Explaining the Impossible

The last post covered certain structural elements inherent in ghost stories, and this one suggests further circumstances that can be employed to make spirits believable. The key word to consider is “surroundings”—because the core of the story is unknowable. (I’ll leave aside Peter Beagle’s wonderful novels.) Part of the power of a ghost is its inability to talk.

When you think of the genre, certain familiar stand-bys come to mind: an old house, twilight, being alone, a legend about who died there and under which circumstances. All of these factors play on our fear of unusual elements. Doors don’t slam on their own. Darkness can play tricks on your eyes. Being alone can be frightening in any setting, including a deserted late-night city street.

In a story, who determines what is normal? At the beginning of the book, both the reader and lead character are on equal footing. We know that meeting a ghost, or suffering demonic possession, is as likely as a free ride to the moon. So the character’s initial job is providing a foundation that will be violated. It helps if what is normal in your chosen location is pretty weird to start. If the heroine discovers her old aunt likes to sip tea at three in the morning, for instance, you’ve already unnerved the reader. We all know how weird our aunts can be.

Yet even spooky circumstances must be disrupted by the alien force in order to cause true fright. This is where the hard work of selling the reader gets fully under way. The character can be scared during the incident, sure, but it’s what she thinks afterward that cements the apparation’s existence. Or what she says to friends or family, trying to define the inexplicable in words. The fact that she is led by stages to believe in ghosts, after repeated visits, pulls us toward that belief. If she starts with doubt and ends in awe, she has lured us into the fictional zone that is required to enjoy the story.

That process is accompanied, though, by a question: Why does he keep staying around? You need to devise a family connection, such as his grief for the person who inhabits the ghost, or his inability to leave, either for physical or contractural reasons, as in The Shining. You have to think through, at the very beginning: why doesn’t he run for his life? In answering that question, you may also find the reason he can break the hold the ghost has over him.

Exercise: When you are plotting out the book, draw up a list of reasons why you don’t believe in ghosts. Then draw up a list of explanations you’d tell yourself after a ghost visited the first time. Then draw up a list of reasons why this particular locale might be haunted. You’re setting the stages that lead the reader to acceptance.

“The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.”
—Italo Calvino

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Beyond Our Ken

Reading a ghost story induces irrational fears even in the most analytical mind. So how does an author set up the structural elements that create fright in fiction? The first fact to acknowledge is that the supernatural is a hard sell to most readers. When you talk about whopper plot premises, this one ranks as one of the hardest to swallow.

I’ll start with a definition of a ghost. It is a creature that inhabits a specific space in a mysterious way. It cannot communicate its desires—unless you go for the thumping idea in seances (one means yes, two means no). It does scary things, like whirl around and send objects askew. Its power lies in its ability to do things that defy explanation.

Viewed in structural terms, how can a ghost be compared to similar story ideas? If you think about most plots, they require that a lead character enter a region of the unknown. The author has to sell the reader on those far-fetched premises as well. How the heck did she get into that mess? is one question that comes to mind.

The difference with the paranormal is that investigation into how to resolve the problems created by a ghost will quickly reach a dead end if you pursue the ghost for answers, the way a hero can investigate a villain. Such a probe leads only to more whirling, more vases thrown against walls. Go ahead, try to pin that down.

That is why many of these stories use a library, or some store of manuscripts about magic. This lore sets up the rules of the game you will play with the reader. By using formula X, you will induce the whirligig to do such and such. When that formula doesn’t work, you keep digging: using formulas Y and Z and, eventually, the lead character’s triumphal intuition. It turns out that, hidden inside us, we all have the answer for dealing with ghosts. But that answer needs to be set up by the formulae. Otherwise, the reader’s reaction is going to be: that was too easy. If you think for a moment, you’ll realize you don’t want the reader to say that about any plot premise.

Exercise: You can also set up the rules in a simpler fashion. If the young woman (that is the usual protagonist) tells others what happened to her, she is engaged in rationalizing the inexplicable. While she is telling another character, she is also laying the groundwork for why we too as readers should accept what happened. The more reasonable she is about being frightened, the more the juxtaposition draws in the reader.

“I think the supernatural is a catch-all for everything we don't understand about the vast other parts of life that we cannot perceive.”
—William Shatner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Pushing Yourself

Many writers likely remember a practice in college called bullshitting. An assignment called for a paper that was X pages long, and you only had enough material for a paper X/2 long. So you spun out verbiage, making the ending sentence of a paragraph basically restating the first sentence, etc.

This practice is carried over into the business world as well. An important memo from the corporate equivalent of an Olympian god really only wants to tell employees that the corporation has reduced its matching of 401K contributions to 3%. That requires merely a sentence or two, but instead an entire page is filled up with corp speak, designed to mask the fact that the lowly employee is being cheated.

Since prolixity tends to increase with age, it is not surprising that a nonfiction writer brings this bad habit to that book he’s always been meaning to write. By a certain age a writer with any talent can say the same thing a half dozen different ways. That’s fine if the document’s length is short and its message instantly forgettable. When rephrasing occurs often in a book, though, the overall result is sludge. The reader has to read so much for so little gain.

A book does allow a writer more space to expand her ideas, but its very length also imposes a cost. You need to have enough interesting material to fill it out. I can’t tell you how many business books I have read that contain only a few ideas, and then the author spends the rest of the book spinning out permutations of them. The result? I read the introduction and the first chapter or so—and skim the rest. Is that what you want for your life-long dream?

Think of a book as a great maw. It can ingest reams of data. If you want readers to stay interested, you need to be pushing on constantly to new points, with new examples. Not every point needs to be original, because there are traditions in different fields that cause books to overlap, but you should find recent research to back up that point. Use an example of someone today who illustrates the point. To put your stamp on the subject, you have to put in the work to make it stand out.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for redundancy. While you do need to emphasize certain points with repetition, don’t do it often. Instead, be ruthless with yourself. If taking out a sentence leaves a short paragraph, join it up with the next paragraph. Don’t clog up the book because you didn’t have enough material to fill out a point.

“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.”
—W. H. Auden

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.