Halloween may be over, but ghost stories have a lot more to do with the winter holidays than just the harvest-time festival of sweets. According to Victorian tradition, November and December are just as good for a haunt as Halloween. So, we’re taking a look at the tricky business of plotting a ghostly tale.
This is directed to written ghost stories specifically. The ones told verbally to an audience have their own set of techniques. When writing ghost story, you not only create the ghost, you also craft how people encounter this ghost. This involves two major parts to the plot: History (the ghost’s origin/story) and Current Events (the characters being haunted).
This pattern is very common in modern supernatural/horror movies. Many spend time revealing the history portion with clues that must be uncovered either by research, through the specter’s behavior, or told directly through some special communication with the spirit. The Others, a wonderful movie ghost story, approaches the dual plot model by inverting it, setting the ghost’s story in the foreground while revealing bits of current events.
This structure is far from a modern invention. Great Ghost Stories, a public domain publication of ghost stories by various authors from the late 19th, early 20th century, has a wide range of traditional-style ghost stories. They each demonstrate different methods for balancing the two crucial plot lines.
“The Roll-Call of the Reef” by A.T. Quiller-Couch places the history and current events very close, layering the experience within the lifetime of a man and his son. The story is told by the son, of the experience of his father. This experience involves two soldiers the father met in life, knew through death, and returned in spirit. The element connecting these characters and distinct times is a chain with a particularly unusual lock. This item also provides proof that the experience was real. Items, places, people, times, etc. to connect both stories are not always necessary, but they are a quick way to establish immediacy in the narrative.
“The Open Door” by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant (1889) is told in first-person by a skeptical man whose son has discovered a haunting that must be resolved. The history portion is only revealed in the final pages of the story, after the local parson sends the lost soul to rest and tells his companions afterward of the man whose spirit they heard wailing in the woods. This story is an example of a sentimental haunting, very much about emotion rather than inducing fear. The clues revealed about that past appear in the details of the haunting rather than through communication or research.
“The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” by Montague Rhodes James (1911) has a surprisingly complex history/current event structure with three layers. The narrator discovers the story while researching the man who experienced the haunting. The history (the ghost’s story) is limited to conjecture, though details come to light through further research on the part of the narrator after the story of the haunting. It’s even farther removed, considering the story is told through piecing together diary entries, letters, and business documents. This is actually an excellent device to justify the kind of selective detail needed to create suspense and mystery. If you don’t want the reader to know too much, just say the information was lost or the documents damaged.
“The Four-Fifteen Express” by Amelia B. Edwards (1867) achieves a very modern feel through the structure. The narrator experiences the haunting personally, then must defend his experience in the face of sharp inquiry and rebuttal by witnesses, men of great influence, and even his friends. The history is worked out, revealing not only that the man (the ghost) in question was innocent of an alleged crime, but that he was also murdered. This reveals to the narrator, and his friend, that he had indeed met and conversed with a ghost. The question of the legitimacy of a ghost provides an excellent incentive to develop the clues, using natural curiosity and processes of inquisition to gradually deliver clues for the audience.
If you missed trying out a ghostly tale during October, don’t despair. Have some fun with the dark months and write one you’d be proud to tell on some cold winter night!
Ghost Story Elements:
Holiday Ghost Story Tradition: