Tuesday, September 27, 2022

How to Write a Spooky Ghost Story

By Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Ghost stories both thrill and chill, ad readers love them no matter what time of the year . Rayne Hall shares tips for writing a spooky tale.

Ghost stories have always been reader favorites. They appeal to a wider audience than most other stories: children enjoy them as much as adults, and even people who normally cringe at the thought of Horror fiction gain pleasure from a good ghostly yarn. How can you write an entertaining, creepy story?

Plot and Backstory

All good Ghost stories consist of two tales. The first is the past tragedy which keeps the ghost haunting in search of atonement or vengeance. The second is about the person whose life gets thrown off course when the ghost intervenes.

The Ghost story needs more pre-planning than most other dark fiction, because you need to weave these two strands together.

The human’s story which takes place in the current time is probably the main plot. The ghost’s story is ‘backstory’, revealed perhaps in dialogue when the ghost talks, or in the narrative when the human researches the history of the place.

A common plot for a Ghost story is this: a character hears about a haunted house, derides the superstition, and spends a night there to disprove the existence of the ghost. The ghost is real and so terrifying that the character is glad to get away with his life, and never mocks ghosts again. Many fine ghost stories are built on this basic plot. If you choose to develop this premise, try to come up with a fresh angle.

However, you can use your own ideas for an unusual storyline. With Ghost stories, almost anything goes.

(Here’s more with 13 Tips for Writing a Halloween Story)

Choosing the Location

You may want to set your story a creepy place – a cemetery, a castle ruin, a dilapidated mansion, an abandoned mineshaft or dungeon – or you can surprise the reader by placing the haunting in a setting that’s not normally considered spooky: a bingo hall, a family car, a grocer’s shop, a children's playground, a hotel's swimming pool. Unusual settings will make your story stand out, which can be important when entering a writing contest or submitting to an anthology.

Most hauntings are tied to locations, especially the places where they lived, died or are buried. Old inns, WWII airfields and theatres are among the most haunted places. Choosing one of these settings will give your story believability.

Whatever setting you select for your ghost story – traditional, surprising or probably – it's up to you to make it creepy.

(Here’s more with How Your Setting Can Affect Your Characters)

Creating Spooky Effects

Ghost stories flourish when you create a creepy atmosphere. The following techniques work especially well for Ghost stories:

Darkness, lights and shadows: Show night falling, lightbulbs flickering, shadows dancing across walls.

Sounds: Describe background noises – leaves rustling, shutters banging, a dog howling -, the thud of the living character's own footsteps, and eerie effects like creaking stairs and screeching door hinges.

Chills: Play with the effects of temperature. When the air grows cold and the character feels the chills, the readers will shiver with her. In real-life haunted places, the spot where the ghost appears is often inexplicably colder than the surroundings – perhaps this is an effect you can use.

The mood of most Ghost stories is creepy throughout. Humorous Ghost stories are also popular.

(Here’s more with Scaredy-Pants! 4 Breeches-er- BREACHES That Elicit Fear in Your Characters) 

The Cast of Characters

The story will have at least two characters who interact with one another – a living human and a ghost. Depending on the story's length, you can add one or several additional characters.

Who is the point-of-view?

The natural point of view for a Ghost story is the human who meets the ghost. However, you can surprise your readers by telling the story from the ghost’s perspective, giving them the unique experience of being 'inside' a ghost.

Understanding the ghost

The ghost haunts because she needs something, and she can find no rest until this is achieved. What does she need? It may be something benign, such as revealing the location of the treasure to the right person or making amends for an atrocity, but it can also be something terrible, such as exacting vengeance and killing the last surviving member of a certain family.
  • Who is this character? 
  • Why does she haunt? 
  • What does she need? 
  • What does she do to get this? 
  • In what way does this particular human hold the key to her fulfilment?

Fleshing out the human character

The loving human wants something, too – perhaps related to either the ghost or the place. 
  • What does the human want?
  • Why does he want it?
  • Why is he trying to get it at this time in this place? 
If the setting is an abandoned building or a remote location at night, you need to give him a good reason to be there.
  • How does the human feel about ghosts? 
  • Does he believe in them? 
  • How does he feel about this particular ghost?

