of the year. Or on foggy evenings!
In Orkney tales, there is an invisible animal called a Varden. Everybody has one; it follows you everywhere, and it is part of you for all your life. You know it’s there, even if you can’t see it. And when its owner is dying, the Varden moans and weeps.
Now, what if the Varden doesn’t die? What if it becomes the ghost of itself, searching for its dead owner?
Two true animal ghost stories
Now I’m going to tell you a true ghost story about a cat.
A few days after our cat Midnight died, my husband and I both saw an identical cat, but a younger version, prowling round the garden. We didn’t think it was a ghost, but we live in an isolated place and we knew there were no similar cats in the area. No cats at all, in fact. We never saw it again.
Here’s another cat story, and like ours, it’s true!
Friends of ours had a black cat. One day, someone brought it to their house, apologising that they had knocked it down with their car and it had died. Distraught, our friends buried the corpse in their garden, and the children all cried and put flowers on the grave.
A few hours later, their cat walked into the kitchen demanding food!
Explanation – they later found out that the dead cat that they had buried and cried over wasn’t theirs at all. It had belonged to a neighbour!
But do you like knowing the truth, or would you prefer it if I had said that the black cat continued to haunt them till they moved house?
The Haunting of Miss Julie
This is the second story chapter in my first book, How Green You Are . The setting is my own school – a convent school with basement corridors, religious statues, a nuns’ graveyard, an overgrown pond, and a school legend that a nun once drowned there. I only had to use my imagination and memory to write a ghost story about a friendless girl.
You are welcome to use all those elements to create your own ghost story, perhaps using your own school as the setting.
A short story set on the Derbyshire moors. Two children find a horse trapped in the ice inside a cave. One of the children rides the horse at night, and the other child gradually realises that both the horse and its rider are actually ghosts. I’m using my knowledge of the local landscape and my imagination to write this story.
This short story can be found in the Haunted anthology.
- The Company of Ghosts
The setting for The Company of Ghosts is a small island about a mile off the coast of Scotland. The only buildings on it are a disused lighthouse and the former lighthouse keeper‘s cottage. All you can hear is the cry of gulls and the waves pounding on the rocks. In my story a girl is abandoned there. She is haunted by memories of her estranged father, but soon becomes aware that there is another presence on the island; the ghost of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Again, I used my imagination and my memories of the island to create this story.
Slowly, soundlessly, she climbed the spiral stairs. She could feel her breath fluttering in her throat; she was too frightened to set it free. Now she felt a flurry around her like a cold wind; something made her flatten herself against the curved wall as if she was being pushed to one side as someone passed her. She listened, eyes wide, ears strained. Nothing, except for the rummaging of waves on rocks and the distant mockery of gulls. Every nerve in her body told her to turn and go down the stairs and out of the lighthouse, and yet she carried on.
- The Haunted Hills
The setting for The Haunted Hills is an old stone cottage in Derbyshire where a boy is staying with his family. He is grieving for his friend, who died when a stolen car crashed. The boy is drawn to the desolate moors and hills which are haunted by the ghost of the lost lad of local legend. I use the local story and the dramatic landscape of the Dark Peak as well as my imagination to create the atmosphere and the plot.
I crest the mound of dark moor, which looks completely desolate, breathing mist. The drizzle is like the white curtains some people have over their windows. I don’t know what I’m looking for, then I’m noticing scattered bits of tiny metal, just fragments at first, and now I can make out broken pieces of fuselage poking out of the ground, shards of metal like spearheads. I walk on, following the trail of debris around an area that could be the size of a football pitch. There are simple little wooden crosses stuck in the ground, made out of what look like ice-lolly sticks. Memorials to men who died here over seventy years ago. My stomach is turning over. Everything’s so sad. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t know it was going to be like this. I wasn’t ready for it at all. Suddenly I can’t take it. Suddenly I’m shivering, I’m cold all over. Why have Mum and Dad brought me here, of all places, to see this, of all things? The mist is drifting like breath. It’s spreading damp fingers over my skin, into my mouth, into my eyes. I can hardly see in front of me. Yet there are movements, shapes rising, lumbering towards me, reaching out to me. I can hear sighing, moaning. Desperate, I try to run away, but I can’t move.
Also Thin Air (see plays ) and Quieter than Snow (see my poetry collection Walking on Air ).
You may also be interested in my blog posts on writing haikus , fairy tales , riddle rhymes and puzzle poems and short stories .
In our culture, few people believe in ghosts, or the spirit world, yet we still retain the festival of Hallowe’en, the evening of All Saints’ Day, in which, in the Christian calendar, all saints are remembered. On the following day, All Souls’ Day, the dead are remembered and celebrated. In the culture of today we ‘raise’ the dead on Hallowe’en by wearing scary plastic masks, fancy dress of ghosts, skeletons, witches, anything really. Under American influence, Hallowe’en has become ‘Fright Night’. Shops are full of spider’s webs, bats, lanterns made of pumpkins etc; like Christmas, a Christian festival has become ‘paganised’ by commercialisation.
In Mexico the Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos, celebrates the dead with dancing and flowers. I’ve heard it said that Mexicans love death!
There are many really powerful ghost stories and novels. In many the ghosts simply have walk-on parts or are simply ghosts, not there to haunt, frighten or alarm anyone.
A quick poll on Twitter revealed favourite ghost stories to be:
- Any by M R James – Brian Moses and six others
- Dark Matter by Michelle Paver – Hilary McKay, Melinda Salisbury and four others
- Any by Robert Crickman – Chris Priestley and four others
- The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley – Stacey Sampson
- Three Miles Up and Mr Wong by Elizabeth Jane Howard – Ian Beck
Here’s my own current favourite: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.
Published by: Orion, 2011. Available from Amazon .
This website contains affiliate links. If you buy items using these links, I receive a commission, at no extra cost to you.
Please recommend some more wonderful ghost stories in the comments box below!
Original unmodified version of main photo: Ján Jakub Naništa /Unsplash. Other photos: Berlie Doherty
Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child , and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody , and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody . She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her brand new novel for ages 10–14, The Haunted Hills , is out now, as is her novel for adults, Rose Doran Dreams . See the About me page for more information.
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This post has 6 comments
Thank you so much for this very informative article – ghost stories are one of my favourite genres, along with Gothic, and I feel that it’s important to keep it alive, so to speak 😉 . I ‘ve read many of your books and very much admire your writing style – I use Street Child, Children of Winter, Deep Secret and The Company of Ghosts frequently in my teaching, as I find them to be excellent examples for my young writers, as well as being brilliant stories. I am also very much looking forward to The Haunted Hills, which I have on pre-order. 🙂
Would you consider publishing a ‘How to write’-type book (novels, short stories, ghost stories etc.), sharing your expertise and writing techniques? I’m sure it would be very well received. There are a multitude of books purporting to give advice on writing, but few are written by accomplished authors such as yourself, and most give very little useful guidance.
