Introducing the story: Ghost stories often begin as a fireside entertainment, usually in winter at Christmas or New Year. The narrator is sometimes reluctant to tell his/her story because it is not mere light-hearted entertainment, but the account of a gruesome or disturbing event that would be best forgotten. (Cambridge don and celebrated writer of ghost stories M.R. James wrote his first spine-chilling tales as part of a Christmas entertainment for his friends).
First person narrative: This is a good way for the storyteller to carry the reader with her/him. This is a common device used by many authors. The narrator does not have to communicate directly with the audience. Sometimes their story may consist of a written account set down some years previously and ‘discovered’ by a second narrator who feeds the story to the audience.
Atmosphere: Good examples are the period settings provided by Susan Hill in The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror. In most novels, you need to keep descriptive passages to a minimum or you lose the reader. However, with ghost stories you can let your imagination off the leash. Descriptive scene-setting is used to create atmosphere and build tension. Locations often consist of derelict houses or buildings in remote locations such as islands, moors or woods where the protagonist is cut off from help and humanity.
Unfamiliar surroundings: The sense of psychological disturbance is often created by the protagonist finding her/himself isolated in unfamiliar surroundings. For instance, the governess in The Turn of the Screw takes up a new post; James Monmouth in The Mist in The Mirror returns to Britain from many years abroad; Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black travels to an unfamiliar part of the country to perform an official duty.
Warnings of disaster: These can be conveyed by other characters or by signs communicated to the narrator/protagonist. However, they should not reveal the full story, but merely create a sense of deep unease about a certain subject – a place or person. Instead of protecting the story’s protagonist, such warnings create a tantalising hook, increasing the protagonist’s curiosity to a point where he/she is determined to discover the truth despite all warnings of danger.
Mystery: This drives the plot and is often linked to the warnings/signs of disaster mentioned above. It may consist of unexplained remarks, strange happenings or sightings.
Pathos: This is a frequent element in ghost stories which engages the reader’s emotions. Look for the character that compels compassion and draws the reader into the story. Despite his initial unpleasantness, Scrooge captivates the reader and wins their sympathy. In The Woman in Black, the narrator is drawn in by his sympathy for the mysterious woman.
A distorted sense of reality: Is there really a ghost or are the terrifying events simply a manifestation of a disturbed mind? The best ghost stories have a strong psychological element and some may leave the reader wondering whether the strange happenings really took place or were a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.
Sensation: The sign of a good ghost story is the thrill or spine-tingling effect. The reader must experience a heightened state of anxiety and fear, experiencing the events through the eyes of the protagonist or characters in the story. A lingering sense of uncertainty about the facts or the ending itself helps to heighten the effect.
Length: Long enough to provide a meaty read but something you can finish in one sitting (preferably in front of a roaring fire with the curtains closed). This helps to maintain the tension.
Note: Further blogs related to writing the supernatural, sinister and unexpected will follow shortly.