Ghost stories have been around for thousands of years. The Assyrians wrote them down from around 3,000 BCE (that’s over 5,000 years ago) but spoken versions were probably much older. Shakespeare was a fan of a phantom or two, and featured them in at least six of his plays. How do you write a truly frightful ghost story? When it comes to creating the perfect terrifying tale (or any story for that matter), think POLICE.
Police? I thought they were just for crimes and stuff. Ed
It’s an ACRONYM, just keep reading and all will become clear.
Planning your story is essential; the good news is you’re already doing it. Brainstorm ideas, think about your structure and how each element will link together. Make a list of bullet points or draw little doodles for each of your plot points. Plans may change as your story develops and that’s fine! Early plotting will help set the pace, so you’ll be able to avoid frustration later on.
A brilliant beginning is essential. Set the stage early in the reader’s mind. It can be useful to start with something big and noisy happening and a conversation between your main characters about that big and noisy thing that has just happened. Show us as much as you can about you main characters in those first three or four sentences. Alternatively, try setting the tone with some mysterious questions that need answering.
‘BANG!’ The door to the cellar flung open. ‘What in the world?’ said Crystal, already heading towards the stairs. ‘I think we should leave whatever it is, alone!’, answered Billy, his eyes wide and watery.
No one knew why the lake turned black that summer. Or, if they knew, they certainly wouldn’t say.
The scariest things often dwell in dark, barely seen spaces so you might choose to keep the details of certain locations vague. Consider places like ruined buildings, graveyards, forgotten castles, remote log cabins or old research facilities. Natural locations can be excellent too, like caves, cliffs, forests and large bodies of open water. Think about places that make you feel ever so slightly nervous, and base your story there. Deserted fairgrounds, deep dark woodland, abandoned supermarkets are all good. Or, if you want to, why not take a typically bright and cheerful location and use little unsettling details to make it scary!
In order for any story to work, something needs to happen. Your characters need a problem to grapple with. Readers tend to be most scared of things they can’t see, so ramp up the anticipation and foreboding. The quick glimpse, the fleeting shadow, the slight footfall, the soft sigh/whisper, the creaking door or the distorted reflection are much creepier than wails, screams and shrieks. In Herman Melville’s classic seafaring adventure Moby Dick, the big white whale, the focus of so much angst, finally surfaces as late as chapter 133! Sometimes events might happen in short sentences at breakneck speed, while other parts of the narrative can become more serpentine and develop more slowly. Varying the pace keeps your audience hooked on the story.
In order to shine, your characters need to be in conflict with one another, so create them with this in mind. You might have a town planner for a main character, who is haunted by the owner of an old building he intends to tear down. What about a dentist that is haunted by all the teeth she’s pulled out (bit weird, Ed), or a pupil who’s visited by the ghost of an old teacher? The possibilities are endless. What are your characters’ motivations and do they have a relevant ‘back story’? Use characters to blend fun thrills with deep-seated worries. Engage the reader and make them empathise with the character. Help them to feel what others are feeling.
Top tip: Not all characters have to be likable. In fact, it’s essential they are flawed because so are we. Make sure none of your protagonists behave perfectly or predictably.
Your story does not need to be neatly wrapped up, as long as it lingers in the mind. Try ending on a question for example, or leaving one little detail unanswered. The central character may return to ordinary life but be massively changed by their ghostly experience. Maybe you want to create a suspenseful ‘cliff-hanger’, or a sudden end may leave the reader shocked or surprised. An implied ending may offer several different interpretations. Alternatively you might offer ‘a crystal ball’ situation, where the reader is left to fathom out what might happen in the future. Remember though, offering too much explanation at the end of a story can lessen its impact.
Written by John Davis. John Davis is a retired primary school teacher and college tutor. He now works as a freelance writer, including weekend football match reporting, and is an avid student of 20th-century European history.