Thank you for all you’ve given us. 🙂 xx
What a lovely message! Thank you so much Wendy. I’m so pleased that you like the blog, and I’m thrilled to know that you like my books too! Thank you very much for sharing them with your young writers – I hope they’re inspired! I will continue to write ‘how to’ blogs on my website like this writing ghost stories and the earlier writing haiku blog, and would welcome requests/suggestions. Hadn’t thought about a whole book though ….. Take care, Berlie
Thanks for helping me to find some idea
Oh good! Thanks for letting me know Joe.
Thanks so much for this article, which is really helpful. I have an idea for a short ghost story; would you mind if I sent you, or posted here, a 2-sentence summary of the key idea?
Thank you Francis. I’m so pleased you found the blog helpful. Yes, do please share your idea.
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25+ Ghost Story Prompts
Need a scary ghost story to tell over the campfire? Today we bring over 25 ghost story prompts to inspire you to write your own paranormal short story or novel.
A ghost story is a type of horror story that emphasises the theme of the supernatural, apparitions, and otherworldly ghost-like creatures. Generally revolving around death, hauntings or the afterlife. This genre often has an uncanny air about it, producing feelings of fear, dread, and the unfamiliar. A ghost story is one of the oldest forms of literature and can be found in all cultures.
If you’re looking for some new ideas for your next ghost story, these 25+ paranormal story prompts are perfect for writers of all levels. You might also find this ghost name generator useful.
The spookiest time of year is here, and that means it’s time for ghost stories! Whether you’re writing a ghost story for Halloween , a seasonal short story , or even a standalone novel, these ghost story prompts are a great place to start:
- A young woman moves into an old house and finds herself in a terrifying situation with her new roommate, a ghost. The only way to escape is to get out of the house alive.
- A man is haunted by his past and must face the demons that come back to haunt him.
- A group of college students decide to spend their summer vacation in a cabin in the woods. But what starts as a fun vacation turns deadly when they realize that the woods aren’t quite as safe as they thought.
- Use this story starter for a ghost story: The first time I saw it, I was only six. It was night and I was playing in my granddad’s garden when I heard this weird sound coming from the forest. I followed the sound and found myself in the middle of a circle of tall trees. It was so dark that I could barely see my hands in front of me. Suddenly, something grabbed my leg.
- A woman is haunted by the ghosts of her ancestors, but she must learn to accept her fate and embrace the spirits before they are all gone forever.
- An orphaned boy is taken in by a family of ghosts after his parents die in a fire. They teach him how to use his supernatural abilities to help people in need. But soon the boy starts using these powers for evil.
- A group of teenagers visit their favourite haunted house during the Halloween season, but they never make it home again.
- A couple gets married on Halloween night and discovers that their marriage is cursed. They must solve the mystery of the ghost bride to break the curse.
- A boy finds a box of his grandfather’s old slides in the attic, and when he goes back to school, he starts seeing his grandfather’s ghost everywhere.
- A man hears strange sounds coming from his attic, and he’s determined to find out what they are. He sneaks up to the attic to investigate, but when he does, he stumbles upon something much more frightening than he could have imagined.
- An abandoned mansion on a lonely island is rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of a pirate who was hung for his crimes. A group of friends decide to spend the night in the mansion, and they quickly learn that there’s more than one kind of ghost in the house.
- A family moves back into their old family home where their son died years ago. The father becomes obsessed with finding out who killed his son. He believes he knows who the murderer is but no one will believe him.
- A man is tormented by a ghostly hitchhiker. He is forced to take them on a road trip until they reach their final destination…a mysterious abandoned town.
- A family moves into an old Victorian home, where the previous owner mysteriously disappeared after getting locked in one of the rooms. Now the family is trapped inside by a malevolent entity.
- A man is on his way home from work when he is attacked by a group of ghosts. He manages to escape, but now he has a few more problems than he started with.
- Use this story starter for a ghost story: I woke up in the middle of the night, and I felt a cold hand touching my face. I tried to scream, but my voice wouldn’t come out. Then, I felt a sharp pain in my neck.
- My father told me about his experience while we were driving home. He said he saw a dead girl walking towards him just after I was born, but when he got closer, she disappeared. He thought if was imagining things at the time.
- My father used to scare me at night. One time he came into my bedroom and woke me up, telling me to come downstairs. He took me to the living room, and there he told me that a ghost had put a curse on me.
- It was the most beautiful cemetery ever. People would come from far away just to walk through the grounds. There was a rumour about a ghost that roamed the graveyard at night.
- A teenage girl is forced to spend her summer with her grandmother who believes she can communicate with ghosts.
- A young woman moves into an apartment next door to an old house where she hears a woman screaming and sees a little girl standing in the window.
- A woman hears a baby crying in her house, but she can’t find it. She keeps hearing it crying in another room, so she goes to check on it. When she opens the door, there is no baby there. But then, the door slams shut and locks itself.
- A girl is staying at her grandmother’s house with her family for the night. She is sleeping in her grandmother’s bed, but she can’t get comfortable. Every time she falls asleep, she wakes up to see her dead grandmother sitting on the edge of her bed.
- A woman is walking down a deserted road when she sees a figure standing in front of her. It turns out to be an old man in a top hat, holding a cane. He says to her, “Hello, young lady. My name is John Marley. I am a spirit from the other side.”
- One night, a mother wakes up to hear her son crying in their room. When she goes into his room, he is not there. She looks everywhere for him and calls out his name. The only answer she gets is a terrible scream that echoes throughout the house.
- In a small village, there lived a woman who was very lonely. Her husband had passed away and she was left all alone with her two sons. The boys were grown and had families of their own. The woman was so lonely that she began talking to herself. “I’m all alone,” she said to no one in particular. “I’m all alone.” And then she hears a voice.
- There was once a man who lived by the beach. He loved the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. One day, he decided to go for a walk on the beach and ended up drowning. When he died, he came back as a ghost. Every night, he would come back to the place where he drowned, and stand there.
- There was once a little girl who loved to play hide and seek. One day, while playing, she got separated from her family. She found a tree stump and went behind it, but when she peeked around the edge, she saw that no one was there. The stump began to move, and suddenly the girl felt herself being lifted off the ground and into the air. As she looked at the tree stump, she noticed that it had eyes. The eyes were staring right at her. Then, before she could scream, the tree stump opened its mouth.
For more spooky ideas, check out this list of over 110 horror story ideas .
How do you write a ghost story?
The basic structure of a ghost story includes an opening sequence that presents the reader with a situation that seems normal but is actually supernatural in nature. The protagonist then encounters the ghost and experiences events that are often strange and frightening, leading up to a climax where the ghost is defeated or disappears. Writing a ghost story is the same as writing a horror story . Before you start writing you need a good ghost story plot idea, like the list above. Both ghost stories and horror stories have a set of characters, a spooky setting, an opening, a middle part and a dramatic ending.
