Ghost stories: Ghosts rules


04 October 2022
How to write a really good ghost story, by Winter Haunts organiser Alex Davis

This November sees the first running of Winter Haunts, an online day focusing on ghost stories, Gothic and supernatural fiction. Running on the 6th November, the event draws together a superb line-up of speakers, including Sarah Waters, Paul Tremblay, Dacre Stoker, Stephen Volk and many more. With interviews, workshops, panels and talks, this promises to be a must-see event for readers and writers in the genre. You can find out more here.

To celebrate the event, we’ll take a look at the ghost story in a number of special articles from event organiser – and Writing Magazine's speculative fiction expert – Alex Davis.

I’m not always someone who loves to use the word ‘rule’ where it comes to writing – fundamentally because the moment you try and imply something is a rule, someone sagely points out an author or book that does the opposite and works better for it. So when I discuss rules today what I am going to talk about are the ways in which ghosts interact and behave within a ghost story. You might even consider it a very light piece of worldbuilding – while the setting of the story is liable to be real, be it modern or historical, the ghosts you are creating need something to govern what they do and the licence they have. You will have seen many different takes on this in fiction, some of which we’ll come to shortly.

But why does it matter so much? In a nutshell – suspension of disbelief in the reader. If you set up at the start of a book that your ghost is unable to walk through walls, and then later on it does that very thing, it’s liable to jolt the reader out of their immersion in the tale. That’s just one example, and a pretty clichéd one at that. There is a lot of freedom, as these rules are yours to create – and you can go for some of the classic ghost traits, or maybe do something completely different. But once they are set up they should be consistent throughout the story, and if they are going to change it should be done by logical progression and not simply changing ‘on a dime’ because you either forgot it was a rule, or that you forgot to include said logical set-up for it.

Now, the question on your mind may be – what exactly are the areas we should be considering? And in response to that I have some questions for you – quite a lot, in fact. This ‘ghost questionnaire’ is of my own devising and seeks to clarify some of the key elements of behaviour and ‘science’ that your particular brand of ghost will have to stick to. I’d heartily suggest spending some time playing with the questions below and trying to answer as many as you can – any you’re unsure on at first, just leave for now and come back. This can also prove a very helpful record for you as you progress through your tale, so there can be good value in keeping this close at hand.

Here goes:

• What is your ghost's name? Could be its name from before it died, or a name given later on.

• Are they aware of being a ghost?

• What does the ghost look like? Do they have any visual appearance at all?

• Do they have any physical presence?

• What is the ghost able to do physically? Can it move, touch things, be touched?

• Why does it have physical presence/influence – or not?

• Do they inhabit one place, or move around?

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• Why is that the case?

• Where is the ghost mostly seen? Try and be specific.

• Why is that the case?

• When is the ghost mostly seen? A certain time, day season?

• Why is that the case?

• Can they be seen by many people, just a few, or only one person?

• Why is that the case?

• How did they know or recognise any living people?

• What are their feelings towards those people they can see?

• Are there any rumours or stories about the ghost locally? Or even nationally?

No less than MR James himself said that ghost stories had to be believable to truly work, and while these rules are not that only thing that achieves that, developing them and sticking to them certainly does go a long way. It can be different for each story you like, and something you can experiment with in numerous ways, but consider each project a ‘pocket universe’ which needs rules of its own.