Writing Beginner

How to Describe a Ghost in Writing (Tips, Words, Examples)

Writing about the supernatural, and especially ghosts, is a common problem for many writers.

It requires a lot of creativity, an extensive vocabulary, and a good sense of mood and atmosphere.

Here’s how to describe a ghost in writing:

Describe a ghost in writing by using sensory details, creating an atmosphere, conveying the ghost’s personality, using metaphors and similes, and employing vivid language. Reflect the ghost’s character through its appearance, movements, voice, and interaction with the environment.

This article will provide you with all the necessary tools to make your ghostly descriptions spine-chillingly good.

21 Tips for Describing Ghosts in Writing

Cartoon ghost - How to Describe a Ghost in Writing

Table of Contents

Here are 21 tips to get you started with describing ghosts in writing.

Tip 1: Use Sensory Details

Using sensory details in your descriptions will make your ghost seem more real to your readers.

Try to engage all five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

Even though ghosts are traditionally intangible, their presence can still evoke sensory reactions in your characters.

For example, the sight of the ghost might be chilling, their voice might echo eerily, or their presence might cause a cold draft.

Engaging the senses of your readers will allow them to immerse themselves in the story more completely.

If your reader can almost feel the chill of the ghost’s presence or the echo of its voice, they are more likely to be affected by the scene and feel the intended emotions.

Tip 2: Use Metaphors and Similes

Metaphors and similes are effective literary tools when it comes to describing ghosts.

They can help make abstract or intangible qualities more understandable and vivid.

For instance, you might say that a ghost’s voice is like a “whisper on the wind,” or that its presence is “as cold as a winter’s night.”

These types of comparisons can not only make your descriptions more vivid.

But they can also help to create a certain mood or atmosphere.

For example, comparing a ghost’s appearance to a “drifting cloud” could suggest a more ethereal, peaceful presence, while likening it to “a shadow in the corner of your eye” might evoke a more unsettling, menacing atmosphere.

Tip 3: Show, Don’t Tell

One of the oldest principles of writing is “show, don’t tell.”

This means instead of telling your reader that a character is scared of the ghost, show the character’s fear through their actions, words, and feelings.

This applies to describing your ghost as well.

Show its eeriness through its actions, its effect on the environment, and the reactions of other characters.

Showing instead of telling creates a more engaging and immersive story.

It gives your readers the chance to interpret the character’s emotions themselves based on the cues you provide.

This makes for a more interactive and fulfilling reading experience.

Tip 4: Use Strong, Evocative Language

When describing a ghost, use strong, evocative language to create a powerful image in your reader’s mind.

This can include adjectives like haunting, ethereal, ghostly, or spectral, or verbs like hover, drift, fade, or glide.

Using this kind of language not only helps to create a vivid picture of the ghost, but it also helps to set the tone of the scene.

The right words can make your ghost seem eerie, menacing, sad, or mysterious, depending on what you’re aiming for.

Tip 5: Describe the Ghost’s Appearance

How does your ghost look? Is it transparent or solid?

Does it have a clear human form, or is it more of a shapeless mist? Does it wear clothes, and if so, from what era?

These are all important details that will help your reader visualize the ghost.

Remember to use sensory details and strong, evocative language when describing the ghost’s appearance.

Also consider how the ghost’s appearance might reflect its personality or backstory.

For example, a ghost who was a soldier in life might still wear their uniform, while a ghost who died tragically young might appear as a child.

Tip 6: Describe the Ghost’s Behavior

Ghosts often have specific behaviors or patterns they follow, like haunting a particular room or appearing at a certain time.

Describing these behaviors can help make your ghost seem more real and add to the creepiness of your story.

Think about why your ghost might behave the way it does.

Maybe it’s trapped in a loop, repeating the events leading up to its death.

Or maybe it’s trying to communicate something to the living characters.

This can add depth and complexity to your ghost, making it more than just a scary apparition.

Tip 7: Convey the Ghost’s Personality

Just like any character in your story, your ghost should have a distinct personality.

Is it vengeful, sad, friendly, or perhaps mischievous?

This will dictate how it interacts with the living characters and what kind of atmosphere its presence creates.

A ghost’s personality can be revealed through its actions, its dialogue, its appearance, and its effect on the environment.

For example, a vengeful ghost might create an oppressive, menacing atmosphere, while a sad ghost might cause a feeling of melancholy to descend on the scene.

Tip 8: Use Symbolism

Ghosts often symbolize something, like a character’s guilt or a past event that still haunts them.

Using symbolism in your ghost description can add a deeper layer of meaning to your story.

Symbolism can be conveyed through the ghost’s appearance, behavior, or the circumstances of its death.

For example, a ghost that always appears in a mirror might symbolize a character’s struggle with self-image or identity.

Tip 9: Describe the Ghost’s Death

The circumstances of a ghost’s death often play a big role in its behavior and appearance.

Did it die a violent death, or did it die peacefully in its sleep? This can influence whether your ghost is vengeful and frightening, or sad and peaceful.

Describing the ghost’s death can also provide important backstory and add depth to your ghost.

This could be revealed slowly throughout the story, keeping your readers hooked and wanting to find out more.

Tip 10: Convey the Ghost’s Motivation

What does your ghost want?

Is it seeking revenge, trying to communicate a message, or does it just want to be left alone?

Understanding and conveying your ghost’s motivation can make it more than just a spooky specter – it becomes a character in its own right.

A ghost’s motivation can be conveyed through its actions, its dialogue, or even its effect on the environment.

For example, a ghost seeking revenge might torment the living characters, while a ghost trying to communicate might cause strange phenomena like flickering lights or mysteriously moving objects.

Tip 11: Describe the Ghost’s Influence on the Environment

Ghosts often have a noticeable effect on their surroundings, like causing a drop in temperature, creating an eerie silence, or causing lights to flicker.

Describing these effects can make your ghost seem more real and add to the creepiness of the scene.

This also allows you to engage your reader’s senses.

For example, describing the chill that descends on a room when a ghost appears, or the way the lights dim and flicker, can make the reader feel like they’re experiencing the ghost’s presence themselves.

Tip 12: Keep Your Ghost Mysterious

One of the most intriguing things about ghosts is their mystery.

Avoid giving too much away about your ghost too soon. Keep your readers guessing about the ghost’s identity, its backstory, and its motivations.

Mystery can be maintained by revealing details about the ghost slowly and sporadically throughout the story.

This also creates suspense and keeps your readers hooked, as they’ll want to keep reading to find out more about the ghost.

Tip 13: Describe the Characters’ Reactions

The way your characters react to the ghost can say a lot about the ghost itself.

Are they terrified, fascinated, or perhaps even sympathetic?

This can give your readers clues about the nature of the ghost and how they should feel about it.

Remember to show, don’t tell, when describing your characters’ reactions.

Don’t just tell the readers that your character is scared – show them by describing the character’s actions, thoughts, and feelings.

Tip 14: Play with Lighting and Shadows

Lighting and shadows can greatly enhance your ghost descriptions.

A ghost appearing in the dead of night is scarier than one appearing in broad daylight.

Describing how the ghost interacts with light and shadows can make your scenes more atmospheric and vivid.

This also allows you to create striking visual imagery.

For example, describing how the ghost’s form casts no shadow, or how it seems to absorb the light around it, can create an eerie and unsettling image.

Tip 15: Use Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing the ghost’s appearance can create suspense and anticipation.

This could be subtle hints like a sudden drop in temperature, a feeling of being watched, or a pet acting strangely.

Foreshadowing gives your readers a sense of foreboding and makes them anticipate the ghost’s appearance, which can make the actual appearance even scarier.

It’s like the calm before the storm, making the storm itself feel more intense.

Tip 16: Utilize Setting and Atmosphere

The setting and atmosphere in which your ghost appears can greatly enhance your description.

A haunted house, a lonely graveyard, or a creepy forest are all perfect settings for a ghost.

The atmosphere can be created through the weather, the time of day, the state of the surroundings, and the reactions of the characters.

A stormy night, a room that’s fallen into disrepair, or a character who’s all alone can all contribute to a spooky atmosphere.

Tip 17: Experiment with Different Perspectives

Try describing your ghost from different perspectives.

How does the ghost appear to different characters? How does the ghost see itself?

This can add depth and complexity to your ghost and make your story more interesting.

Seeing the ghost from different perspectives can also reveal different aspects of the ghost.

For example, one character might see the ghost as a scary apparition, while another might see it as a sad remnant of the past.