What is the shortest ghost story?
The shortest ghost story is just two sentences long. It was written by Frederic Brown in 1948. The story reads: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …” Just by reading these two sentences, we can imagine a scary situation. There are two key themes used here, the fear of loneliness and the surprise element at the end. Both these are important themes in ghost stories.
What makes a ghost story scary?
Ghost stories are typically scary as they focus on death and going into the unknown. But the key to a scary ghost story is fear. It is important to make the reader feel uneasy or frightened. Here are some key elements of a good ghost story:
- An encounter with a ghost or spirit
- A supernatural force that can be both good and evil
- Sense of dread
- The feeling of being watched or followed
- Feeling helpless
- Being lonely or lost
Just like all stories, a ghost story must include these basic elements of a story : Characters, Setting, Plot, Conflict and Resolution.
How do you finish a ghost story?
Most ghost stories end with the haunting being explained away as something natural. This explanation can be a spiritual one (the ghost was a real person who died), or it can be a psychological one (the ghost was a product of the protagonist’s mind). The ghost story can also end with no explanation at all. Some ghost stories don’t even bother to give an explanation for the haunting, but let the reader figure it out themselves.
Did you find this list of over 25 ghost story prompts useful? Let us know in the comments below!
Marty the wizard is the master of Imagine Forest. When he's not reading a ton of books or writing some of his own tales, he loves to be surrounded by the magical creatures that live in Imagine Forest. While living in his tree house he has devoted his time to helping children around the world with their writing skills and creativity.
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Author Ivy L. James
- Dec 13, 2019
How to Plot a Ghost Story
Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Want to write a ghost story, but not sure where to start? Wanna plot it FAST? Well, my friend, have I got some good news for you.
It's Friday the 13th and I am all about ghost stories, in any medium. (See what I did there?) But writing one myself has felt intimidating because there are so many facets to consider. I wasn't even sure where to start.
Fun fact: Feeling like a subject is too difficult is a surefire motivator for me to figure it out. If it taunts me, I must win. Shoutout to the French language as exhibit A.
So how do we break down the elements of a ghost story? And how do we translate them into a Plotting Strategy? Glad you asked.
We're gonna break it down into these 5 categories, because I love organization.
Overall mood and goal
Main character (the living one)
Your ghost story's overall mood/goal
What's the overall mood you're aiming for? You might want your reader/audience to feel unsettled, afraid, regretful, satisfied…
The story's mood influences all the following choices, so decide that first.
Your ghost story's setting
For the setting, consider both the literal setting and the societal setting.
The physical setting can mirror the spookiness or make the story eerie via juxtaposition.
Classic spooky settings include abandoned hospitals and asylums, because we associate them with the patients' pain and historical malpractice, plus abandoned buildings are always creepy in general. Dreary or stormy weather adds to the ominous aura.
Juxtaposition in the setting can up the eerieness factor. A sunny day, a playground, a club or party… Anywhere that your character should be enjoying themselves but can't relax because they have a Bad Feeling, because someone/something is following them, because they keep seeing a dead person, etc.
For the social setting, what's the society's general approach to ghosts and the supernatural? Do people know and accept that ghosts exist? Do they know but hate it and try to exterminate them? Do most people not believe at all? This will influence your MC's approach and how the side characters respond.
Your ghost story's main (living) character
The main aspects to consider about the MC:
Does your MC start out as a believer or a skeptic?
Why does the MC first encounter the ghost(s)?
Why does MC continue to interact with the ghost(s)? (What does the MC get out of it?)
How do the ghost and the MC communicate?
What's the MC's relationship with the ghost, and how does that relationship evolve over the course of the story?
Does your MC start out as a believer or a skeptic? On top of this, keep in mind how society in general would perceive their position. If MC believes in ghosts but society generally doesn't (or vice versa), is MC outspoken or secretive about their belief?
Why does MC first encounter the ghost(s)? Are they looking for answers about something, unknowingly attached to the dead person, avoiding something important, intentionally seeking out a ghost, etc.?
Why does MC continue to interact with the ghost(s)? When the ghost first shows up, your MC could say "nope, bye" and move out of town and the end credits would roll… but unless you're writing a satire, that's not how the story's going to go, is it?
So why does the MC return to the haunted place or contact the ghost again? If they first encountered the ghost intentionally, maybe they think the ghost can help them find answers.
If the ghost needs help, maaaybe MC is kind and generous, but that's not a good enough reason to hold a story together.
To solidify the plot, decide what the MC wants to get out of this.
Does the ghost promise them something in return? Is MC trying to make up for something they feel guilty about? Did they know and care about the dead person? Was the person murdered by someone who will kill again unless MC finds and stops them?
How do the ghost and the MC communicate? They have to be able to get their thoughts across somehow. Do they have audible conversation? Does the ghost write and MC talks? Does the ghost manipulate music or radio waves to create sentences? Do they both know sign language?
What's the MC's relationship with the ghost, and how does that relationship evolve over the course of the story? In other words, how do they start out and what do they become?
Are they strangers at the beginning and grow into allies?
Do they fall in love (prime angst potential)?
Were they close in life and now allied in death?
Do they start out as strangers, become allies, and then become ENEMIES because one betrays the other?
Your ghost story's ghost(s)
This ghost is as much of a main character as your actual living main character. Craft him/her carefully.
The main aspects to consider about your ghost:
How does the ghost look?
How did the ghost die?
Why didn't the ghost Pass On?
What does the ghost need to Pass On?
Who or what is the ghost tethered to?
What's the ghost's overall mood?
How does the ghost look? Are they invisible? A shimmer in the air? A translucent version of themselves in life? A solid-looking version of themselves in life? Or do they look like their dead body post-murder? Looking at you, Hanging Lady.
How did the ghost die? Odds are good that the person didn't die peacefully in their sleep at the end of a long, happy life. Murder is a common reason. Suicide or murder framed to look like suicide also come up a lot. (For obvious reasons, you need to handle this subject delicately.) It might also be an untimely death or an odd death somehow connected to whatever secrets they might've been hiding.
Why didn't the ghost Pass On™? (Whatever "passing on" entails in your story.) Usually the person has unfinished business, was murdered, weren't buried, has a secret that needs to come out, or doesn't know or refuses to accept their death.
What does the ghost need to Pass On? Obvs, this is directly connected to the reason they didn't pass on. Do they need justice? Answers? Revenge? A proper burial? To finish their unfinished business? To have their big secret unveiled? To accept their death? To finally beat that last level on Mario Kart?
Who or what is the ghost tethered to? Your ghost is trapped in this dimension for one reason or another. They shouldn't be touring the world for funsies. To emphasize that they're trapped here, stick them to one thing or person in particular.
Is the ghost stuck near a person , such as their murderer or a loved one? An item , such as a favorite toy (for a child ghost) or treasured possession? A place , such as their home or the place they died? Their dead body/remains ?
Note: This refers to tethering , as in, the ghost can only travel so far from whatever the thing is. Not the same thing as possession , which is typically reserved for demons.
What's the ghost's overall mood? Are they regretful, sad, angry, playful, guilty, lonely…? Stay away from neutral, and stay FAR away from contentment. If the ghost doesn't care or is happy as is, there's no motivation for the MC to do anything.
Your ghost story's side characters
Your story may primarily feature the MC and the ghost(s), but at least 3 side characters should show up:
Who believes MC about the ghost and/or informs them about the ghost in the first place? Someone points them in the right direction. This may be the only person who makes the MC feel like they're not out of their mind.
Who disbelieves the MC and/or preemptively dismisses any rumors about the ghost(s)? Someone scoffs at the idea and leaves MC feeling more alone. Cue the angst.
Who or what is the antagonist or opposing force? It could be a Bad Guy, or it could just be someone with goals that oppose the MC's goal. It could be a ghost hunter, another ghost, a demon, the ghost's murderer, THE GHOST ITSELF… It could even be the Believer or the Skeptic we just discussed. Plot twist.
Ask yourself these questions as you plot your ghost story:
What's the overall mood you're aiming for?
Is the physical setting spooky or eerily normal?
What's the society's general approach to ghosts and the supernatural?
Why does MC first encounter the ghost(s)?
Why does MC continue to interact with the ghost(s)? (What do they get out of it?)
Who believes the MC?
Who scoffs at the MC?
Who is the MC's and/or the ghost's opposition?
Now go forth and write a creepy ghost story! I believe in you!
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Top 7 Tips For Writing Ghost Stories
by Horror Tree · Published November 24, 2021 · Updated November 15, 2021
Read on for our top tips on how to write a ghost story. Your first step should always be to define a ghost story to yourself, but you should know how to proceed afterwards. The best ghost stories are ones that are well-planned. Use our tips to plan yours now.
Choose Your Tone
The first thing you need to do is choose your tone. This is the same whether you are looking at essay papers for sale , or figuring out how to write fiction.
The tone of your ghost story is very important. It’s the first clue many people have about your work. People who want a comedic ghost story, for example, aren’t going to want southern gothic. People who want a tragic story of lost love won’t be happy if they accidentally picked up a cowboy western ghost story.
You need to choose what tone to use before anything else. Ghost stories do have some rules around them. Knowing what tone you are going to go for shows you what rules you need to follow. Knowing what rules you need to follow give you the best chance of creating a coherent ghost story.
Give Your Ghost a Life Story
As in life, so in death. You may not think that your ghost requires a backstory, but he\she\it definitely does! Any good ghost story writing gives the ghost a life story, because that’s what makes it real.
Giving your ghost a life story opens up so many possibilities. Maybe your ghost is involved in events for completely unrelated reasons, but they don’t have to be! Having a backstory means that, if you want, you can tie the events of the story into it. Maybe your ghost is bound to a house because their child died there, or maybe they have to fulfil a deal with the devil. Just come up with an idea for a backstory, and let your mind roam. There are so many possibilities you won’t know what to do with them.
Tie it To a Specific Location
The best stories are often the ones which are most contained in terms of location. We are all aware of the huge scope of movies like. There is space for both kinds of stories to exist.
More than that, think of the different genres of horror and ghost stories. Many of them are centred on particular locations. Gothic horror is normally focused on a house, while southern gothic can take in whole towns. Tying things to one specific location makes it that much easier to create atmosphere, and atmosphere is hugely important in a ghost story.
Using a specific location means that you can delve into some of the local folklore in your ghost story. This adds an additional flavour for your readers, and makes the world seem much more real.
Make Your Readers Breathe Faster
We are all used to jump scares by now – maybe too used to them. The key point in writing any ghost story is that you need to create a response in your readers.
This is another reason to tie your ghost story down to a certain location and tone. Both of these things inform the ways in which you induce fear. The primary reason that people read ghost stories is that they want to be scared. They want to feel the creepy atmosphere, they want to walk along with the characters not knowing if there’ll be a ghost on the next page! You need to create some kind of fear response in your readers, otherwise your ghost story won’t work. People want to breathe faster, to feel as if they themselves are about to see a ghost!
Set Some Rules
Writing needs to have rules if it is to work properly. Ghost stories are fighting an uphill battle from the moment you write them, simply because they involve ghosts. If you make some internal rules for your world, and stick to them, people will find it much easier to suspend their disbelief and read on without question.
The rules don’t need to be complicated. There don’t even need to be too many of them. Just remember that once you make a rule, you need to stick to it. If you don’t, people will find themselves taken out of the story. Rules can make your story a lot easier to write as well. Just write within the framework you set down for yourself, and watch the story take form. Rules can be very helpful in writing.
Many people ask how to start a ghost story. One of the main answers is this: avoid clichés like the plague!
Clichés can be very helpful, it’s true, but they are clichés for a reason. Some stories have managed to incorporate these things into their stories very well. Some have even managed to make a cliché into a hilarious part of their story.
If you are just starting out in ghost stories, you shouldn’t do this. It takes a lot of familiarity with this type of writing before you can do it justice. If you avoid these types of clichés, then you stand a much better chance of writing a good story. It’s honestly that simple when it comes to writing. Reading a cliché used well can be a fun experience, but most people prefer to read a good story.
Do Your Research
Do you want to know how to write a good ghost story? It’s very simple. Do your research. Make sure you know everything there is to know about the characters, history, and location of your story.
Research is important for any story, but it can be particularly important for a ghost story. Say you are writing a story about the ghost of a young woman from the eighteenth century. Say your setting is the current day. You need to be absolutely sure you know that ghost would look and act, and how the present-day characters would react to it. Plenty of research is key, particularly if the ghost’s backstory impacts the plot in any way.
Research should always be an important part of your story. You’ll find that your writing process becomes much easier when you have everything at your fingertips.
It’s Time for Spooky Writing
Ghost fiction is always popular among readers. It’s not just something for Hallowe’en, though it was much more popular around that time. Hopefully our tips will be helpful to anybody looking to either start writing, or improve their writing. You just need to take it one step at a time.
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How to Write Your Own Ghost Story
Help your little ones write their own ghost stories with these tips excerpted from Julie Winterbottom’s Frightlopedia !
Sometimes the scariest ghost stories are the ones we invent ourselves. Here are some tips on how to make up your own.
- Choose a place for your ghostly encounter. It could be at night in your bedroom, or in a place that’s less typical for a ghost story, like the bathroom at your school.
- Choose a time. It’s best to make your story something that happened recently—last week or even yesterday. That makes it much scarier.
