Sunday, 23 October 2016

Writing a Winning Ghost Story

In just over a week's time it will be Halloween. To be honest, I've never been a huge fan of this celebration and even when my children were young, we were never ones for Halloween parties or trick-or-treating.

What I do like, though, is writing and reading ghost stories and this week I've been getting in the mood for all things ghostly, having just judged the Rosemary Robb Ghost Story Competition for the Nottingham Writers Club. I was asked to be adjudicator after the organiser had read one of my blog posts in which I explained how I'd crafted the ghost story that had just been published in Take a Break Fiction feast.

If you'd like to read the post, it's called, Ghost stories don't need to be scary.

There's been some talk on Facebook recently about the importance of selecting the right judge for a particular competition. I agree that matching a judge to the genre is crucial. If I was asked to read a selection of play-scripts or crime novels, I might know which one I liked best but I would find it hard to explain why I thought the entry worthy of being the winner. Why? Because I wouldn't know the craft of that particular type of writing. Equally, I would be in no position to explain why the entries that had not won, had fallen short of their mark. 

On the other hand, short stories in general, romances and magazine stories are things I know about and have had success with. This is why I have been happy to adjudicate stories in these areas - thank you to the Chiltern Writers' Group and the SWWJ for asking me. If you haven't already read my post on being invited to hand out the prizes at the the SWWJ Christmas tea alongside Sir Tim Rice, you can read it here.

So why did I say yes to judging the ghost story competition? It was because, as I said earlier, I love reading a good ghost story but more importantly because I have had success writing them myself otherwise I wouldn't have agreed. I've written eight to date - one that was long-listed for the BBC Opening Lines Competition and the others published in magazines (I even had the honour of writing The People's Friend Magazine's first ghost story).

And that's what I want to talk about today... writing a winning ghost story.

Of course, as with any competition or magazine submission, the judging is subjective to a great extent. Every adjudicator or editor will have a different idea of what they like in a ghost story. Some may like them to be chilling, others might prefer them to to be heartwarming, romantic or humorous. Whatever the judges preference, they will be looking for a well-crafted story that pleases.

Ghost stories fall into three categories:
  • One where the narrator of the story is the ghost. 
  • One where the narrator of the story is being haunted. 
  • One where there is no ghost at all (there is a rational explanation for any ghostly happenings). 
For my own part, apart from the competition listing, all my stories have had a ghost that's been a subtle presence rather than an 'in your face' apparition. More often than not, the ghostly character hasn't been revealed to the reader (or the main character) until the end of the story. See my ghost story breakdown here. That is how I like my ghost stories but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy one that is crafted a different way.

Whatever type of ghost story you decide to write, there is one rule that needs to be followed to make it work. THERE MUST BE A REASON WHY THE GHOST IS HAUNTING. Sorry to shout that but it's really important.
  • The ghost might have had a problem in his/her past life that needs to be resolved (which can usually only be done through the main character).
  • The person being haunted has a problem which the ghost can help with. 
Whichever you decide on, the reader must believe the problem is important enough for the ghost to be there otherwise the story will seem unbelievable and the judge won't want to turn to the next page.

The next thing to think about is the setting. What first comes to mind might be churchyards... old houses... a dark wood at night. Of course, these can lend atmosphere to a ghost story but your setting doesn't have to be dark and Gothic; an ordinary setting can work just as well. Why? Because the reader is more likely to be taken in by it. Settings of my own ghost stories have included: a sailing boat, an underground station, a school, a beach and a street like the one you might live in. Think of an ordinary setting and see how you could make it work.

What about the ghost itself? They can be sinister or benign. Both work. I've even read a story where the ghost had been an animal or an inanimate object. Whoever, or whatever, your ghost is, remember to flesh them out (if that's possible with an apparition!) as you would any other character. Give your ghost personality, and emotions that can be recognised, and help the reader to picture them. Whether the ghost appears to be human or is just a shadowy spirit the reader will want to know if they are angry, sad, lonely or amused? These are all things to think about.

The final thing I want to talk about regarding ghost stories is tension. If your story is a spine-tingler, be sure to build up the tension gradually. Don't tell the reader what is happening straight away - let them fill in the details. Drop in hints that all is not what it seems along the way. If you don't, you will lesson the impact at the end of your story. There will be no surprises and the judge/editor will say, "Okay, but I knew that anyway." Do you have any fears? If so, use them. I'll guarantee they'll be more believable than ones you've made up.

You've thought about all these things and have written a fabulous wining ghost story. Right? Well, not necessarily. At the end of the day, your ghost story is just that... a short story. You mustn't forget the fundamentals of any story. Pace, story arc, a clear beginning middle and end, technicalities such as grammar, punctuation and dialogue and thoughtful word choices are all very important, as is a professionally presented manuscript.

You can read what I look for as a competition judge here.

So there you have it. If you're thinking of having a go at writing a ghost story, I highly recommend this book by Kath McGurl. It's called Ghost Stories and How to Write them

Go on, have a go... whooooo!


  1. Aw thanks for the plug!
    Great post.

  2. Like you I much prefer reading and writing ghost stories to the trick-or-treating espects of hallowe'en. The funny or sweet ones appeal just as much as the creepy ones.

    1. Yes I agree, Patsy. There are so many different types of ghost story and they all have their appeal.

  3. Great post. I love a good ghost story.

  4. Great post. I love a good ghost story.

  5. Really enjoyed this post, Wendy. Full of useful tips for writing ghost stories. Love a spooky tale ...

  6. Excellent post, Wendy - and I do agree about matching the right adjudicator to a competition!

  7. Great post, Wendy. I've had a few ideas for ghost stories floating around (excuse the pun!) for a while now, so this could be the kick up the posterior I need to get one of them written! (obviously I've missed the magazines' Hallowe'en slots for this year!).

  8. Thank you for the Nottingham Writers' Club mention, Wendy.

    The more variety in ghost stories to read, the better. :)