Tip 18: Make Use of Silence and Sound

Silence can be just as spooky as sound when it comes to describing a ghost.

The sudden absence of sound can create a sense of unease and anticipation.

On the other hand, unexpected sounds like a soft whisper or a sudden wail can startle the reader and make the ghost seem more real.

You can also describe the sounds associated with the ghost’s presence, like the creaking of floorboards, the rustling of curtains, or the eerie silence that descends upon a room when it appears.

Tip 19: Use Contrast for Effect

Contrasting the ghost with its surroundings can make it stand out and seem more supernatural.

If the scene is warm and cozy, the ghost might appear cold and eerie. If the scene is noisy and chaotic, the ghost might appear in a moment of eerie silence.

Contrast can also be used in the ghost’s appearance.

For example, a ghost dressed in a bright, cheerful outfit might seem more out of place and eerie in a dreary, haunted house.

Tip 20: Be Consistent

Be consistent in your descriptions of the ghost.

If the ghost is described as transparent in one scene, it shouldn’t be solid in the next unless there’s a reason for the change.

Consistency helps maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief and makes the ghost seem more real.

Consistency also applies to the ghost’s behavior, abilities, and weaknesses.

If the ghost can pass through walls, it shouldn’t be blocked by a closed door in a later scene.

If it’s unaffected by physical objects, a character shouldn’t be able to hit it with a baseball bat.

Tip 21: Remember the Ghost’s Backstory

The ghost’s backstory is an important part of its character.

It can explain why the ghost acts the way it does, why it appears the way it does, and what it wants.

This can add depth to the ghost and make it more than just a spooky apparition.

Remembering the ghost’s backstory can also help you be more consistent in your descriptions.

For example, if the ghost died in a fire, it might avoid fireplaces or get agitated when a character lights a match.

Here is a video I made about how to describe a ghost in writing:

How to Describe a Scary Ghost in Writing

When describing a scary ghost, focus on creating a sense of unease and terror.

Use strong, evocative language and appeal to the reader’s senses.

The ghost might appear as a shadowy figure with piercing eyes, or as a spectral figure in tattered clothes.

Its presence might be accompanied by a drop in temperature, an oppressive silence, or a feeling of being watched.

Descriptions of the ghost’s actions can also add to the fear factor. For instance, the ghost might move in an unsettling manner, or it might suddenly appear or disappear without warning.

The ghost’s behavior can also contribute to the fear factor.

It might engage in menacing activities, like tormenting the living characters or causing disturbing phenomena like slamming doors or flickering lights.

Remember to show the characters’ reactions to increase the fear factor. Their terror can amplify the reader’s own fear.

How to Describe a Friendly Ghost in Writing

A friendly ghost is usually less eerie and more comforting or quirky.

Its appearance might be less intimidating – perhaps it’s translucent and glows softly, or maybe it appears just like a normal human, only slightly out of place.

Its movements might be more gentle and less sudden, like a soft fluttering rather than a sudden apparition.

The ghost’s behavior can indicate its friendly nature.

It might be helpful towards the living characters, guiding them or protecting them.

It might even have a sense of humor, causing harmless pranks instead of scary phenomena. Remember to show the characters’ reactions to the ghost.

If they’re not afraid of the ghost and instead come to see it as a friend or ally, the reader will too.

How to Describe a Ghost’s Movement

Ghosts typically move in ways that are unlike the living, adding to their eerie nature.

They might float or glide instead of walking, or move through walls and other solid objects.

They might appear or disappear suddenly, or move without making a sound.

Their movements might also be strangely slow or fast, or they might remain still and unmoving in a way that living creatures can’t.

When describing a ghost’s movement, use sensory details and strong, evocative language.

For example, a ghost might “drift like a cloud of mist,” or “move with an uncanny stillness.” Their movements might cause a “cold draft,” or be accompanied by a “faint, eerie whisper.”

How to Describe a Ghost’s Voice

A ghost’s voice is usually different from a living person’s voice, adding to the ghost’s otherworldliness.

It might echo or sound far away, or it might be whispery or chilling.

It might even sound hollow or emotionless, or it might carry the emotions the ghost felt at the time of its death.

When describing a ghost’s voice, rely on concrete details and resonate language.

For example, a ghost’s voice might “echo through the room like a cold wind,” or be “as quiet as a sigh.”

It might “sound like it’s coming from a great distance,” or be “filled with an ancient sorrow.”

50 Words to Describe a Ghost in Writing

Here is a list of words to describe a ghost in writing:

  • Translucent
  • Transparent
  • Apparitional
  • Otherworldly
  • Specter-like
  • Apparition-like

Phrases to Describe a Ghost in Writing

Consider these phrases to describe a ghost in writing:

  • “Like a shadow in the corner of your eye.”
  • “A chill wind that passes through you.”
  • “A presence that you feel more than see.”
  • “An echo of a life once lived.”
  • “A figure that’s there one moment and gone the next.”
  • “As silent as the grave.”
  • “An unsettling stillness.”
  • “Eyes that glow with an otherworldly light.”
  • “A voice as cold as the grave.”
  • “A figure that seems to absorb the light around it.”

How to Introduce a Ghost in Writing

Introducing a ghost in your story should be done in a way that builds anticipation and suspense.

Start by foreshadowing its appearance with subtle hints, like a sudden drop in temperature, a feeling of being watched, or a pet acting strangely.

When you’re ready to introduce the ghost, do it in a way that engages the reader’s senses.

Describe the ghost’s appearance, the way it moves, the sound of its voice.

Show the characters’ reactions to increase the emotional impact.

Remember to keep some mystery about the ghost. Don’t reveal everything about it at once.

Instead, reveal its backstory, its motivations, and its nature slowly, throughout the story. This keeps your readers interested and engaged, wanting to find out more about the ghost.

Final Thoughts: How to Describe a Ghost in Writing

When writing ghost stories, I’ve always found it helpful to connect the ghost to the plot, theme, and problem of the story.

In this way, the ghost grows organically from your story instead of seemingly dropped in as a whim.

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25+ Ghost Story Prompts

Need a scary ghost story to tell over the campfire? Today we bring over 25 ghost story prompts to inspire you to write your own paranormal short story or novel.

A ghost story is a type of horror story that emphasises the theme of the supernatural, apparitions, and otherworldly ghost-like creatures. Generally revolving around death, hauntings or the afterlife. This genre often has an uncanny air about it, producing feelings of fear, dread, and the unfamiliar. A ghost story is one of the oldest forms of literature and can be found in all cultures.

If you’re looking for some new ideas for your next ghost story, these 25+ paranormal story prompts are perfect for writers of all levels. You might also find this ghost name generator useful.

The spookiest time of year is here, and that means it’s time for ghost stories! Whether you’re writing a ghost story for Halloween , a seasonal short story , or even a standalone novel, these ghost story prompts are a great place to start:

  • A young woman moves into an old house and finds herself in a terrifying situation with her new roommate, a ghost. The only way to escape is to get out of the house alive.
  • A man is haunted by his past and must face the demons that come back to haunt him.
  • A group of college students decide to spend their summer vacation in a cabin in the woods. But what starts as a fun vacation turns deadly when they realize that the woods aren’t quite as safe as they thought.
  • Use this story starter for a ghost story: The first time I saw it, I was only six. It was night and I was playing in my granddad’s garden when I heard this weird sound coming from the forest. I followed the sound and found myself in the middle of a circle of tall trees. It was so dark that I could barely see my hands in front of me. Suddenly, something grabbed my leg.
  • A woman is haunted by the ghosts of her ancestors, but she must learn to accept her fate and embrace the spirits before they are all gone forever.
  • An orphaned boy is taken in by a family of ghosts after his parents die in a fire. They teach him how to use his supernatural abilities to help people in need. But soon the boy starts using these powers for evil.
  • A group of teenagers visit their favourite haunted house during the Halloween season, but they never make it home again.
  • A couple gets married on Halloween night and discovers that their marriage is cursed. They must solve the mystery of the ghost bride to break the curse.
  • A boy finds a box of his grandfather’s old slides in the attic, and when he goes back to school, he starts seeing his grandfather’s ghost everywhere.
  • A man hears strange sounds coming from his attic, and he’s determined to find out what they are. He sneaks up to the attic to investigate, but when he does, he stumbles upon something much more frightening than he could have imagined.
  • An abandoned mansion on a lonely island is rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of a pirate who was hung for his crimes. A group of friends decide to spend the night in the mansion, and they quickly learn that there’s more than one kind of ghost in the house.
  • A family moves back into their old family home where their son died years ago. The father becomes obsessed with finding out who killed his son. He believes he knows who the murderer is but no one will believe him.
  • A man is tormented by a ghostly hitchhiker. He is forced to take them on a road trip until they reach their final destination…a mysterious abandoned town.
  • A family moves into an old Victorian home, where the previous owner mysteriously disappeared after getting locked in one of the rooms. Now the family is trapped inside by a malevolent entity.
  • A man is on his way home from work when he is attacked by a group of ghosts. He manages to escape, but now he has a few more problems than he started with.
  • Use this story starter for a ghost story: I woke up in the middle of the night, and I felt a cold hand touching my face. I tried to scream, but my voice wouldn’t come out. Then, I felt a sharp pain in my neck.
  • My father told me about his experience while we were driving home. He said he saw a dead girl walking towards him just after I was born, but when he got closer, she disappeared. He thought if was imagining things at the time.
  • My father used to scare me at night. One time he came into my bedroom and woke me up, telling me to come downstairs. He took me to the living room, and there he told me that a ghost had put a curse on me.
  • It was the most beautiful cemetery ever. People would come from far away just to walk through the grounds. There was a rumour about a ghost that roamed the graveyard at night.
  • A teenage girl is forced to spend her summer with her grandmother who believes she can communicate with ghosts.
  • A young woman moves into an apartment next door to an old house where she hears a woman screaming and sees a little girl standing in the window.
  • A woman hears a baby crying in her house, but she can’t find it. She keeps hearing it crying in another room, so she goes to check on it. When she opens the door, there is no baby there. But then, the door slams shut and locks itself.
  • A girl is staying at her grandmother’s house with her family for the night. She is sleeping in her grandmother’s bed, but she can’t get comfortable. Every time she falls asleep, she wakes up to see her dead grandmother sitting on the edge of her bed.
  • A woman is walking down a deserted road when she sees a figure standing in front of her. It turns out to be an old man in a top hat, holding a cane. He says to her, “Hello, young lady. My name is John Marley. I am a spirit from the other side.”
  • One night, a mother wakes up to hear her son crying in their room. When she goes into his room, he is not there. She looks everywhere for him and calls out his name. The only answer she gets is a terrible scream that echoes throughout the house.
  • In a small village, there lived a woman who was very lonely. Her husband had passed away and she was left all alone with her two sons. The boys were grown and had families of their own. The woman was so lonely that she began talking to herself. “I’m all alone,” she said to no one in particular. “I’m all alone.” And then she hears a voice.
  • There was once a man who lived by the beach. He loved the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. One day, he decided to go for a walk on the beach and ended up drowning. When he died, he came back as a ghost. Every night, he would come back to the place where he drowned, and stand there.
  • There was once a little girl who loved to play hide and seek. One day, while playing, she got separated from her family. She found a tree stump and went behind it, but when she peeked around the edge, she saw that no one was there. The stump began to move, and suddenly the girl felt herself being lifted off the ground and into the air. As she looked at the tree stump, she noticed that it had eyes. The eyes were staring right at her. Then, before she could scream, the tree stump opened its mouth.

For more spooky ideas, check out this list of over 110 horror story ideas .

How do you write a ghost story?

The basic structure of a ghost story includes an opening sequence that presents the reader with a situation that seems normal but is actually supernatural in nature. The protagonist then encounters the ghost and experiences events that are often strange and frightening, leading up to a climax where the ghost is defeated or disappears. Writing a ghost story is the same as writing a horror story . Before you start writing you need a good ghost story plot idea, like the list above. Both ghost stories and horror stories have a set of characters, a spooky setting, an opening, a middle part and a dramatic ending. 

What is the shortest ghost story?

The shortest ghost story is just two sentences long. It was written by Frederic Brown in 1948. The story reads: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …” Just by reading these two sentences, we can imagine a scary situation. There are two key themes used here, the fear of loneliness and the surprise element at the end. Both these are important themes in ghost stories.

What makes a ghost story scary?

Ghost stories are typically scary as they focus on death and going into the unknown. But the key to a scary ghost story is fear. It is important to make the reader feel uneasy or frightened. Here are some key elements of a good ghost story:

  • An encounter with a ghost or spirit
  • A supernatural force that can be both good and evil
  • Sense of dread
  • The feeling of being watched or followed
  • Feeling helpless
  • Being lonely or lost

Just like all stories, a ghost story must include these basic elements of a story : Characters, Setting, Plot, Conflict and Resolution.

How do you finish a ghost story?

Most ghost stories end with the haunting being explained away as something natural. This explanation can be a spiritual one (the ghost was a real person who died), or it can be a psychological one (the ghost was a product of the protagonist’s mind). The ghost story can also end with no explanation at all. Some ghost stories don’t even bother to give an explanation for the haunting, but let the reader figure it out themselves.

Did you find this list of over 25 ghost story prompts useful? Let us know in the comments below! 

ghost story prompts

Marty the wizard is the master of Imagine Forest. When he's not reading a ton of books or writing some of his own tales, he loves to be surrounded by the magical creatures that live in Imagine Forest. While living in his tree house he has devoted his time to helping children around the world with their writing skills and creativity.

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How to Write a Ghost Story

Last Updated: June 2, 2024 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Grant Faulkner, MA . Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story, a literary magazine. Grant has published two books on writing and has been published in The New York Times and Writer’s Digest. He co-hosts Write-minded, a weekly podcast on writing and publishing, and has a M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University.  This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 223,835 times.

Many people enjoy a good ghost story and writing your own can be just as enjoyable. Ghost stories generally follow the patterns of other fictional work, focusing on a character and their encounters with a challenging force or event. However, ghost stories have a close focus on evoking feelings of terror and dread, building them up into a horrifying climax. Learning some of the ideas and techniques behind good ghost stories can help you create your own terrifying tales.

Developing Your Plot

Step 1 Get inspired by your own fears.

  • Think about which situations meeting a ghost would be most terrifying.
  • Imagine the details of the ghost and how it haunts you, noting what scares you the most.
  • Try watching your favorite horror films or reading other ghost stories to get inspired.

Step 2 Think about the atmosphere.

  • What locations do you find disturbing or discomforting?
  • Your setting should have a feeling of isolation, cutting the main characters off from help.

Step 3 Brainstorm ideas and plan your story arc.

  • Stasis. This is the introduction to your story and it demonstrates the normal life of your characters.
  • Trigger. This event is something that pushes your character out of their normal life.
  • Quest. This is where your character is given a goal or something they must do.
  • Surprise. This will take up the middle section of your story and will be the events along the way towards your heroes goal.
  • Critical choice. Your protagonist will need to make a hard choice that demonstrates their character.
  • Climax. This is the moment your story was building up to and the most dramatic moment of the story.
  • Reversal. This should be the consequence to your character's critical choice or the main challenge.
  • Resolution. This point is where your characters return to everyday life but are changed from the ordeal.

Step 4 Create an outline.

  • Write your outline in a chronological ordering of events.
  • Don't leave any gaps in the narrative for your outline.
  • Try to think about each scene and examine how they work together.
  • If writing an entire ghost story seems overwhelming at first, try writing a 100-word ghost story to warm up. You get 100 words to write something truly creepy and unsettling. It takes less time, and you won't have to worry as much about outlining and pacing.

Step 5 Build the sense of dread slowly.

  • Don't rush to reveal the confrontation or climax of your ghost story.
  • Building the tension of the story slowly can make the climax even more intense.

Developing Your Characters

Step 1 Think about your protagonist.

  • Try to think of why your character is in the situation they are.
  • Imagine how your character would react to the events in your story.
  • Try to get a clear mental picture of what your character looks like.

Step 2 Create your antagonist.

  • Your ghost will need a reason or motive for existing and doing what they do.
  • Ghosts come in different forms, being more or less physical or having different powers.

Step 3 Consider working on foils or additional characters.

  • Foils usually have different personalities than the main characters in order to highlight the individual characteristics.
  • Your supporting characters should also have their own unique qualities and personalities.
  • Ask yourself what relationships these characters might have with the main characters of your ghost story.

Writing Your Ghost Story

Step 1 Avoid telling the reader what's happening.

  • ”The ghost appeared and I was frightened” is an example of telling the reader what's happening.
  • ”The ghost appeared and my stomach tightened up in knots. I could feel my face break out in a sweat and my heart trying to leap out from my chest.” is an example of showing the reader what's happening.