- When you begin telling the story, it helps to act as if you are someone who doesn’t even believe in ghosts. You can say, “I’ve never believed in ghosts. But what happened . . . I just can’t explain it. . . .” That will make the story more convincing and make your listeners want to hear more.
- As you tell the story, make everything almost normal. Just change a few details so there’s a feeling that something is out of the ordinary—maybe you hear a weird scratching sound, or one of the faucets in the school bathroom turns on by itself.
- Consider making the ghost in your story look like someone you know (even yourself!) but with something changed—the eyes are two different colors, or the hands are transparent.
- If you want, come up with a reason why the ghost has come back to the world of the living. Maybe the ghost is looking for something or someone, or is angry about a certain event. You don’t have to be direct about this reason, but you can hint at it.
- Slowly build up to the climax of your story, where you interact with the ghost. It doesn’t have to be gory—sometimes the scariest ghost just says one word, or your name, or keeps pointing at something, or just brushes by you and disappears.
- For extra creepiness, you can show your listeners a mark on your arm or something that the ghost altered in the room you’re in and say, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen this.”
- At the end, hint that you don’t think this ghost is gone for good. “I’m not going near that room, and I wouldn’t if I were you.”
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How to Describe a Ghost in Writing (Tips, Words, Examples)
Writing about the supernatural, and especially ghosts, is a common problem for many writers.
It requires a lot of creativity, an extensive vocabulary, and a good sense of mood and atmosphere.
Here’s how to describe a ghost in writing:
Describe a ghost in writing by using sensory details, creating an atmosphere, conveying the ghost’s personality, using metaphors and similes, and employing vivid language. Reflect the ghost’s character through its appearance, movements, voice, and interaction with the environment.
This article will provide you with all the necessary tools to make your ghostly descriptions spine-chillingly good.
21 Tips for Describing Ghosts in Writing
Here are 21 tips to get you started with describing ghosts in writing.
Tip 1: Use Sensory Details
Using sensory details in your descriptions will make your ghost seem more real to your readers.
Try to engage all five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
Even though ghosts are traditionally intangible, their presence can still evoke sensory reactions in your characters.
For example, the sight of the ghost might be chilling, their voice might echo eerily, or their presence might cause a cold draft.
Engaging the senses of your readers will allow them to immerse themselves in the story more completely.
If your reader can almost feel the chill of the ghost’s presence or the echo of its voice, they are more likely to be affected by the scene and feel the intended emotions.
Tip 2: Use Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and similes are effective literary tools when it comes to describing ghosts.
They can help make abstract or intangible qualities more understandable and vivid.
For instance, you might say that a ghost’s voice is like a “whisper on the wind,” or that its presence is “as cold as a winter’s night.”
These types of comparisons can not only make your descriptions more vivid.
But they can also help to create a certain mood or atmosphere.
For example, comparing a ghost’s appearance to a “drifting cloud” could suggest a more ethereal, peaceful presence, while likening it to “a shadow in the corner of your eye” might evoke a more unsettling, menacing atmosphere.
Tip 3: Show, Don’t Tell
One of the oldest principles of writing is “show, don’t tell.”
This means instead of telling your reader that a character is scared of the ghost, show the character’s fear through their actions, words, and feelings.
This applies to describing your ghost as well.
Show its eeriness through its actions, its effect on the environment, and the reactions of other characters.
Showing instead of telling creates a more engaging and immersive story.
It gives your readers the chance to interpret the character’s emotions themselves based on the cues you provide.
This makes for a more interactive and fulfilling reading experience.
Tip 4: Use Strong, Evocative Language
When describing a ghost, use strong, evocative language to create a powerful image in your reader’s mind.
This can include adjectives like haunting, ethereal, ghostly, or spectral, or verbs like hover, drift, fade, or glide.
Using this kind of language not only helps to create a vivid picture of the ghost, but it also helps to set the tone of the scene.
The right words can make your ghost seem eerie, menacing, sad, or mysterious, depending on what you’re aiming for.
Tip 5: Describe the Ghost’s Appearance
How does your ghost look? Is it transparent or solid?
Does it have a clear human form, or is it more of a shapeless mist? Does it wear clothes, and if so, from what era?
These are all important details that will help your reader visualize the ghost.
Remember to use sensory details and strong, evocative language when describing the ghost’s appearance.
Also consider how the ghost’s appearance might reflect its personality or backstory.
For example, a ghost who was a soldier in life might still wear their uniform, while a ghost who died tragically young might appear as a child.
Tip 6: Describe the Ghost’s Behavior
Ghosts often have specific behaviors or patterns they follow, like haunting a particular room or appearing at a certain time.
Describing these behaviors can help make your ghost seem more real and add to the creepiness of your story.
Think about why your ghost might behave the way it does.
Maybe it’s trapped in a loop, repeating the events leading up to its death.
Or maybe it’s trying to communicate something to the living characters.
This can add depth and complexity to your ghost, making it more than just a scary apparition.
Tip 7: Convey the Ghost’s Personality
Just like any character in your story, your ghost should have a distinct personality.
Is it vengeful, sad, friendly, or perhaps mischievous?
This will dictate how it interacts with the living characters and what kind of atmosphere its presence creates.
A ghost’s personality can be revealed through its actions, its dialogue, its appearance, and its effect on the environment.
For example, a vengeful ghost might create an oppressive, menacing atmosphere, while a sad ghost might cause a feeling of melancholy to descend on the scene.
Tip 8: Use Symbolism
Ghosts often symbolize something, like a character’s guilt or a past event that still haunts them.
Using symbolism in your ghost description can add a deeper layer of meaning to your story.
Symbolism can be conveyed through the ghost’s appearance, behavior, or the circumstances of its death.
For example, a ghost that always appears in a mirror might symbolize a character’s struggle with self-image or identity.
Tip 9: Describe the Ghost’s Death
The circumstances of a ghost’s death often play a big role in its behavior and appearance.
Did it die a violent death, or did it die peacefully in its sleep? This can influence whether your ghost is vengeful and frightening, or sad and peaceful.
Describing the ghost’s death can also provide important backstory and add depth to your ghost.
This could be revealed slowly throughout the story, keeping your readers hooked and wanting to find out more.
Tip 10: Convey the Ghost’s Motivation
What does your ghost want?
Is it seeking revenge, trying to communicate a message, or does it just want to be left alone?
Understanding and conveying your ghost’s motivation can make it more than just a spooky specter – it becomes a character in its own right.
A ghost’s motivation can be conveyed through its actions, its dialogue, or even its effect on the environment.
For example, a ghost seeking revenge might torment the living characters, while a ghost trying to communicate might cause strange phenomena like flickering lights or mysteriously moving objects.
Tip 11: Describe the Ghost’s Influence on the Environment
Ghosts often have a noticeable effect on their surroundings, like causing a drop in temperature, creating an eerie silence, or causing lights to flicker.
Describing these effects can make your ghost seem more real and add to the creepiness of the scene.
This also allows you to engage your reader’s senses.
For example, describing the chill that descends on a room when a ghost appears, or the way the lights dim and flicker, can make the reader feel like they’re experiencing the ghost’s presence themselves.
Tip 12: Keep Your Ghost Mysterious
One of the most intriguing things about ghosts is their mystery.
Avoid giving too much away about your ghost too soon. Keep your readers guessing about the ghost’s identity, its backstory, and its motivations.
Mystery can be maintained by revealing details about the ghost slowly and sporadically throughout the story.
This also creates suspense and keeps your readers hooked, as they’ll want to keep reading to find out more about the ghost.
Tip 13: Describe the Characters’ Reactions
The way your characters react to the ghost can say a lot about the ghost itself.
Are they terrified, fascinated, or perhaps even sympathetic?
This can give your readers clues about the nature of the ghost and how they should feel about it.
Remember to show, don’t tell, when describing your characters’ reactions.
Don’t just tell the readers that your character is scared – show them by describing the character’s actions, thoughts, and feelings.
Tip 14: Play with Lighting and Shadows
Lighting and shadows can greatly enhance your ghost descriptions.
A ghost appearing in the dead of night is scarier than one appearing in broad daylight.
Describing how the ghost interacts with light and shadows can make your scenes more atmospheric and vivid.
This also allows you to create striking visual imagery.
For example, describing how the ghost’s form casts no shadow, or how it seems to absorb the light around it, can create an eerie and unsettling image.
Tip 15: Use Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing the ghost’s appearance can create suspense and anticipation.
This could be subtle hints like a sudden drop in temperature, a feeling of being watched, or a pet acting strangely.
Foreshadowing gives your readers a sense of foreboding and makes them anticipate the ghost’s appearance, which can make the actual appearance even scarier.
It’s like the calm before the storm, making the storm itself feel more intense.
Tip 16: Utilize Setting and Atmosphere
The setting and atmosphere in which your ghost appears can greatly enhance your description.
A haunted house, a lonely graveyard, or a creepy forest are all perfect settings for a ghost.
The atmosphere can be created through the weather, the time of day, the state of the surroundings, and the reactions of the characters.
A stormy night, a room that’s fallen into disrepair, or a character who’s all alone can all contribute to a spooky atmosphere.
Tip 17: Experiment with Different Perspectives
Try describing your ghost from different perspectives.
How does the ghost appear to different characters? How does the ghost see itself?
This can add depth and complexity to your ghost and make your story more interesting.
Seeing the ghost from different perspectives can also reveal different aspects of the ghost.
For example, one character might see the ghost as a scary apparition, while another might see it as a sad remnant of the past.
Tip 18: Make Use of Silence and Sound
Silence can be just as spooky as sound when it comes to describing a ghost.
The sudden absence of sound can create a sense of unease and anticipation.
On the other hand, unexpected sounds like a soft whisper or a sudden wail can startle the reader and make the ghost seem more real.
You can also describe the sounds associated with the ghost’s presence, like the creaking of floorboards, the rustling of curtains, or the eerie silence that descends upon a room when it appears.
Tip 19: Use Contrast for Effect
Contrasting the ghost with its surroundings can make it stand out and seem more supernatural.
If the scene is warm and cozy, the ghost might appear cold and eerie. If the scene is noisy and chaotic, the ghost might appear in a moment of eerie silence.
Contrast can also be used in the ghost’s appearance.
For example, a ghost dressed in a bright, cheerful outfit might seem more out of place and eerie in a dreary, haunted house.
Tip 20: Be Consistent
Be consistent in your descriptions of the ghost.
If the ghost is described as transparent in one scene, it shouldn’t be solid in the next unless there’s a reason for the change.
Consistency helps maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief and makes the ghost seem more real.
Consistency also applies to the ghost’s behavior, abilities, and weaknesses.
If the ghost can pass through walls, it shouldn’t be blocked by a closed door in a later scene.
If it’s unaffected by physical objects, a character shouldn’t be able to hit it with a baseball bat.
Tip 21: Remember the Ghost’s Backstory
The ghost’s backstory is an important part of its character.
It can explain why the ghost acts the way it does, why it appears the way it does, and what it wants.
This can add depth to the ghost and make it more than just a spooky apparition.
Remembering the ghost’s backstory can also help you be more consistent in your descriptions.
For example, if the ghost died in a fire, it might avoid fireplaces or get agitated when a character lights a match.
Here is a video I made about how to describe a ghost in writing:
How to Describe a Scary Ghost in Writing
When describing a scary ghost, focus on creating a sense of unease and terror.
Use strong, evocative language and appeal to the reader’s senses.
The ghost might appear as a shadowy figure with piercing eyes, or as a spectral figure in tattered clothes.
Its presence might be accompanied by a drop in temperature, an oppressive silence, or a feeling of being watched.
Descriptions of the ghost’s actions can also add to the fear factor. For instance, the ghost might move in an unsettling manner, or it might suddenly appear or disappear without warning.
The ghost’s behavior can also contribute to the fear factor.
It might engage in menacing activities, like tormenting the living characters or causing disturbing phenomena like slamming doors or flickering lights.
Remember to show the characters’ reactions to increase the fear factor. Their terror can amplify the reader’s own fear.
How to Describe a Friendly Ghost in Writing
A friendly ghost is usually less eerie and more comforting or quirky.
Its appearance might be less intimidating – perhaps it’s translucent and glows softly, or maybe it appears just like a normal human, only slightly out of place.
Its movements might be more gentle and less sudden, like a soft fluttering rather than a sudden apparition.
The ghost’s behavior can indicate its friendly nature.
It might be helpful towards the living characters, guiding them or protecting them.
It might even have a sense of humor, causing harmless pranks instead of scary phenomena. Remember to show the characters’ reactions to the ghost.
If they’re not afraid of the ghost and instead come to see it as a friend or ally, the reader will too.
How to Describe a Ghost’s Movement
Ghosts typically move in ways that are unlike the living, adding to their eerie nature.
They might float or glide instead of walking, or move through walls and other solid objects.
They might appear or disappear suddenly, or move without making a sound.
Their movements might also be strangely slow or fast, or they might remain still and unmoving in a way that living creatures can’t.
When describing a ghost’s movement, use sensory details and strong, evocative language.
For example, a ghost might “drift like a cloud of mist,” or “move with an uncanny stillness.” Their movements might cause a “cold draft,” or be accompanied by a “faint, eerie whisper.”
How to Describe a Ghost’s Voice
A ghost’s voice is usually different from a living person’s voice, adding to the ghost’s otherworldliness.
It might echo or sound far away, or it might be whispery or chilling.
It might even sound hollow or emotionless, or it might carry the emotions the ghost felt at the time of its death.
