Fantasy trends come and go, and right now, one of the trends in fantasy is ghosts.
From The Conjuring Universe to The Haunting Anthology on our screens, to the influx of new ghost stories being published online, it’s hard to avoid dearly departed characters right now.
Capitalising on popular trends will always be beneficial for your book sales. If it’s a trend, people want more of it. Which gives you a bigger potential audience.
Every trend will always have their die-hard fans, but most people follow trends and get bored once a market is saturated. (Anyone remember dystopian YA?)
That’s not to say you have to write to trend, but, as someone who was lucky enough to have several books out in a series when her genre took off, I can confirm the difference these trends make to your sales.
So, if you want to capitalise on this trend, how do you write a ghost story? Here are some tips to get you started:
Choose your scare level
Sure, you’re writing a story with ghosts in. But does it need to be scary?
Obviously the concept of ghosts is, in itself, scary. But there are plenty of successful books out there that contain ghosts which aren’t scary, such as Robyn Peterman’s Good to the Last Death series.
There are also lots of films and TV shows that have done non-scary ghosts, such as Charmed.
It’s totally up to you if you decide to write a scary or non-scary ghost story. Or somewhere in between.
What’s important is you know what your audience expects and can tolerate. Kind of the same way that you know your audience’s steam level when writing romance.
A couple of people did comment on finding the concept of possessed children creepy, even though I didn’t intentionally make it so.
Some tropes with their roots in horror will always be perceived as scary, even if you don’t intend your usage of it to be that way.
Everyone finds different things scary. I once worked with someone who was so scared of clowns he wouldn’t even talk about Stephen King’s IT, while I know others who laugh through horror films.
Know your lore
You need to know your ghost lore and be consistent with it. It really helps to have it written down somewhere safe so that you can’t forget it.
- How does your ghost appear?
- When do they appear?
- What do they look like?
- How do they cross over?
- Where do they go?
It’s up to you how close you want to base your writing on existing ghost lore, and how much you want to make up.
Some of the basics most authors don’t change. If you want to, that’s totally up to you.
Just be careful you don’t create the ghost equivalent of sparkly vampires. Die-hard fans of the genre are unlikely to be on your side.
Knowing your lore is particularly important if you’re writing a series. There’ll be some things that come up later in the series that you didn’t know you needed to know, and they may impact or otherwise reflect earlier books. You want to make sure that they do that in a consistent way, otherwise avid readers will comment on it—and may even give you negative reviews.
You could even turn your notes into extra content for your readers who want to find out more about your ghost story and the world it’s set in.
Play with setting
There are lots of settings which are common in ghost stories, from haunted houses to ghost ships. How could you play with those settings?
Consider how ghosts interact with their surroundings. How easy is it for them to be corporeal and move objects? Does it change based on where they are?
I’ve read some books/watched some shows where ghosts can’t do anything. I’ve read others where it’s easier for ghosts to use a door than float through it.
Setting can be a character in its own right in any story, but in a ghost story, it can add a lot of depth and intrigue to what’s happening.
Atmosphere is really important in a ghost story. You want people to feel the tension, and that requires a certain writing style.
This was something new to me, but my poetry background helped. Poetry is all about evoking a certain feeling in someone using language, which is exactly what you need to bring atmosphere to life.
If you’re like me, and your first drafts are mostly dialogue, don’t worry! You can always add the description that invokes your atmosphere during the editing stages.
Work with how your brain prefers to write and edit, not against it; you’ll end up with a better quality first draft that’s less pressure to write.
To bring your atmosphere to life, you want to be as visual in your description as possible.
Stuart MacBride does this brilliantly in his first Logan McRae book, Cold Granite. While it isn’t a ghost story, his crime is the perfect balance of plot, characters, and description. The description brings the characters, world, and plot to life in a way that most writers never achieve.
You feel like you’re standing in the middle of Aberdeen with the snow and wind flying in your face as he walks through the streets. But it doesn’t slow the story down in any way.
When writing a ghost story—or anything where you’re trying to scare your audience—it’s also worth noting that sometimes, what we can’t see is scarier than what we can. The fear of the unknown is bloody terrifying.
So, instead of showing the audience the ghost, focus on the reactions of the characters to the ghost instead.
If you watch any ghost story—and most horror films, to be honest—you’ll see that the characters don’t see the ghost/demon/slasher until they’re about to be killed or otherwise tortured.
It usually starts with objects being moved, noises, smells, someone touching them when nobody is there, etc. This builds the tension and scare factor much better than showing the ghost right away.
I’m obsessed with The Conjuring, so naturally I’m going to use it as an example again. We don’t see the evil spirit until late in the film. We see shadows; we see an outline covered in an old sheet; we see a child sleepwalking. This makes the big reveal of the evil spirit more terrifying because we already know what she’s capable of. If we were to see her before the sleep walking, and the noises, and the throwing people around the house, we wouldn’t be as afraid of her.
Research your audience expectations
Who are you writing your ghost story for? Fantasy readers? Mystery readers? Young adult readers? Children?
The genre, subgenres, and audience of your book should play a big part in how you bring your book to life.
The Ghost’s Call is a ghostly version of paranormal women’s fiction, which means it has a forty-something divorcee as a main character, a love interest, and, obviously, lots of ghosts. I also play with the genre by adding in the daughter’s point of view.
But, for the sake of marketing and reaching my audience, I need to know the closest genre and audience to target my books at.
If you hate genres and marketing…well, being brutally honest, it’s going to be hard to sell your book.
I get not wanting to dig your writing or your books or yourself into a box. But wouldn’t you rather be in control of your box than let other people dictate it for you? Wouldn’t you rather get great reviews because you targeted the right people, than negative ones because you targeted the wrong people?
There are lots of elements to consider when writing a ghost story, but, when it comes down to it, the key elements are similar to writing any fantasy story. The most important thing you need is consistency. When you forget your own ghost lore, you can dig yourself into a hole and emerge with fewer fans and more negative reviews.
You want your lore to be so consistent, and your world to be so vivid, that readers don’t just picture your world—they feel like they’re there.
If you can do that, you’ve got your hands on a great ghost story.
Purchase The Ghost’s Call
My first fantasy novel, The Ghost’s Call, is out a week TODAY!
One mother. One daughter. One haunted town.
Single parent Niamh desperately doesn’t want her daughter Edie to go into the ghost hunting business like she did. But when Edie receives an important message from a ghost, she may not have a choice.
Their hometown is haunted. With the town’s rich history, it could be anyone. And they could be anywhere.
When a ghost arrives on the doorstep of family friends, Niamh and Edie must race against time to protect the people love.
Meet ghost hunter Niamh, her teenage daughter Edie, and a whole new cast of characters in Afterlife Calls, Kristina Adams’s new fantasy series (writing as K.C.Adams), coming 2021!
If you’re looking for a story of family, romance, and ghosts, this is the series for you.
It’s available to preorder now from the following retailers: