Thursday, 6 February 2014

Shivers down the spine

We received a story into a recent Global Short Story Competition that was, in essence, a ghost story and it got me thinking about the genre.

It is, of course, a classic genre but one that seems less popular today. Pity, because it is immense fun to write.

Ghost stories need subtlety. The golden rule is that less is definitely more when it comes to ghost stories (not a bad maxim for most writing, actually). None of those characters clad in flowing white sheets going ’woo, woo’, more about making the ordinary scary.

Take an example. My grandmother was not scary but she would be if she walked into my office now because she had been dead for 20 years. I’m not being disrespectful about her but it does make the point.

Similarly, I hope I am not frightening but I sure as Hell would be if I turned up in your living room at midnight with a strange smile on my face. The ordinary in the extraordinary setting works well in ghost stories.

You also have to understand the psychology of the reader and what scares them. With me, it’s mirrors at night (who is standing behind me, dare I look?) with others it may be darkness, empty houses etc. You are teasing the reader.

There are some other considerations:

* The impact of media - what scared once does not scare now. In a world of the Chainsaw Massacre and its modern cousin Saw, we are less scared by that kind of material. Ghost story writing has to be more subtle - it is why the Blair Witch Project worked, it played on the viewer‘s mind. So should ghost stories.

* Ghost stories tend not to work if you go for shock horror. A man wielding a weapon may be scary but which sends more shivers down the spine out of the following two examples? Again using a movies theme, which frightened you most in The Shining - the mad Jack Nicholson punching his way through doors or the spectral children glanced only briefly at the end of the corridor? Yes, I know we are blurring the distinction between ghost stories and horror but you get the point. Same rule is true for writing ghost stories.

* So go for normal and contrast it. My office is fine but put the lights off, have a breeze running through it, a strange voice which I can’t quite make out, and it changes. Then I’m anybody’s. In fact, I wish I had not just written that sentence.

* Build tension in the story by hinting at something horrible to come. Good ghost stories begin with normality, and gradually let things develop. It is a gamble: you have to keep the reader interested with the quality of your writing.
Ghost stories need so much to work well - strong characters, great sense of place, use of darkness, weather, sound, phobias, psychology etc - but when they do, they leave the reader glancing over their shoulder for the rest of the day.

John Dean

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