When describing a ghost’s voice, rely on concrete details and resonate language.
For example, a ghost’s voice might “echo through the room like a cold wind,” or be “as quiet as a sigh.”
It might “sound like it’s coming from a great distance,” or be “filled with an ancient sorrow.”
50 Words to Describe a Ghost in Writing
Here is a list of words to describe a ghost in writing:
Phrases to Describe a Ghost in Writing
Consider these phrases to describe a ghost in writing:
- “Like a shadow in the corner of your eye.”
- “A chill wind that passes through you.”
- “A presence that you feel more than see.”
- “An echo of a life once lived.”
- “A figure that’s there one moment and gone the next.”
- “As silent as the grave.”
- “An unsettling stillness.”
- “Eyes that glow with an otherworldly light.”
- “A voice as cold as the grave.”
- “A figure that seems to absorb the light around it.”
How to Introduce a Ghost in Writing
Introducing a ghost in your story should be done in a way that builds anticipation and suspense.
Start by foreshadowing its appearance with subtle hints, like a sudden drop in temperature, a feeling of being watched, or a pet acting strangely.
When you’re ready to introduce the ghost, do it in a way that engages the reader’s senses.
Describe the ghost’s appearance, the way it moves, the sound of its voice.
Show the characters’ reactions to increase the emotional impact.
Remember to keep some mystery about the ghost. Don’t reveal everything about it at once.
Instead, reveal its backstory, its motivations, and its nature slowly, throughout the story. This keeps your readers interested and engaged, wanting to find out more about the ghost.
Final Thoughts: How to Describe a Ghost in Writing
When writing ghost stories, I’ve always found it helpful to connect the ghost to the plot, theme, and problem of the story.
In this way, the ghost grows organically from your story instead of seemingly dropped in as a whim.
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She saw her grandmother ironing in her bedroom. But once she left her bedroom, she heard her grandmother call her from the kitchen. How could she be in two places at one time? Or who was ironing? If you have a real ghost story or supernatural event to report, please write into our show or call 1-855-853-4802! If you like the show, please help keep us on the air and support the show by becoming an EPP (Extra Podcast Person). We'll give you a BONUS episode every week as a "Thank You" for your support. Become an EPP here: http://www.ghostpodcast.com/?page_id=118 or at or at http://www.patreon.com/realghoststories Watch more at: http://www.realghoststoriesonline.com/ Follow Tony: Instagram: HTTP://www.instagram.com/tonybrueski TikToc: https://www.tiktok.com/@tonybrueski Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tony.brueski
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How comics legend Daniel Clowes composed his ‘magnum opus’
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On the Shelf
By Daniel Clowes Fantagraphics: 106 pages, $30 If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org , whose fees support independent bookstores.
Daniel Clowes has been writing and drawing comics professionally for almost 40 years, turning out some of the most acclaimed and influential graphic novels the medium has produced — including “ Ghost World ” and “ Wilson ,” both of which he helped adapt into movies.
Yet even now, the way the 62-year-old works is “mysterious, even to myself.”
“I sort of imagine what a book would look like and then I start moving toward that,” he said in a Zoom interview. “It’s almost like a sculpture more than a comic.”
Clowes’ latest book is “Monica,” a collection of nine interconnected stories — and also so much more. Initially, each story recalls a different classic comics genre: a little war, a little romance, a little horror and so on. Gradually the genres bleed into one another until, as Clowes described it, “It’s like when you mix all the colors together and it just turns gray.”
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The result is a work that Clowes’ friend Ari Aster , the writer-director of the films “ Hereditary ” and “ Midsommar ,” described via email as “Dan’s magnum opus.”
“It feels like an unselfconscious snarling together of all the phases and styles and preoccupations of his career,” Aster said, “while also being among the most personal things he’s ever written.”
The personal parts are what longtime fans may find the most moving. Clowes’ comics have occasionally veered into first-person essays, and his stories are often laced with his own memories and observations. “ Art School Confidential ,” which has also been made into a movie, is a fiercely honest and hilarious memoir. But “Monica” cuts deeper.
Clowes began the project by envisioning the kind of cheap old square-bound comics anthology that gathers dust in thrift shops — like a 1970s DC Comics “100-Page Super Spectacular,” but without superheroes. “It was almost like a dream image,” he recalled. “It seemed like something that should exist.”
Originally the book’s nine stories were going to stand alone, but during the writing process Clowes shifted toward telling the story of one person’s life against a backdrop of paranormal suspense: a roman à clef crossed with EC Comics’ “ The Haunt of Fear .”
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So while there are tangents throughout “Monica” — an aging artist’s rant in one piece, a sort of detective story in another — Clowes returns repeatedly to the title character. His Monica is a lost soul, who is abandoned by her free-spirited hippie mother as a child and then spends much of her adulthood trying to piece together what exactly happened.
Monica’s story is, in part, Clowes’ story. His early years were also a whirlwind, with multiple moves and different father figures.
“I had a very chaotic childhood and I never understood it,” he said. “I always imagined that after my mom died I would talk to my brother and he’d finally explain the logistics of it all. And then my brother died before my mom, who died about a month later. I have no other relatives. That’s it. There’s nobody left who knows the story.”
Through letters his mother left behind and fragments of his own memories, Clowes has puzzled out a few details. His mother and father were involved in auto racing in Clowes’ hometown of Chicago; they hired a driver for the race car they built together. As Clowes tells it, his mother left his father for the driver — “who I vaguely remember.” But then the driver died.
“Then I was taken to my grandma and that was kind of it,” Clowes said. “It was just this very complicated thing.”
In “Monica,” the character’s quest to understand herself by learning more about her mother takes some more dramatic turns. She discovers a radio that broadcasts her dead grandfather’s voice. She becomes the rich and famous owner of a candle store. And by following her mother’s trail, she ends up living with a dangerous, distrustful cult.
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To illustrate the sinister, supernatural forces creeping underneath Monica’s life, Clowes drew on images from the comics equivalent of B-movies: long-forgotten imitation EC, DC and Marvel comics cranked out by writers and artists who ended up pouring their own fears and anxieties onto the page while scrambling to make deadline.
“Those stories are mostly unreadable,” Clowes said, “But the individual panels to me had the weight of a great enigmatic painting or movie. Something that had a lasting power.”
The motif of mysticism that runs through “Monica” also recalls the work of Clowes’ cartoonist friend Richard Sala , who died while the book was still being created — and whose fascination with H.P. Lovecraft and pulp mysteries became an inspiration to Clowes.
“I started to imagine Richard as like a ghost haunting the entire book,” Clowes said. “Standing there in the panel, observing.”
The two men lived near each other in Oakland, where Clowes still lives with his wife, Erika. Clowes and Sala used to get together with other local artists to talk about comics, movies, life … everything.
