Sunday, 14 February 2016

Ghost Stories Don't Need to be Scary

I always used to think that ghost stories should be scary - probably something to do with watching too much Scooby Doo as a child! It was only after I actually sat down to write one, that I realized they don’t have to be spine-chilling. In fact, ghost stories can be romances, family tales, comedy even – not necessarily something dark and gothic.

This week, in Take a Break Fiction Feast, I have a ghost story called ‘Hearts in the Sand’ and I thought I’d use it as an example of how to write a non-scary ghost story.

Feeling lonely after the death of her husband, Kevin, Julie moves to the seaside town where they had been planning to retire. It was a place Kevin had stayed as a child. A place very special to him.

While walking on the beach one day, Julie sees a child drawing hearts in the sand. The little girl, who says her name is Ella, the tries to engage her in conversation but Julie wants to be alone with her sadness. Ella tells Julie she loves the beach and asks her whether she does too. When Julie shakes her head, the little girl draws another heart and says, ‘I’ll teach you how.’

The following day, the child is on the beach again and Julie is irritated when she asks her once more if she loves the beach. Unperturbed by Julie's unfriendliness, Ella shows her a beautiful coral sea fan. The same thing happens on the following days with Ella showing Julie new things from the beach: a sea potato, a tiny velvet crab, an oystercatcher. The little girl continues to ask Julie if she loves the beach but, despite being shown all the wonderful things it has to offer, she can’t see beyond her loneliness.

Over the coming days, Julie notices the girl is looking increasingly pale and out of breath and worries she’s unwell. Ella tells Julie she lives in one of the cottages at the back of the beach. As Julie looks, a woman comes out and she presumes it’s the girl’s grandmother. She says she’ll take Ella back home but when she gets there Ella isn’t behind her.

The woman, Elizabeth, who is also widowed, invites Julie in. She tells Julie she’s seen her around town and had wondered whether she was new to the area. There is a photo on the wall with a little girl in it who Julie recognizes as Ella. She’s sitting on the beach with a boy. When Julie tells Elizabeth she’s met her granddaughter, we find out that the girl in the picture is not her granddaughter at all but Elizabeth’s sister, Ella, who died of leukemia when she was nine. The little boy is Julie’s husband, Kevin, who used to stay in the cottage with his family when it was a guesthouse. They had both loved the beach and Kevin used to show Ella all the beautiful and interesting things he found there.

At the end of the story, we realise Ella was in fact a ghost. Through her, Kevin was able to help his wife fall in love with the place - by showing her the things that were special to him. A well as that, Ella and Kevin had helped Julie find a new friend in Elizabeth.

So you see, it’s not necessary for a ghost story to be scary – this one was in fact a story about love.

Here were some techniques I used to write the story:

An interesting setting
Whether a ghost story is to be scary or not, you need to create atmosphere. I chose a beach (one of my favorite story settings). Whatever setting you use, remember to use all your senses in your descriptions.

Make sure your ghost has a reason or motive for existing
My ghost, Ella, was a vehicle for Julie’s late husband to help her to fall in love with her new home. She was also integral in helping Julie banish her loneliness..

Give the reader clues about the ghost
Obviously, we don’t want to give the game away too soon but we want the reader to look back and say ‘Oh, yes – now I see!’

These clues might be in the ghost’s appearance or maybe in something they say. Here are the clues I left in Hearts in the Sand.

  • It’s a cold day when Julie first meets Ella. She is wearing gloves but the child’s hands are bare and she doesn't seem to feel the cold. Later, Julie comments on the fact that Ella's only wearing a woolen dress and no coat.
  • Julie is surprised that she’s out on the beach alone.
  • Julie wonders why she’s not at school.
  • I mention Ella’s pale hair and the blue veins showing beneath the skin of her wrist.
  • Ella climbs the rocks easily despite mention of her frailty.
  • From the window of her house, Julie thinks she sees Ella on the beach despite the rain.
  • When she gets to Elizabeth’s gate, Ella is no longer there.

There you have it. Ghost stories don’t need to scare. Have you written a ghost story? If so, what techniques did you use?


  1. Thank you Wendy. Wonderful post. It's made me think.

  2. Thank you Wendy. Wonderful post. It's made me think.

  3. Great post, Wendy I bought FF yesterday but haven't looked at it yet. Glad I haven't because it will be good reading your story knowing what you put into it.

    1. Oh dear - I should have put a spoiler alert, Pat!

  4. I'm usually too much of a wimp to write scary stories, so my ghosts tend to be friendly, Wendy.

    Look forward to reading your story.

    1. I've had several ghost stories published and, like you, none are scary.

  5. I shall look forward to reading it Wendy. I love writing ghost stories and actually have three 'out there' which I tried to make more atmospheric than really scary.
    Thank you for this post. Really helpful :-) xx

  6. I have written a ghost story; it's a Xmas one. About an older woman who has lost her confidence, but gets it through her late husband's panto wand when she plays the fairy godmother. Yes, I will be sending it to TaBFF.

    1. Great idea, Julie. They like quirky story ideas.

  7. Thank you for sharing Wendy, i really enjoyed the incite behind your story.
    A great idea!
    I'll look out for it in the magazine.

  8. I like this new way to look At ghost stories. I have tried to write one about a helpful ghost ion a dark setting . Very helpful blog

  9. Only time I tried a ghost story it turned out to be a match-making ghost. :D

  10. Great post, Wendy. Just reading it made me sniffle so think I'd be in floods if I read the actual story. But you know me ...

  11. Great advice and tips on writing in the this genre. Thanks!

  12. I don't 'do' supernatural stories but your post has made me think again. Perhaps I shall try a gentle ghost. Thank you, Wendy.

  13. I've written a number of ghost stories, Wendy, and found this post very interesting. Mine are the friendly sort as opposed to the scary ones.

  14. Love ghost stories, Wendy, and this is a beautiful idea. Thanks for sharing your method and tips with us.