How to write the perfect ghost story…

The perfect Ghost story small

What are your feelings…Ghosts…do they exist? They are ridiculed, have been made mundane, absurd films like Ghostbusters have trivialized them. Kids aren’t blinkered and naïve. Cynics rule.

Christmas seems the perfect time to unleash a Ghost story.
Whatever many writers set out to write thrilling stories to a cynical disbelieving audience. Perhaps the golden age of ghost story telling, the Victorian age, was a period when readers were far more susceptible to believing in ghosts. Modern day readers are far more pragmatic, scrutinizing what they are reading. Equally houses are lit up with bright neon light, streets are not dark and shadowy as they were in past times. I guess very few writers who write ghost stories have ever encountered a “real” ghost, so they are letting their imagination run wild.

For a Ghost story to work it has to sustain a high level of tension, from the opening sentence to the last. Short story format works really well on this account. The author faces a mountainous task of how to conclude their story. It’s not like a crime story…in which all the reader’s questions can be answered at the end, the reader of a ghost story has to be engaged by the plot but at the same time needs to feel uneasy and on edge. A successful ghost story should be overflowing with atmosphere, descriptions of sounds, colours, feelings should prevail. A good Ghost story should not be too far removed from reality, not too fantastical, this way the reader can believe in it, imagining themselves facing such an encounter with a phantom. A good ghost story should not be like a distant long long ago fairy tale, the reader should be led to believe the story takes place in the recent past. Writers should shy away from the over used “old lady” or “tiny infant” go for a ghost that is some ways a mirror of yourself and representative of your fears. Indicate gruesome happenings but let your reader fill in the details.

You can test your ghost story by telling it in a room filled with bright light, during the middle of the day, if you scared under these circumstances your story is on to a winner.

Where should a writer look for their ideas? Should they venture back to their childhood and tap into their childhood fears? Do we have to have led troubled lives to write a good ghost story? With M R James, considered an undoubted master of the genre, apparently this was not the case. A colleague of James’s once said, perjoratively, that his was a life untroubled – a smooth progression from Eton to Cambridge and then back to Eton. He never experienced real life; it was in every sense academic. So seemingly an academic, living in a rather insular world has the makings of a great ghost story writer and perhaps it is the ghost story genre that allowed him to challenge the rational world he inhabited, that lay behind his motivation.

How should we write our ghost story? In the third person or the first person. One option, might be…write it in the first person, but make it obvious the narrator is untrustworthy, flitting between reality and madness.

Ghosts like people, come in many forms and have different missions, whilst amongst the living. Some return from the dead to wreak vengeance; others have good intentions, wanting to help a loved one. Some are the spirits of people who were murdered or committed suicide and so are not at peace and are still troubled beyond the grave.
What we can say definitively all ghost stories should always contain a lot of suspense, always trying to create anticipation and excitement. Atmosphere is vital in building tension in the


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Francis H Powell, author of Flight of Destiny, 22 quirky short stories…

I enjoyed these tales as they gave me a fantastic break from my daily routine and I enjoyed remembering them and day dreaming about them afterwards. They’re a little Ray Bradbury, a little Stephen King, but with Powell’s own unique twists. Very interesting read.


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