Writing a Ghost Story: How to Get Your Reader to Suspend Disbelief

  • November 19, 2018

Ghost story / Photo by Erik Müller on Unsplash

Editor’s Note:

Simone St. James is the award-winning author of An Inquiry into Love and Death and The Haunting of Maddy Clare, which won two RITA awards from Romance Writers of America and an Arthur Ellis Award from Crime Writers of Canada. She wrote her first ghost story, about a haunted library, when she was in high school, and spent twenty years behind the scenes in the television business before leaving to write full-time. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and a spoiled cat.

Each of my books is not only a mystery or a gothic suspense story, but a ghost story as well. It’s by far the most-commented-on aspect of my books every time I get reader mail. “I didn’t expect to like this!” readers say. “I never read ghost stories!”

It’s a bit of a back-handed compliment, but oddly it never offends me. Since writing these books, I’ve discovered that most readers — most people — have honest preconceived notions about ghost stories, mostly that they’re somehow foolish or unbelievable. It’s alien to me, because I’ve never taken a ghost story lightly. Yet people do.

Ghost stories can be written believably, which of course makes them scarier. I do this primarily by making the ghost story very real to me, in my head, while I’m writing it. But there are a number of techniques to make your readers suspend disbelief.

Characters. Some readers call my books “slow-build suspense,” but that’s because I take time to establish character. This step can’t be skipped; readers who aren’t invested in characters don’t care what happens to them. Which means they aren’t scared. Make it matter; make your characters come alive off the page like real people, and your reader is in all the way.

Setting. As Stephen King has proven many times over, a supernatural story doesn’t have to take place in a Gothic mansion on a windswept moor. (Though that IS a great setting.) Any setting can lend itself to a ghost story — I’ve used a boarding school, a mental hospital, and a barn, to name a few. The setting has to be detailed, so real that the reader is there. Isolation helps, though it isn’t essential. What’s essential is that the setting is a character alongside the human ones.

Backstory. What is the ghost’s reason for being there? What happened that the spirit can’t rest? That’s one of the questions that will keep a reader turning the pages, so make the answer a good one. If the answer is based on one of the big human emotions — love, grief, fear, anger — the reader will relate to it, no matter how dramatic the story may be or how remote the setting.

Resolution. Is there a way to make the ghost disappear? Is there something it wants before it can rest? It’s tempting to invent a tidy recipe for the ghost to vanish and all to be well again. What would it be, and how would your characters discover it? On the other hand, life and death can be messy. Maybe your ghost is the kind that will never disappear, and your characters have to leave instead.

Most importantly, the ghost and the characters have to intertwine in an essential way. It can be direct, like having the ghost be a member of the character’s family. But it can also be indirect — a woman who is trying to conceive a baby, for example, encountering the ghost of a mourning mother. A man who has a crime buried in his own past encountering the ghost of a murderer. I did this most obviously in The Haunting of Maddy Clare, in which the ghost chose my main character to appear to, to speak to, and to become a kind of vessel for her revenge. In one scene, Sarah awakens to find the ghost, Maddy, standing over her in bed. “I’m so tired,” the ghost says. It is pitiful and terrifying at the same time, and can only happen to that one character in that one moment. It feels inevitable.

When you dig into them, ghost stories are surprisingly complicated to write. I am always juggling a few things in the air, and if I don’t pull it off I drop them. But they’re rewarding, both to read and to write. And if your reader can suspend disbelief… well, they’re going to have a few restless nights ahead.

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