How should I write haunted house stories?

How to write haunted house stories.Authors often ask me how to write (or even begin) a realistic novel about ghosts and haunted houses.

They’re usually asking about typical haunted house stories:

  • The team that spends the night locked in the haunted house.
  • The individual or couple stranded on the road, who take shelter in the only nearby house.
  • Or, the family that innocently moves into a house that’s deeply troubled and dangerously haunted.

First, decide whether your story is primarily character-driven or plot-driven.

Character-Driven Haunted House Stories

If it’s character-driven, outline a rich array of characters that your readers will care about. Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is a good example of a character-driven haunted house story.

TVTropes.org can be a great resource for the tropes you’ll want to include among your characters. Or, you can default to the basic character types in Scooby-Doo. (I’m not kidding. They’re classics.)

When the Ghost is a Character

If your ghost is a character in the story, he or she will need a backstory. Decide why the ghost lingers at the location, and exactly how he or she manifests.

Choose one or two sensory features to focus on. Few real-life ghosts produce noises, moving objects, physical contact with the investigators, smells, or ghostly voices. (If you want to include all of those, write multiple ghosts or entities into the story.)

When the Location is a Character

haunted houses can be disorientingSometimes, the haunted house is almost a character. Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House is a good example. We’re never entirely sure if the house is evil, or if a specific ghostly entity is behind the scenes.

If you’re going to use this story device, study several genuinely haunted houses, and (loosely) base your story on one of them. The house should have a personality, displayed in its styling, decorating, or the kinds of things that happen there.

(A moaning sound suggests a different kind of haunting than an evil cackling. The modern house built over a Native American burial ground will have a different “style” than a falling-down castle in Ireland.)

Plot-Driven Ghost Hunting Stories

The first movie in the House on Haunted Hill series is a good example of a story that’s primarily plot-driven. Many characters were shallow and unsympathetic. Viewers didn’t really care when each died a terrible death.

(Towards the end of the movie, we care more about the characters surviving than what’s going on in the house. Whether we loved them or hated them, we wanted to know what happened next.)

Nevertheless, the House on Haunted Hill franchise presented clever plot elements with superb timing. It’s not quite a “puzzle story” like The DaVinci Code or National Treasure.

Still, the mysterious sequence of events held our interest more than the characters. In that respect, plot-driven ghost stories are similar to mysteries. The reader (or audience) try to guess “the real story” before the reveal at the end.

What’s Important

Whether it’s a plot-driven story, a location-based tale, or a character-driven story, get right to the action. Reveal the characters and make them endearing — or unappealing – in a story that has already begun.

Your characters can make or break your story. Tropes are fine, if the plot is the focus of your story. (Avoid making your ghost a predictable trope.)

For a plot-driven story, avoid stereotypes for the lead (and possible romantic interest). The sidekicks can be cliches. The early victims can be “redshirts.” (To understand them in depth, see TV Tropes.)

Don’t base any characters on real-life stars of ghost hunting TV shows, or the shows they’re on, either.  Not closely enough to be sued, anyway. Those shows are considered “intellectual property.” They’re protected by trademark laws and highly-paid attorneys.

If you need more ideas for rich, dimensional characters, study ghost hunting in the past. Going back in time: the subject has been popular in the 1960s, the 1920s, and throughout the spiritualist era of the 19th century.

You’ll find plenty of material and some biographies to inspire you. Those can help you with your characters as well as your story line.

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How should I write a ghost story?

Writing convincing ghost stories can be challenging.

opening door - ghost story tropeYou might think you can get away with more in fiction than nonfiction.

That’s not necessarily true. You’re competing with accomplished writers like Jane Goldman, Heather Graham, Stephen King, and Nora Roberts. Past greats include Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and Shirley Jackson.

Fiction

If you’re writing fiction, read lots of ghost stories. Don’t skip children’s literature. Those can be the best stories to study.

Watch classic movies based on haunted houses, and compare them with later remakes.  There are formulas for haunted house stories. You can find them online.

Take careful notes during your favorite ghost-related movies. Do the same as you’re reading ghost-themed books. (I take scene-by-scene, page-by-page notesto understand the structure.)

Do on-location research. Use a voice recorder to capture what you notice at every point during your visit.

Keep your voice recorder (or your phone set to record, easily) by your bed, afterward.  If you wake up with nightmares or fears related to the haunting, those are useful points to include in your story.

However, if you aren’t already a fan of the genre, think carefully before proceeding. Fans of ghost stories have certain expectations. They can seem like hidden standards, but they’re important. And, the reading audience is widely segmented. Some readers love a scene where the heroine goes down to the basement though it’s clear she shouldn’t.

However, some readers will give your book a terrible review if you include that cliche.

Know your audience. Deliver what they expect, and a few things they don’t. They’ll love you for it.

Nonfiction

If you’re writing nonfiction, thoroughly research the site, people, and relevant time periods.

If possible, visit the location. Explore historical sites and living history museums for additional insights.

Interview people with first-person stories. Investigate the site with a professional ghost hunting team, if you can.

Your story should include all of the elements that have made ghost stories – true and fictional – enduring and successful.

Get waivers from everyone you might quote in your book. You may also want a release form signed by the owner of the haunted site. These precautions protect you from later lawsuits.

In paranormal niches, nonfiction readers may have fewer expectations. Your book can succeed if you tell them something new and interesting or useful. Include as many details as you can. Experienced ghost hunters are looking for specific cues and clues, even if you don’t consciously add them to your book.

In a book about poltergeists, I’m looking for research notes from the kitchen, bathroom, and basement. The author doesn’t need to make a big deal about that. I know the signs of a credible tale.

Regional cues can be important. An Irish or Scottish ghost is likely to protect the house or castle, as well as the family. An English ghost is more likely to care about lineage, honor (even among thieves), and the portrait gallery. Are your ghost stories set on the coast? To take smuggling legends seriously, I’ll expect some reference to tunnels.

Research your stories thoroughly, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction.

Then, your stories will impress readers who are experienced ghost hunters.

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Why do some haunted houses require waivers?

haunted? monasterySome haunted sites require waivers due to dangerous areas that visitors must avoid.

The fact is, some ghost enthusiasts take risks anyway. A waiver protects the site owners from lawsuit.

Usually, waivers are designed to create a scarier atmosphere. It’s simply good theater. Consider the waiver and posted warning signs part of the set dressing. It’s performance art.

Fiona's adviceBut… whether they’re “set dressing” or not, don’t ignore those signs. They might just be legitimate.

Haunted houses can be very old, and old houses can have loose or weak floorboards, narrow corridors, and other potential hazards.

Sometimes, liability insurance requires waivers. When you are investigating in the dark, it’s easy to bump into something, trip over a loose carpet, or lose your footing on stairs.

The same thing could happen if you’re wandering around an unfamiliar not-haunted house in the dark.

Take precautions, whether you’re asked to sign a waiver or not. If you see someone stumble on uneven stairs, tread carefully. Old houses and other haunts can present risks like that. That’s expected.

However, if you’re ever hurt at a “haunted” site due to the owner’s obvious negligence, see an attorney.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve signed a waiver. There’s a big difference between an accident, and poor site maintenance.

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