3.21.2017

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








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