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.Carmilla, Chapter 1
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: 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
How To Write: 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 Toyshop, 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.”’
The Corner Shop
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.