It’s a tradition Clowes has maintained, offering companionship and advice to younger cartoonists including “ Shortcomings ” author Adrian Tomine and “The Man in the McIntosh Suit” author Rina Ayuyang. “He is still keeping up with what current comic artists are working on and I appreciate that,” Ayuyang said via email. “He’s so down-to-earth and unassuming. Maybe it’s the Midwesterner in him.”
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Tomine and Ayuyang have both read “Monica,” and they have their own takes.
Tomine, via email, wrote, “It’s got a certain tenderness, especially in relation to childhood, but it’s also infused with a raw sense of grief and mortality that, believe it or not, makes all his earlier work seem sugarcoated.”
Ayuyang’s read is more existential. “At its core, the book is about isolation and a need for belonging,” she said, “but there’s also a desperate search and attempt to connect with the pieces of one’s past, in order to define the meaning of one’s present, to understand how we came to be, on a personal level and on a cosmic level.”
Clowes himself is cagier about how to interpret “Monica” — and in particular its startling ending, which Aster described as a “gut punch.”
“I know after the fact what it all means,” Clowes said, describing an approach to storytelling that has been compared to the noir-ish nightmares of filmmaker David Lynch . “When I’m doing it, it’s like being in a dream. You get in a certain state and follow that path of logic. It has a certain vibration to it, where you’re like, ‘OK, this panel’s right, this panel’s right…’ It’s like a tightrope walk.”
Clowes said making “Monica” was the most purely enjoyable experience he’s had in his career — which may be why it took him more than five years to finish. And it reaffirmed that he’d rather be working on comics than movies. “I’ve got a few little ideas [for films],” he said. “But I’m mostly just all comics. That’s all I want to do. Movies aren’t as much fun.”
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Aster understands. “I love the films that he and [director Terry] Zwigoff made together,” he said. “But if Dan is only functioning as a screenwriter, he is being held out of a process for which he has a real and rare genius, and that’s in image-making.”
As his younger colleagues attest, Clowes is still studying and refining his craft. “I feel like it took me almost 40 years to get to the point where I can actually understand some of what I was always trying to do,” Clowes said. “ I’m at the age where you should be stuck in your thing and riding it until you’re done. Instead, I feel like, ‘Oh man, if I had another 30 years I could really do something great.’”
Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter from Central Arkansas.
Clowes will be signing copies of “Monica” at Skylight Books on Oct. 20.
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Sweden’s ‘queen of Noir’ Camilla Läckberg accused of using a ghostwriter
Crime novelist has been forced to deny claims that she tricked readers into buying books she didn’t write herself
It is a gripping detective story typical of the queen of Nordic noir, leaving fans pondering the ethics of relationships and the dirty secrets of people with power and influence.
But for once, bestselling crime novelist Camilla Läckberg is not the author of this particular literary whodunnit, but its protagonist.
Läckberg, a star in her native Sweden who has been hailed as the country’s answer to Agatha Christie for her output of thrillers, kids’ stories and cookbooks, last week had to deny that she had tricked her admirers into buying books that were not written by her, after data analysis suggested she had used unattributed ghostwriters for some of her recent novels.
For an article in online magazine Kvartal , which became the talk of literary Sweden at this month’s Gothenburg book fair, journalist Lapo Lappin ran Läckberg’s novels through a “stylographic” data tool, which counts the most common words in a text, processes them using statistical methods and then compiles the results in a diagram.
The tool found a consistency of style in the mystery novels set in her hometown of Fjällbacka that first made Läckberg’s name, centred around husband-and-wife detective duo Erica Falck and Patrik Hedström. A more recent series of revenge thrillers, however, was mapped on a different corner of its diagram altogether.
Kvartal’s journalist fed books by Sweden’s eight bestselling crime writers into another forensic linguistics tool, JGAAP – the same AI-powered programme that in 2013 revealed Harry Potter novelist JK Rowling to have authored the crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
The programme noted a marked similarity between the style of Läckberg’s revenge novels The Golden Cage (2019) and Wings of Silver (2020) and the output of fellow crime writer Pascal Engman, who has worked as Läckberg’s editor at publishing house Forum. With another short novel, 2021’s Kvinnor utan nåd ( Women Without Mercy ), the programme identified Engman as the sole author.
“The overall conclusion from the data analysis strongly favours the ghostwriter theory,” claimed the article in Kvartal .
Rumours about Läckberg’s use of ghostwriters had preceded the article, first fuelled by Håkan Lindgren’s 2021 novel Ghostwriter, in which fictional crime queen “Milli Månsson” delegates her works to another novelist. Confronted with the theory in interviews, Läckberg had previously insisted that Engman worked only as her editor, “and nothing more than that”.
As the new claims hit Swedish headlines last week, the novelist took to Instagram to suggest the investigation into her work had been born out of literary snobbery.
“They say I am not a good enough ‘stylist’ and therefore of course do not deserve my success and so many readers,” she wrote in a post on Wednesday. “What they lack in that equation is that a writer should first and foremost be a STORYTELLER!”
In an earlier post, she had written “I have many times openly and publicly praised Pascal for helping me write in a way that was new to me”, saying she had needed Engman’s help to find a new voice for her new series of “Faye” revenge novels, which includes The Golden Cage and Wings of Silver . “It’s not a secret by any means. And obviously I have succeeded very well.”
Her post did not directly rebut the AI programme’s findings about the authorship of Women Without Mercy , and Läckberg’s publisher did not respond to a query asking if she categorically ruled out having used a ghostwriter for the short book.
Engman has strongly denied the accusation that he has ever worked as more than an editor on Läckberg’s books, telling Kvartal : “Anyone who has published a book knows that it is an editor’s job to work with the author’s text in various ways. For the sake of clarity, I strongly refute what you are insinuating.”
But the magazine’s claims have started a wider debate about Swedish publishing’s handling of its most successful export. Some critics have argued that the enormous global demand for Scandi noir means readers cannot realistically expect every word to be written by the author named on the cover. Others disagree.
“If I buy a book by a certain author I want it to be written by that author,” journalist Lasse Winkler told broadcaster Sveriges Radio. “Of course the experience of reading the book may be just as interesting, perhaps even more interesting. But as a consumer I expect something, because I have a relationship with this particular author. So it becomes a moral issue.”
Literary collaborations have become increasingly accepted in crime writing in recent years. Since the death in 2004 of Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo , his “Millennium” series has been continued by crime writers David Lagercrantz and Karin Smirnoff. Bestselling American author James Patterson regularly collaborates with other writers to keep up an output of several books per year.
The difference, said Kvartal ’s Lappin, was that those books credited their co-authors. “James Patterson is very open about the fact that he provides the plots, and other authors provide the words,” he said. “I can see the benefits of that approach. If an author were to merely credit their ghostwriter with a thank-you note at the back, that strikes me as false.”
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- Stieg Larsson
- Artificial intelligence (AI)
- Crime fiction