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

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