GHOSTS WITH THE MOST! Five tips to make your ghost stories truly haunting


Five tips to make your ghost stories truly haunting

With the evenings drawing in and a chill sneaking into the air, we’re starting to enter spooky season – that time of year when thoughts turn to the ghostly and supernatural and we can cosy up around the fire with a good book, a good audiobook or even a classic movie chiller.

Of course creating a great ghost story is no simple matter, and if you wanted to turn your hand to writing your own this winter, then here are five tips to help you develop a tale that will stay with your reader long after they have put it down..

1) Develop a strong atmosphere.
Ghost stories in particular are a form of horror that really depends on atmosphere. Because the stories are more subtle and slow-burn, you need to keep the mood right for your audience. Some of this is in setting of course, but much is also in your choice of language. Taking your characters to an ancient, crumbling manor house won’t do it alone! Your adjectives and adverbs might be your first thought, but I often make the point that you can use your verbs really cannily to build more mood. Not only are these less obvious to readers, but it can prevent the sort of description overload that can haunt the ghost story.

2) Pacing is key.
If you’re a fan of horror in its broader sense, there are other subgenres of the form where you can throw out scare after scare without any issues. Slashers, creature features and more besides give you the opportunity to keep tension high by throwing threat after threat at your characters. However in the ghost story we need to be sparing, and this is why it can be so crucial to plan the story out and consider where those terrifying moments will be. Some stories literally leave it to the very last scene to show the ghost itself, or may never show the ghost at all – and as such ensure that you have the story to drive it without the ghost featuring in every other scene is going to be pivotal. As always, get reading some of the great stories in the form and you’ll certainly begin to pick up the distinct way that ghost stories move and flow.

3) Give some thought to epistolary storytelling.
One thing that can often work well in the ghost story is epistolary storytelling – that is using in-world and in-story artefacts to tell the tale. This could take in letters, diaries and in-setting books or stories, or if you want to be a bit more current you could even look at emails, social media messages, text messages and more besides. These sorts of devices can really allow you to enrich the universe of your story, as well as often providing the link to the past that is sometimes so necessary – assuming the ghost can’t explain in words why it is here or what it wants, a diary or a series of letters can suffice just great for our living characters to find that out for themselves. MR James’s Lost Hearts leaps to mind as an example, with the correspondence there telling a really important part of the story that would have been all but impossible to convey any other way. Remember that these approaches are at your fingertips and they can really help elevate your story and immerse your reader even deeper into it.

4) Think hard about the reveal.
I’ve often said that my favourite ghost story is Ringu/The Ring – and I know that because it’s the one that I simply find too scary to go back to. It also features one of the most iconic reveals in all of supernatural fiction, and if you’re looking for a great touchstone for a screen ghost story in the more modern era I would heartily suggest it. And it emphasises an important point – this is a subgenre that depends a great deal on restraint and getting important moments just right, and the first time that we see the ghost is absolutely pivotal. What has come before should be pointing in that direction, so do get this key scene in mind before you start. The first time we see the spirit really needs to have maximum impact, so consider when and where it should happen, who will be there for the encounter and how the ghost itself is going to appear.

5) Consider the ghost as a character.
Where it comes to the ghost story, it’s pretty rare that our supernatural beings are just floating around at random under a sheet. A ghost might be a slightly simplified version compared to our human characters, but they will typically be there with some sort of goal. Is it to provide a warning, to exact revenge on someone who wronged them in life, to reveal something to the world about their own life (or death)? The moment that you give anyone a motivation in a story, they become a protagonist or an antagonist – and that doesn’t change just because the character has shuffled off the mortal coil. Have a think before you start about who this ghost was in life, and that will add a lot more substance and depth to your story, as well as giving a real reason for the things they do in the tale.

Winter truly is ghost story season, and either Hallowe’en or indeed Christmas serve as an ideal time of year to get involved in the form. Atmosphere and pacing are at its very heart, and you can then bring that story to the next level with the use of epistolary devices, a fantastic reveal and strong characterisation on both the living and non-living ends of the spectrum. It can also be a phenomenally enjoyable form to write it, so have fun with trying to chill your readers – and if you happen to chill yourself as you go, then you certainly know it’s working…

Fancy delving even deeper into the ghost story? Then Winter Haunts 2023 might be just the event for you, with an online programme of workshops, interviews and panels with some of the biggest names in ghost stories and the Gothic! Come and join leading names such as Rosie Andrews, Tananarive Due, Mariana Enriquez, Alix E Harrow, Anna Mazzola, Carly Reagon, Stuart Turton, Catriona Ward and many more! For more information, or to book tickets, visit


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