(Here’s more with What Makes Your Characters Uncomfortable?) 

You can give the story depth if the needs of the ghost and the human are related, especially if the human is about to make the same mistake the ghost once made, or has a similar guilty secret. Ideally, the human grows as a result of the encounter, and becomes a wiser, better person.

What's your favorite ghost story? What do you think is the best Ghost story ever? What do you like about it? Tell us in the Comments Section.

Rayne Hall is the author of over seventy books, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Her books have been published by several publishers in several countries, and translated into several languages. A trained publishing manager with more than thirty years’ experience in the industry, she also publishes her own books and champions indie-publishing for authors. She is the editor and publisher of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.

Website | Twitter | Facebook  | Goodreads

Romantic and creepy, passionate and thrilling, Gothic fiction grabs readers and makes their hearts thud with excited suspense.

Gothic is one of the oldest fiction genres, with classic masterpieces like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Dracula, Rebecca and The Fall of the House of Usher. In the 21st century, they are represented many Thrillers and Romance novels on current bestseller lists.

So you want to try your hand at writing a Gothic story? Maybe you have a draft novel in another genre that needs more passion and thrills? I'll be your guide, showing you step by step how to craft a Gothic tale.

This book is for experienced writers who want to add to their toolkit. If you're new to the craft of fiction writing, you can still enjoy this book and pick up useful techniques, but writers who've already mastered the basics of their craft will benefit most.

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  1. I love a good ghost story and especially haunted houses! One of my favorites is A Halloween Tale by Austin Crawley. The multicultural ghosts and weird things the house itself does really make the story.

    1. Ooh, this sounds interesting. I don't think I've read this story. I like the idea of multicultural ghosts. Is this story published in an anthology or a collection?

  2. Thanks for hosting my article. :-)

    1. You're most welcome. Thanks for visiting!

  3. I love humorous stories, especially when paired with horror. J.A. Konrath writes a series that has horrific scenes paired with laugh-out-loud moments.

  4. I noticed I haven't read ghost stories since childhood. Do you have any recommendations for people like me who are new to this genre?

  5. I generally stay away from horror movies, but quite enjoy reading horror/creepy stories. Perhaps cliche, but at some point in my childhood I picked up a book by Edgar Allan Poe (Tales of Misery and Imagination) and since then he remained my favourite writer within the wider horror genre. It's going to be interesting re-reading some of those stories and analysing them while having this breakdown in mind.

  6. I love horror stories that are based in relatively non spooky locations. It changes from the usual. Very informative blog for any horror writer that's getting to hone their craft. Cheers!

  7. This interview is really useful for writers who want to write ghost stories. Especially, the information given on topics such as locations, atmospheric creation techniques and character formation is very beneficial. Additionally, the suggestions given on how to bring together two different stories used in ghost stories are also very interesting and useful. Personally, I love ghost stories and horror stories and this interview gave me the opportunity to gain more knowledge.

  8. Thank you for sharing your knowledge generously. I like it when common plots become something totally different with a slight twist. I also find it interesting that the opposite of something creepy can easily become creepy too - how a shiny bright day can become nightmarish when it's well-written for instance.

  9. The stories told from the antagonist’s perspective will always intrigue me. What does the ghost think seeing us shaking out of fear in his presence? How does he feel? Why is he angry? It gives me more pleasure to hear the answers to these questions from him and makes it easier to understand his true intentions.
    Thanks for your instruction and suggestions, Rayne!

  10. Thank you for writing this very detailed post! As a reader of horror stories, I agree with everything you said. It's nice to see a detailed guide on how to make a horror story effective, there's truly a lot of factors to consider, not just merely the plot or characters. Will use this as a guide for future writing endeavors of mine :)

  11. As you mentioned here, wherein there's at least 2 characters which is the ghost and human. Have you ever tried to make a horror story that is merely driven through psychological aspect? Like when it comes to psychologicals, someone there can only be 1 character which is the human battling his own mind. Have you thought of doing something like that?