I’m obsessed with ghost stories. I’ve read hundreds and, while the genre is incredibly diverse and elastic, I’ve noticed that certain components crop up in many of them. Now, to paraphrase Stephen King, the only way to be a better writer is to read more and write more. I think this is certainly true for the ghost story – the more of them you read, the more you start to understand what it is you enjoy about them. And, crucially, you gain a great understanding what’s gone before, which is particularly useful when spotting clichés and unoriginal stuff and separating these from useful motifs and commonly explored themes in this thrilling, ghostly world of words.
The ghost story is a rich tradition with a long history and there’s plenty of homage, even in very modern ghost stories, which, I think, comes from a love of the genre. This series of simply graphics may be useful for those who aren’t sure where to start when structuring a ghost story. It may also give those partway into writing a roadmap of sorts to get to the end of that tricksy first draft. If you follow it, it will suggest that you focus on five areas that I’ve noticed again and again in ghost stories through the ages.
It’s important to say a few things before we dive in:
- This is headed ‘Structure: the make-up of a ghost story’. Specifically, a ghost story not all ghost stories.
- Some of these components may not occur in some ghost stories, the sections may bleed into one another, and they certainly may not happen in the order shown below. The Backstory, in particular, has a habit of cropping up in various places in the narrative, in various different ways, some as a ‘telling’ some as a ‘showing’.
- Finally, there really are no fixed rules – you can write what you want and experiment with the form and riff on what your predecessors have done to your heart’s content. This, really, is only a way in, an examination of the basics that I’ve observed in my extensive reading. I hope it’s helpful!
Have a read through the following graphics, which detail how a ghost story might be considered as having five component parts…
Here’s an example of how this structure can be ‘mapped onto’ a very brilliant ghost story by Algernon Blackwood, ‘The Kit-Bag’:
Here’s a little reading exercise to try. Read a ghost story, any ghost story (if you’d like some suggestions, see the reading list I’ve provided below – many of these are in the public domain). Now, read it again with these elements of structure in mind. Are they there? Are they in this order? Are any of them missing? What’s the impact, if so?
Have a go at completing the empty structure sheet below – add some details from your story. This, I hope, will give you a greater understanding of how a ghost story might be structured:
Write your own
Now, plan your own ghost story using this structure. Don’t forget, everything is up for grabs at this stage – so don’t worry about ‘being right’. Just get some elements down on the page for each part of the structure. Some will be ‘bigger’ than others, more complex, more interesting to you (and, therefore, to your reader). Your set-up may be, for example, as simple as ‘I’m going to tell you what happened.’
With each section, your writing will need to ‘do’ certain things. Some sections will call for description, some for character development, some for examinations of fear, the uncanny, tension, etc. Go back to the first graphic and see if you can ‘check off’ the elements in the boxes as you enter ideas into the sheet.
Finally, write it. Again, don’t feel tied to this structure, and be willing to allow sections to merge and bleed into one another. In fact, I’d say this will be essential for the story to have a natural, unforced flow. Remember, this is just a starting point. And, most importantly, have fun!
- Use bold and strong images in your ghost story writing. If it’s striking to you, it’ll be striking to your reader.
- Think about the ghost, who they were, why they remain. If they have an agenda, you have a backstory ready to go. What do they want?
- Likewise, your protagonist. What is it about them that makes them susceptible (or deserving of) a haunting? Think about Scrooge…! What do they want?
- In that sense, you can make your ghost and your protagonist a perfect (or imperfect) fit. Ask yourself: ‘What sort of person needs a ghost like this and what sort of ghost needs a person like this?’
- Consider using objects in your ghost stories. It can give your tale a focus and your characters a drive (see A Warning to the Curious by M.R. James for a masterclass in this).
Adam Z. Robinson is a writer, theatre-maker and workshop leader. His work includes: Upon the Stair (“Everyone needs to see this show” – ✭✭✭✭½ The Reviews Hub) and Smile Club (✭✭✭✭ The Guardian) written with Andrea Heaton. His plays The Book of Darkness & Light and Shivers toured nationally between 2016-2019. As well as his original plays, Adam has adapted classic works for the stage: Haunted (two national tours, 2023) and A Christmas Carol (national tours 2019-21, residency Barons Court Theatre, London, 2022, residency Saint John Theatre Company, New Brunswick, Canada, 2023). Adam’s other writing includes: Conscientious (national tour 2014) and Seaside Terror (national tours 2017-20) with OddDoll Theatre. Adam is the host of The Ghost Story Book Club podcast.
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