Step 2 Make your readers fill in the details.

  • For example, “The ghost was ten feet tall and exactly as wide as the door that it came through.” is probably too direct.
  • Try saying something like “The ghost was enormous, making the room suddenly feel claustrophobic and tight.”

Stephen King

Create stories that will light up the reader's imagination. "Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s."

Step 3 End things quickly.

  • Consider ending your story in a single sentence.
  • Offering too much explanation at the end of your ghost story can lessen the impact of your ending.

Community Q&A

Community Answer

  • Think about what scares you the most and let those fears inspire your ghost story. Thanks Helpful 3 Not Helpful 0
  • Have a clear understanding of what and who your characters are. Thanks Helpful 3 Not Helpful 0
  • Setting is an important part of your ghost story that can either enhance or detract from the feelings of terror you are trying to evoke. Thanks Helpful 4 Not Helpful 1

Tips from our Readers

  • You don't have to write about a human ghost. Try writing about a ghost animal or some other supernatural being.

creative writing about a ghost

Things You'll Need

  • Pen or pencil

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  • ↑ https://www.writersdigest.com/there-are-no-rules/the-horror-genre-on-writing-horror-and-avoiding-cliches
  • ↑ https://www.writers-online.co.uk/how-to-write/how-to-write-a-ghost-story/
  • ↑ https://www.dailywritingtips.com/how-to-structure-a-story-the-eight-point-arc/
  • ↑ https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/7-steps-to-creating-a-flexible-outline-for-any-story
  • ↑ https://atomlearning.com/blog/6-ways-to-build-suspense-and-tension-in-writing
  • ↑ https://mythcreants.com/blog/three-ways-you-can-use-description-to-mess-with-your-readers/

About This Article

Grant Faulkner, MA

To write a ghost story, start by thinking about what you find scary about ghosts. Additionally, since atmosphere plays a large part in ghost stories, imagine the creepiest location you can think of for the setting. Next, work on your story’s arc, which includes the introduction, the climactic moment, and the resolution. As you draft your story, think about what you want to show your reader and what you want to leave up to their imagination, since readers will automatically fill in details with their own mind. To learn how to finish your ghost story, keep reading! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Writing ghost stories

  • 16 November 2021
  • Last updated: 23 May 2023

creative writing about a ghost

Writing a ghost story – how to start

The fear of ghosts, the main elements when writing ghost stories, how to write a ghost story – the setting, the characters in your ghost story, the mood or atmosphere, your ghost story’s revelation, some dos and don’ts when writing ghost stories, the history of ghost stories, ghost animals, examples from some of my own stories and novels, hallowe’en and all that, authors’ favourite ghost stories, over to you.

Close the curtains, light the fire, curl up in your favourite chair. Maybe the wind is howling round the house, or rain lashing against the windows. Listen. Winter is traditionally the time to read and share ghost stories. Why? Perhaps we all like to be frightened, but only from the comfort of a cosy chair in a warm room. In this post I talk about the history of the ghost story, its main elements and how to write a ghost story of your own. I just hope you won’t scare yourselves too much when you are writing it!

When you start writing your ghost story, you can begin by thinking about or sharing with other people your own experience of ghosts.

Have you ever ‘seen’ a ghost? Many people, especially children, tell me they’ve ‘seen’ or experienced a ghost. Often ‘seeing’ a ghost follows the death of someone very close to you. In the immediate few days afterwards, you seem to see them again. They’re sitting in their favourite chair, or just passing from one room to another. You might even hear their voice, or smell their perfume. This ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ isn’t frightening, but it can be startling, because you really know they’ve died. Even though you know you’re imagining they’re there, for that fleeting moment you believe that you really have seen them.

Have you ever had a ghostly experience?

By this I mean something that unnerves you and which has no explanation. I once entered a room in a converted barn that was known as ‘the goose house’. I was alone. As I crossed the room to go to my bed I had the sensation of being pressed against the wall. I couldn’t move or shake the pressure away. I could hardly breathe. My eyes were open, but there was nothing to see. There was absolutely no-one else in the room. After a moment the pressure was released, I was able to step away from the wall and continue to my bed. I have no explanation for this, but when I reported it the next day the owners of the ‘goose house’ said that other guests had had the experience too.

Perhaps people like ghost stories because they like to be afraid. But why do they frighten us?

The fear of ghosts is the fear of the unknown, of experiencing something that is outside our control. We can explore this in our writing by thinking about our own experience of fear. Most people have been afraid at some time or other.

Have you ever been afraid?

Write down how it affected you mentally and physically. Your skin, your temperature, your breathing, your heart, your movement, your voice, your mind? Can you think of anything else?

The setting is actually one of the main characters to consider when writing a ghost story. Once you’ve chosen the setting you’ll begin to have an idea about the other main characters.

So how do you choose a setting? Write down the settings of some of the ghost stories you’ve read. Do they have anything in common?

Now write a list of places you’ve visited that you think might be suitable settings, for their creepiness, their reputation, their remoteness. Anything else?

And, if you think you might like to be adventurous, think of unlikely places for a ghost story.

Choose one to be your setting. You can go with the familiar: castle, old house, graveyard. Try to avoid too many cliches.

Or you could choose a lonely, deserted place, or somewhere that’s difficult to escape from – a ship, a school, an island, an empty, locked theatre…

Or be daring: a shopping mall (moving escalators, shutters, reflecting windows…), a building site (rubble, gantries, cranes, falling masonry…) or underground train systems (rush of passing trains, echoey stations, long passages…). See if you can think of more.

Why is this place being haunted? What connection does the ghost have with this particular place? Did they once live there, work there, die there, fight there…? Was it once a place of peace for them? Is it their territory?

Is it the scene of a crime committed by the ghost, or to the ghost?

Is the ghost trapped there?

Haddon Hall, Derbyshire

Who is the ghost? Is there actually a ghost, or is it imagined? What kind of ghost is it – friendly, not meaning any harm? Lonely? Does the ghost know it is dead? Has the ghost come to make amends, to take revenge, to find something lost, to put something right? Does it want to warn you about something? Or anything else?

The central character/protagonist

Decide whether you’re going to write this story in the first person, so you are the person being haunted. (Or you could be the ghost.) Or is it in the third person – in which case, who is it? Make sure you know who your central character is. What happens to them will affect them deeply, and you want to share their emotions, responses, fears, imaginings and rememberings with the reader.

Is that person alone? Is he or she with other people, but is the only one to see the ghost (like Macbeth when he sees Banquo)? So how will the other characters react? Will they be sceptical, amused, dismissive, annoyed, curious, protective, disbelieving, envious…?

Why has this person come to this place? Is there a connection between the character, the place and the ghost that is haunting it? Or is there something about this person that makes him or her susceptible to ghosts? Are they grieving? Highly imaginative? Ill? Guilty of a crime? Or determined to prove that there are no such things as ghosts or the paranormal?

You can create the mood or atmosphere of the story when you decide what kind of ghost story you’re writing. Is it going to be comical (white sheets, clanking chains, boo!), disturbing, creepy, frightening or absolutely terrifying?

Victorian ghost stories are full of creaking floorboards, flickering candles, shadows, gas lamps – but so were Victorian houses! Could you use today’s houses to create the same atmosphere? Electric lights, window blinds, carpeted floors, central heating…

You are taking your main character on a journey to a certain place, where they will encounter disturbing happenings. They will find out what is happening, and they will do something about it. This is the revelation. When they leave that place, their life will have changed. They will never forget this experience.

Remember this isn’t a detective story. You and your reader don’t have to solve anything, but you do have to resolve it. So the revelation leads to the resolution of the story. What does your character do to put things right? For themselves? For the ghost? Or do they simply run away?

How do you want your reader to feel at the end of the story? My anecdote about my goose house experience wouldn’t work as a ghost story, not as it stands. There’s no development, revelation or resolution. I would need to use my inagination to turn it into a satisfactory story. Are you going to explain everything? Or leave ends untied? Will the reader still be disturbed? Too scared to go to bed? Relieved? Amused? Or quietly, and for a long time afterwards, haunted by the memory of what they have been reading?

Don’t reveal too much too soon. Don’t let everything happen at once. Gradually introduce elements of the haunting.

Roald Dahl said: “The best of ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them.“ A classic example of this is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca . The ghost in this book is never seen; it is the memory of her that haunts every page.

Don’t use cliches – the headless corpse, the white sheet, the undead zombie. Get away from horror, vampires and goths. Don’t try to write a detective story. Don’t let the protagonist or ghost use physical force. The fear is psychological, not physical. The ghost might temporarily harm the mind, but not the body.

Do use surprise and hints. Just when your character thinks things are going to be all right…

What is not fully seen (glimpses, shadows, brief reflections) will be much creepier than a lurking figure with clanking chains.

And what is not properly heard (whispers, sighs, light footsteps) will be much more frightening than wails and shrieks!

Some tutorials on how to write ghost stories keep referring to ‘monsters’ or to ‘horror stories’ or even ‘thrillers’. A classic ghost story should be none of these things.

Do enjoy writing your ghost story. It’s a wonderfully imaginative genre – go for it!

Since ancient times people have believed in ghosts and spirits. In many cultures the dead were buried with precious objects to take into the spirit world with them, as it was believed that the life of the spirit continues after the life of the physical body has ended. The First Ghosts , by Irving Finkel, explores the tradition of ghosts in Assyrian culture of three thousand years BC, and asserts that it is the belief in ghosts that make us human.

Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity by D. Felton shows that ghost stories were as popular in ancient Classical literature as they are today. We still use their concept of the haunted house, the unquiet dead seeking a proper burial, or revenge, or needing to help certain people. Similarly, we use, borrow or perpetuate the same idea of animals sensing the presence of ghosts, and the atmospheric devices of sounds, illusions and smells.

In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the ghosts of the murdered often return to terrify and to seek revenge. Five of Shakespeare’s plays have ghosts who profoundly affect their troubled living relatives and friends.

In Victorian times, it was common practice to attend a seance, to have the ghost of the dead speak to their grieving loved ones and bring them comfort. Dickens was one of the most productive ghost story writers, which he published in his periodial All the Year Round . Other contributors were Wilkie Collins and Mrs Gaskell. Dickens’ most famous ghost story, of course, is A Christmas Carol , where a procession of spirits bring the miserable Scrooge out of his miserly misanthrope to redemption and happiness.

Many ghost stories are written about animals. Favourites are black dogs that haunt the moors, or riderless horses that gallop, panting and steaming, over the same stretch of land, on the same day of the year. Or on foggy evenings!

In Orkney tales, there is an invisible animal called a Varden. Everybody has one; it follows you everywhere, and it is part of you for all your life. You know it’s there, even if you can’t see it. And when its owner is dying, the Varden moans and weeps.

Now, what if the Varden doesn’t die? What if it becomes the ghost of itself, searching for its dead owner?

Two true animal ghost stories

Now I’m going to tell you a true ghost story about a cat.

A few days after our cat Midnight died, my husband and I both saw an identical cat, but a younger version, prowling round the garden. We didn’t think it was a ghost, but we live in an isolated place and we knew there were no similar cats in the area. No cats at all, in fact. We never saw it again.

No explanation.

Here’s another cat story, and like ours, it’s true!

Friends of ours had a black cat. One day, someone brought it to their house, apologising that they had knocked it down with their car and it had died. Distraught, our friends buried the corpse in their garden, and the children all cried and put flowers on the grave. 

A few hours later, their cat walked into the kitchen demanding food!

Explanation – they later found out that the dead cat that they had buried and cried over wasn’t theirs at all. It had belonged to a neighbour!

But do you like knowing the truth, or would you prefer it if I had said that the black cat continued to haunt them till they moved house?

The Haunting of Miss Julie

This is the second story chapter in my first book, How Green You Are . The setting is my own school – a convent school with basement corridors, religious statues, a nuns’ graveyard, an overgrown pond, and a school legend that a nun once drowned there. I only had to use my imagination and memory to write a ghost story about a friendless girl.

You are welcome to use all those elements to create your own ghost story, perhaps using your own school as the setting.

A short story set on the Derbyshire moors. Two children find a horse trapped in the ice inside a cave. One of the children rides the horse at night, and the other child gradually realises that both the horse and its rider are actually ghosts. I’m using my knowledge of the local landscape and my imagination to write this story.

This short story can be found in the Haunted anthology.

  • The Company of Ghosts

The Company of Ghosts by Berlie Doherty

The setting for The Company of Ghosts is a small island about a mile off the coast of Scotland. The only buildings on it are a disused lighthouse and the former lighthouse keeper‘s cottage. All you can hear is the cry of gulls and the waves pounding on the rocks. In my story a girl is abandoned there. She is haunted by memories of her estranged father, but soon becomes aware that there is another presence on the island; the ghost of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Again, I used my imagination and my memories of the island to create this story.

Writing ghost stories: a spiral staircase

Slowly, soundlessly, she climbed the spiral stairs. She could feel her breath fluttering in her throat; she was too frightened to set it free. Now she felt a flurry around her like a cold wind; something made her flatten herself against the curved wall as if she was being pushed to one side as someone passed her. She listened, eyes wide, ears strained. Nothing, except for the rummaging of waves on rocks and the distant mockery of gulls. Every nerve in her body told her to turn and go down the stairs and out of the lighthouse, and yet she carried on.
  • The Haunted Hills

Cover of The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty

The setting for The Haunted Hills is an old stone cottage in Derbyshire where a boy is staying with his family. He is grieving for his friend, who died when a stolen car crashed. The boy is drawn to the desolate moors and hills which are haunted by the ghost of the lost lad of local legend. I use the local story and the dramatic landscape of the Dark Peak as well as my imagination to create the atmosphere and the plot.

Writing ghost stories: a plane wreck site

I crest the mound of dark moor, which looks completely desolate, breathing mist. The drizzle is like the white curtains some people have over their windows. I don’t know what I’m looking for, then I’m noticing scattered bits of tiny metal, just fragments at first, and now I can make out broken pieces of fuselage poking out of the ground, shards of metal like spearheads. I walk on, following the trail of debris around an area that could be the size of a football pitch. There are simple little wooden crosses stuck in the ground, made out of what look like ice-lolly sticks. Memorials to men who died here over seventy years ago. My stomach is turning over. Everything’s so sad. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t know it was going to be like this. I wasn’t ready for it at all. Suddenly I can’t take it. Suddenly I’m shivering, I’m cold all over. Why have Mum and Dad brought me here, of all places, to see this, of all things? The mist is drifting like breath. It’s spreading damp fingers over my skin, into my mouth, into my eyes. I can hardly see in front of me. Yet there are movements, shapes rising, lumbering towards me, reaching out to me. I can hear sighing, moaning. Desperate, I try to run away, but I can’t move.

Also Thin Air (see plays ) and Quieter than Snow (see my poetry collection Walking on Air ).

You may also be interested in my blog posts on writing haikus , fairy tales , riddle rhymes and puzzle poems and short stories .

In our culture, few people believe in ghosts, or the spirit world, yet we still retain the festival of Hallowe’en, the evening of All Saints’ Day, in which, in the Christian calendar, all saints are remembered. On the following day, All Souls’ Day, the dead are remembered and celebrated. In the culture of today we ‘raise’ the dead on Hallowe’en by wearing scary plastic masks, fancy dress of ghosts, skeletons, witches, anything really. Under American influence, Hallowe’en has become ‘Fright Night’. Shops are full of spider’s webs, bats, lanterns made of pumpkins etc; like Christmas, a Christian festival has become ‘paganised’ by commercialisation.

In Mexico the Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos, celebrates the dead with dancing and flowers. I’ve heard it said that Mexicans love death!

There are many really powerful ghost stories and novels. In many the ghosts simply have walk-on parts or are simply ghosts, not there to haunt, frighten or alarm anyone.

A quick poll on Twitter revealed favourite ghost stories to be:

  • Any by M R James – Brian Moses and six others
  • Dark Matter by Michelle Paver – Hilary McKay, Melinda Salisbury and four others
  • Any by Robert Crickman – Chris Priestley and four others
  • The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley – Stacey Sampson
  • Three Miles Up and Mr Wong by Elizabeth Jane Howard – Ian Beck

Here’s my own current favourite: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.

Published by: Orion, 2011. Available from Amazon .

This website contains affiliate links. If you buy items using these links, I receive a commission, at no extra cost to you.

creative writing about a ghost

Please recommend some more wonderful ghost stories in the comments box below!

Original unmodified version of main photo: Ján Jakub Naništa /Unsplash. Other photos: Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child , and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody , and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody . She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her new picture book The Seamaiden’s Odyssey , illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell, will be published by UCLan on 5 September 2024. See the About me page for more information.

You may also be interested in:

The Carnegie Award 2024: Cover images of the winner and shortlisted books

This post has 6 comments

Thank you so much for this very informative article – ghost stories are one of my favourite genres, along with Gothic, and I feel that it’s important to keep it alive, so to speak 😉 . I ‘ve read many of your books and very much admire your writing style – I use Street Child, Children of Winter, Deep Secret and The Company of Ghosts frequently in my teaching, as I find them to be excellent examples for my young writers, as well as being brilliant stories. I am also very much looking forward to The Haunted Hills, which I have on pre-order. 🙂

Would you consider publishing a ‘How to write’-type book (novels, short stories, ghost stories etc.), sharing your expertise and writing techniques? I’m sure it would be very well received. There are a multitude of books purporting to give advice on writing, but few are written by accomplished authors such as yourself, and most give very little useful guidance.

Thank you for all you’ve given us. 🙂 xx

What a lovely message! Thank you so much Wendy. I’m so pleased that you like the blog, and I’m thrilled to know that you like my books too! Thank you very much for sharing them with your young writers – I hope they’re inspired! I will continue to write ‘how to’ blogs on my website like this writing ghost stories and the earlier writing haiku blog, and would welcome requests/suggestions. Hadn’t thought about a whole book though ….. Take care, Berlie

Thanks for helping me to find some idea

Oh good! Thanks for letting me know Joe.

Hello Berlie

Thanks so much for this article, which is really helpful. I have an idea for a short ghost story; would you mind if I sent you, or posted here, a 2-sentence summary of the key idea?

Thank you Francis. I’m so pleased you found the blog helpful. Yes, do please share your idea.

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How to Write a Ghost Story for the Modern Age

It was a dark and stormy night… may not be the best way to start a modern age ghost story. The final decision will be yours, of course, but aim to avoid cliches unless you are playing with them on purpose or it truly fits the atmosphere of the opening scene. Now let’s look a little further into writing a modern age ghost story.

Ghost stories have been around for centuries. The Victorians were particularly avid fans, and people were more susceptible to a belief in the fantastical with less scientific reasoning to contradict paranormal suspicions. But what exactly defines a ghost story? To understand this, let’s explore the differences between a ghost story and, its close relative, the horror story. Both are designed to scare the living daylights out of their audience, but this is achieved in very different ways.

The Horror Story

creative writing about a ghost

The Ghost Story

By contrast, ghost stories tend to use more subtle techniques to evoke feelings of terror. Everything about a scenario appears to be perfectly ordinary. Familiarity in relation to both the reader and the character(s) is key to making the story believable. But all too soon, it will become apparent that something isn’t quite right. A feeling of unease will trigger our imagination, feeding on what truly frightens us.

“The best ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them.” Roald Dahl

When we think of ghosts, we conjure up images of white sheets with black holes for eyes and a mouth, or a flickering transparent hologram hovering in the corner of a darkened room. But this is an outdated idea or child’s play, best reserved for Halloween. Haunted houses, witches, ghastly ghouls and eerie spectres are all common tropes best avoided. In this age of scientific fact, we are too cynical or just too familiar with such tired notions.

A ghost story of the modern age should be far more original. This may be the biggest challenge you will face in writing such a story, but it will increase your chances of grabbing the audience’s attention and writing something memorable. It should still subtly build tension, starting with something as vague as a menacing feeling or sensation in one of the main characters – or just a presence on the periphery. Your imagination is left to do its work. Have a think about your deepest fears. What is it you’re most afraid of? It could be abandonment, an uncertain future, losing someone you love or betrayal. This fear should form the backdrop to the entire story.

The atmosphere is the cornerstone of a successful ghost story.

Tension should build up gradually throughout; normality slowly shifting to a position of uncertainty. As characters remain blissfully unaware that anything is wrong, feelings of doubt and anxiety start to creep into the mind of the reader. Mere suggestions of something lurking in the background can be used to powerful effect. Something glimpsed out of the corner of an eye. An innocuous sound suddenly appears threatening. Consider the pace of the narrative – would an acceleration over the duration work well? Or perhaps slow and steady would add to the mood. Short stories lend themselves well to this genre as they allow you to maintain a high level of suspense. Telling the story across fewer pages can make this easier to accomplish.

creative writing about a ghost

Ghost stories are often left open-ended, with many questions unanswered, forcing the reader to face up to their own fears. This will leave them with much to think about, long after the eeriness is over!

If you wish to read an insightful article on writing a traditional ghost story then take a look at How to Write a Victorian Christmas Ghost Story or, before you start writing your story, have a read of some other modern ghost stories.

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creative writing about a ghost

Introducing Gotham GHOSTMASTERS

A professional development program that’s all business.

creative writing about a ghost

What Is Ghostwriting—And What Does It Mean Today?

  • By Gotham Ghostwriters

To kick off the Ghostwriting Confidential 2021 series, our groups thought it made sense to start with the first question we typically get from new contacts: What does “ghostwriting” mean? And then to explore how it can lead to your success. 

With this post, we will define ghostwriting by covering the history and evolution of collaborative creation, the brief foray away from that approach to sole creative endeavors, and the current swing back to collaboration that’s proving to be a boon for writers and readers alike. Finally, we’ll introduce you to the wide array of benefits authors gain by working with a professional writing partner.

What Is a Ghostwriter?

There’s a narrow understanding of what ghostwriting is among laypeople, and then there’s the broader reality of what it actually is.

The common definition of ghostwriting is the act of one person writing in the name of another person, group, company, or institution without receiving a byline or public credit. But more often than not, ghostwriting is a customized form of collaboration, covering a range of relationships and services tied to the authors’ needs, objectives, and work style.

And today, it is becoming more and more common for these editorial partners to receive public recognition—and even cover-credit for their work in the form of “and John Smith” or “with Jane Brown.” 

Although the common definition is still prevalent, it is changing as people become more exposed to the wide spectrum of roles that ghostwriters play. For example, the author and the ghost might share writing responsibilities, or the ghost might work on certain components, such as writing the stories and case studies or shaping the narrative of a novel or memoir, with the author supplying the original concepts and research. Ghosts also can coach authors to develop a concept and organizational structure, identify their target audience, capture their authentic voice, manage the project, conduct interviews with outside sources, and find pertinent research studies. And ghostwriters can serve as developmental editors, helping authors to shape their work at the earliest stages of production, and as line editors and book doctors, polishing, revising, and revamping manuscripts that need improvement before being published. 

The division of labor varies from one collaboration to another, based on whatever makes the most sense for the success of the project. That’s why we think of ghostwriter as an umbrella term for creative collaborations on many types of projects, including books, speeches, white papers, articles, websites, blogs, podcasts—essentially any type of written content our clients want to co-create with us. 

Ghostwriting Is One of the Oldest Professions

While the general public’s awareness of ghostwriting is a relatively recent development, ghostwriting and collaborative storytelling have been around for as long as the written word. Perhaps the most widely known example is the Bible. Both testaments were written by committee, hundreds of years after the events occurred—in the ancient world, the concept of owning intellectual property didn’t exist. For thousands of years, stories were told collectively, especially in oral storytelling. Thus, the oldest known “texts” aren’t attributed to a single author, but rather are the accumulated reflections and contributions of entire cultures.

It wasn’t until the Age of Enlightenment that individuals began being credited as the sole creators of stories and other artistic endeavors, particularly books and later films. Auteurs (French for “authors”) were held in high esteem for single-handedly producing stories and attaching their names to them. In relatively short order, this notion of a book needing to have a sole source took root, not only in literary circles but in the imagination of readers. 

The rise of the auteur in the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t kill off the practice of collaborative storytelling or the use of ghosts—it just drove our predecessors deeper undercover. Indeed, it’s widely believed that this period is when the common stigma around ghostwriting was born. One of the most telling examples of this is the work and life of Samuel Johnson , the famed English writer and public intellectual. Johnson started his career as what was then known as a “hack” writer—a poorly paid writer for hire. At the height of his fame, he reportedly used a ghost of his own for some of his essays, which he slyly acknowledged by signing them with the anonymous letter T. Johnson later disavowed this practice out of a sense of honor/shame. And after Johnson’s death, his acolyte and biographer James Boswell—who many wrongly confuse as Johnson’s ghostwriter—took that disdain a step further by comparing ghostwriting to selling one’s own birthright. 

The Evolution of Ghostwriting:  From Stigma to Standard Practice and on to Status

Ever since Johnson’s days, many an esteemed writer who has dabbled in ghostwriting has grappled with this sellout stigma. Notably among them were the coterie of great American novelists such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Agee, and Aldous Huxley who each went out to Hollywood after the talkies became a thing to make a buck as a screenwriter/rewriter. This self-inflicted sense of hackery recently earned a co-starring role in the 2021 Oscar-nominated movie “Mank” about the legendary screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who aspired to be a man of letters and a New York dramatist but had to settle for being the Academy Award-winning author of “Citizen Kane.”

The darker taboo around ghostwriting applies not to the ghost but to the author—that claiming someone else’s words as your own is a form of cheating and/or an act of dishonesty. Yet, anyone who’s been part of a creative endeavor in the arts—from a playwright who incorporates notes from a director and the actors to a writers’ room for a network television show to comedians who use punch-up writers—knows that the premise that there’s a single author responsible for every story is the real fraud.

This holds just as true for the creation of books. Set aside the term “ghostwriter”— countless works of fiction and non-fiction alike that we hold dear were shaped, reshaped, and even rewritten by anonymous editors. Just look at the work of Maxwell Perkins , a giant within publishing circles whose substantial revisions to classics such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel are widely credited for their success. Each book’s vision and story were the author’s, but the text was the product of a collaboration. That’s exactly what the best ghostwriters and collaborative writers do: help their authors find and express the best version of their vision.

The contributions of ghostwriters have become increasingly known and appreciated—at least within elite circles—with the rise of celebrity culture. Ask most Hollywood talent agents, top PR executives, brand-name CEOs, and political leaders, and not only will they tell you what a ghostwriter does, but also the value they deliver. Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca became household names in the 1980s partly because of their blockbuster bestselling autobiographies, which they could not have written without supremely talented writers such as our friends Bill Novak and Catherine Whitney. Donald Trump likely would not have been president without Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghost on his brand-defining book, Art of the Deal .

What truly and fully brought ghosting out of the shadows, and in turn helped drive a stake through the heart of the stigma, was the ubiquity and transparency of the Internet. In short order, everything and everyone was caught in the Web—there were no secrets anymore. Not only did we know that Barack Obama didn’t write his own speeches, his young speechwriter Jon Favreau became a celebrity in his own right. What became known then became normal, and as such accepted. Some CEOs and celebrities may write their own books, but most don’t—and most readers now know and accept that. 

The Internet has also made the nuts and bolts of collaboration—the actual sharing of artistic creation—much easier through an array of new technologies and platforms. Songwriters can trade tracks and recordings in an instant. Apps such as Google docs allow writers to easily share drafts and collaborate in real time, from anywhere in the world. Other technologies allow authors to share their working texts with their followers and quickly crowdsource notes and ideas for improvements.

As we noted in the introduction to this series, though, the Internet’s most transformative effect on the ghostwriting field has been on the demand side. Self-publishing used to be derided as merely for “vanity” projects. Now, it’s driving the content marketplace—from established ungated platforms such as Medium and LinkedIn to fast-growing newsletter services like Substack to the rise of elite, full-service hybrid book publishers that enable thought leaders to get their books to market on their own terms and timetable. This has turned ghostwriting from a luxury into more and more of a necessity.

The fact is, leaders, influencers, and those inspired to tell their stories or share new thoughts and discoveries tend to be busy people who work long hours to accomplish big goals. They have extensive expertise in their fields, but rarely have the time or the writing skills to, for example, produce on their own a series of thought-leadership articles or a deep-dive book.

And why should they have to do it by themselves? All things considered, choosing not to collaborate with a professional writer is deciding to give yourself a disadvantage right out of the gate. 

Today, working with a ghost is rightly seen by the business, advocacy, and communication leaders our groups partner with as an asset, as the quality of collaborative projects is higher than when authors go it alone, and that leads to greater success. On the flip side, a growing number of accomplished authors are reaching out to us to pursue collaborations because they’ve recognized they can make a lucrative income serving as a co-author or ghost for public figures and experts who can’t write the story themselves, or don’t want to.

Benefits of Collaborating with a Pro Ghost

If you’ve read hundreds of great books, it may seem like a logical leap to actually write one, but that’s not usually how things work out, particularly for first-time authors. Writing a book from scratch can be intimidating, and if it’s your first book, it can be overwhelming and downright scary. So it’s no surprise that a lot of new authors are coming to us for help. They see the wisdom in working with a professional who not only is a skilled writer but also has extensive experience collaborating with authors and understands the trepidation and trust issues authors naturally have. 

With a ghost by your side, the lofty aspiration—or intimidating prospect—of writing a book that meets your goals and makes you proud is not only achievable but also fascinating and enjoyable. With Gotham and United Ghostwriters, authors can sleep well at night because they know they’re in good hands. 

A Ghostwriter Can Help You if: 

  • Your new philosophy or approach is so effective that your colleagues keep saying, “You should write a book.” But who has time when you’re leading the charge 24/7? 
  • You have a personal story to share that can help others, but you have no idea how to put it down in words. 
  • You’re keynoting an upcoming conference and are determined to inspire the audience to take action to improve their business, but writing in a “void” doesn’t elicit your best thoughts or your most creative ideas. 
  • You’ve come up with a blockbuster idea for a novel but don’t have the right skill sets to bring it to life. 
  • There’s content you want to produce, but you adhere to the business adage, “Only do what only you can do”—and writing isn’t on that list. 
  • You want to strengthen your own writing skills by collaborating with a pro. 

Collaborating with a ghostwriter allows you to share your vision in a way that’s true to you. It’s your story, your brilliance, your originality. We simply help bring it to life on the page.

Gotham Ghostwriters

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How to Write Scary Ghost Stories that Terrify Your Readers

by James Colton


Published on January 29, 2012 in :

Last Updated on October 12, 2022

Fear is one of the hardest reactions to provoke in writing. Just flip through the pages of any ghost story anthology; how many of them are genuinely scary ? It takes more than tortured groans, rattling chains, and a splattering of gore; anyone can do that . But the art of raising goose bumps? That is an elusive art indeed. If you can write a scary ghost story, you can write anything. Are you ready to inspire nightmares? Then follow me…

Fear of the Unknown

People don’t fear death. No one’s afraid of ghosts. Monsters, murderers, darkness—none of the horror staples are really terrifying. If you rely on your audience being scared simply because your story includes any of the above, you’re doomed to fail. Instead, you must understand where terror truly lies.

Everyone fears the unknown.

People don’t know what comes after death, so they get scared. They don’t know what’s making that noise in the other room, so they call it a ghost and get scared. Darkness could be hiding anything—what exactly, we don’t know—so we get scared.

We fear what we can’t understand. That’s why a touch on your shoulder when you’re all alone is so frightening: it should be impossible. The best ghost stories take full advantage of this. You won’t see the ghost; you’ll only hear it, smell it, feel it. A ghost is like the wind; you see a curtain flutter, and the question remains in your mind, what is it?

When writing your ghost story, don’t be afraid of withholding information. Your readers, by the very act of reading, have activated their imaginations. Use this against them! Don’t bog them down with long descriptions of a gruesome specter; instead, use simple words to sketch a vague impression. Your readers will imagine the rest, filling in the gaps with whatever scares them most.

Another way you can introduce an element of the unknown is to limit how often you use trope words. If you’re constantly mentioning ghosts or vampires, then the reader knows exactly what they’re up against. By not attaching a label to your entity, you produce doubt. Doubt makes people uncomfortable, which makes them easier to scare.

Examples of the Unknown

Something is not right.

Why is it that one smile can put you at ease, while another makes you want to get out of the room as quickly as possible? Does it reveal just a few too many teeth? Are the eyes above it just a little bit soulless? Is the accompanying laughter a tad too enthusiastic?

We may not be able to tell what , but something is…off. Something friendly has been distorted. You were climbing a familiar staircase, and the last step was missing. You were listening to a pleasant tune, but that one note—was it off-key? What’s wrong with this picture?

This is a natural extension of our fear of the unknown. A defense mechanism. It tips us off that someone around us bears a sickness that we don’t want to catch, that someone is pretending to be something they’re not. In the realm of robotics and computer graphics, it is called the uncanny valley . When something comes so close to being real, but falls short in some subtle way. This is why mannequins, dolls, and clowns are common phobias.

So how can you leverage this in your ghost story? There’s the obvious: characters with slightly deformed features or unnatural movements. Houses with strange angles. Unexpected behavior works as well.

Then there’s the more subtle: mentioning a detail that would be innocuous anywhere else, but in this particular scenario is out of place. There’s nothing quite like a child’s laughter—especially coming from your basement at 3 in the morning. Is it really a child? Or something like a child?

You can also work it into your writing style. Phrase something in an odd way. Intentionally break the rules of grammar. Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll come across as illiterate instead of terrifying.

Examples of the Uncanny

Sinister whispers.

What are the most iconic ghosts you can think of? How are they described? I’ll bet the words that just drifted through your mind weren’t college-level terms like ectoplasmic , ominous , or stygian . Rather, you probably imagined something white, something tall, a shadow.

You reached for simple terms that your brain could instantly understand.

Amateur writers often gravitate toward heavy descriptions. This is likely the result of high-school English teachers encouraging them to be more creative and expand their vocabulary. But let me remind you of a very important fact: you aren’t writing a ghost story to impress your high-school English teacher. You’re not trying to prove how clever you are.

You’re trying to scare people.

At best, advanced or overly descriptive words are harder to process. At worst, they lead to overwriting and the dreaded pit of silliness.

Simple words, on the other hand, are subtle. They conjure clear sensations in our minds, sensations that we didn’t expect. If you’ve set up your scene properly, everyday words that are innocent by themselves will take on new, sinister meanings.

If you have trouble with this, Lean on the basic structure of the English sentence: subject, verb, object.

He opened the door. The room was dark. He stepped inside. Something dripped on his shoulder. He looked up.

If you need something more, pick a single adjective and apply it to either the subject or the object. Don’t apply anything to the verb; it should stand on its own. If it doesn’t, you either used the wrong verb, or the preceding sentences didn’t set up the right context.

Examples of Subtlety

Do you feel afraid.

Emotion is vital in any form of literature, but especially ghost stories. Remember, the end goal is to make your reader feel what the protagonist is feeling: pure, unbridled terror.

Simply telling the reader that your character is scared isn’t enough. You’ve heard the adage “show, don’t tell.” When writing about emotions, try forbidding yourself from using words like:

  • Scared/Scary
  • Horror/Horrified
  • Terror/Terrified

Instead, show the character’s fear by writing what their body is doing. Write exactly what they’re hearing or smelling, even if it’s only in their head.

But the protagonist is only half of the emotional equation. The other half is the ghost. The scariest ghosts always project some kid of emotion. It doesn’t matter what that emotion is as long as it’s dangerous:

  • Frustration

A dangerous emotion doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative one. It could be a positive thing taken in a bad direction. Dysfunctional love, overzealous affection—as long as the ghost’s emotions project some kind of threat, you have the makings a terrifying specter.

Fear isn’t the only emotion you can use when writing a ghost story. Try enhancing the terror with sadness, depression, or anger. Positive emotions can have a tremendous impact as well. Offer a glimmer of hope, then replace it with something awful. The contrast can be unnerving.

Examples of Emotion

A dreadful descent.

Fear must be built up gradually. Think of it like you’re taking the reader on a journey from the safety of their world to the nightmare of yours. Like any journey, it’s a transition from point A to point B. If you skip that transition by presenting your scariest scene right up front, it won’t have any effect. The audience is still comfortably seated at point A: a soft armchair by a warm fire.

That’s not to say you can never start with a spooky scene—in fact, it’s a good way to catch the audience’s interest and entice them to keep reading. Just make sure you save the best for last. Wait until the reader has gotten out of their comfy chair; wait until they’re curled up in the cold, damp corner of the basement. Once a reader is primed, they’re much easier to scare.

This priming process is called foreboding . It’s similar to the more common literary device of foreshadowing, but with an emphasis on the ominous. It helps your reader suspend their disbelief and gradually draws them into your nightmare world.

Start small. In a ghost story, this is the quiet noise, unexpected but not altogether unusual, that the protagonist dismisses, attributing it to natural causes.

Then go a little bit bigger. A more demanding noise that piques the protagonist’s curiosity. Perhaps they investigate, but once more can only shrug their shoulders and move on with life.

Then one night the noise becomes a knocking. Maybe someone is at the front door? But the protagonist looks and no one is there. Now they’re nervous, and maybe the reader is too.

The next night, however, the knocking comes not from the distant front door, but the protagonist’s own bedroom door.

And the wood begins to splinter.

Examples of Foreboding

The end…or is it.

If you want to make your ghost story truly memorable, it needs a killer ending. You want your reader to keep thinking about the story long after they’ve finished it—after the lights are out, when they’re trying to sleep.

The key is to put your scariest scene last. Your scariest scene isn’t necessarily the one in which your character’s life is in the most danger. This is the horror genre, after all; death is expected. Rather, your scariest scene is the one in which your character’s identity , sanity , or relationships are in the most danger.

This may mean leaving the reader with a disturbing question or a terrifying revelation. These reveals will threaten the character’s understanding of the world and trigger the darkest aspects of your reader’s imagination.

Putting your scariest scene last might require a non-linear narration. If your scariest scene takes place three quarters of the way through your story, write around it, then use a flashback at the end to explore the scene in greater detail.

If you’re having trouble coming up with an impactful twist for your ending, try asking yourself these questions:

  • What single fact would make this good situation bad, or this bad situation worse?
  • What detail would alter the character’s understanding of the situation in a terrifying way?
  • How can the situation force the character into a choice?
  • How can that choice be bad no matter what the character chooses?

Regardless of how you end your ghost story, be careful not to overextend the ending. After the big reveal, it may be tempting to offer further explanation, but this can dampen the effect. Don’t be afraid to leave some things up to the reader’s imagination. Leave some questions unanswered, some conflicts unresolved. This produces doubt in the reader and forces them to think about your story late into the night.

Examples of Endings

Writing a good ghost story is hard, but when your readers say they can no longer walk down dark hallways and complain of trouble sleeping, that feeling is totally worth it!

To sum up, here are the main things to keep in mind when writing a ghost story:

  • Use the unknown to turn your readers’ imagination against them
  • Exploit the uncanny valley to make your readers uncomfortable
  • Write simple language to paint a sinister picture
  • Create empathy to manipulate your readers’ emotions
  • Build the fear gradually before springing your scariest scene

Finally, the most important advice I can give you is this: read . Immerse yourself in the genre, and you’ll find you naturally improve. A good place to start would be my own library of horror stories .

creative writing about a ghost

Cornelia Funke’s Top 10 Tips For Writing Ghost Stories

Writers Write is a resource for writers. In this post, we’ve shared German author,  Cornelia Funke’s Top 10 Tips For Writing Ghost Stories .

Cornelia Funke is an award-winning German writer and illustrator. She was born 10 December 1958.

creative writing about a ghost

She says , ‘I love telling stories. I can travel to different countries and other worlds. I can meet creatures I would not have met in real life. I can experience things I have been dreaming of for a long time, like riding a dragon…’

To celebrate her birthday, 10 December, we are sharing her tips for writing ghost stories .

[Top Tip: Learn how to write fantasy. Buy The Fantasy Workbook ]

  • Choose your tone . Decide whether you want to go funny or grim. You can of course do both, but you should decide about the general tone of your story. (Which of course may convince you while you are writing that you made the wrong decision…)
  • Choose your ghost . Do you want your reader to love or fear the ghost? Will you be on the ghost’s side or will your hero be the hunter? Answering these questions may reveal a lot about the story you want to tell.
  • Mix it up . We all know the classic ingredients for creating a spooky atmosphere: of course most of the action takes place at night. It is cold and foggy. There are plenty of very old buildings and probably graveyards. It can be incredibly satisfying to use ALL of these ingredients and play with them in your very own way. But if you are tired of these kinds of ghost stories read some tales from the Caribbean or Asia. They will give you some very different ideas on ghosts!
  • Give your ghost a life story . Decide where your ghosts come from. How many are there? Do you tell the story of one or many? Were they once human? If yes, were they He or She? Grown up or child? How did they die? When did they live? You can make them historical characters like I did in Ghost Knight, which is so much fun and vastly inspiring. Or do you deal with a spirit of demonic origins? In short: Give your ghostly hero a biography. Imagine them so clearly that you feel them behind you. What does their voice sound like? Do they have one? Is their breath cold or hot?
  • Set some rules.  Rules: yes, even ghosts need them. Fantasy writing is always in danger of feeling quite random and not too convincing when you don’t take the trouble to define the rules of your world and the creatures in it. So what can ghosts do? Can they hurt you? When do they show up? How can you destroy them?
  • Explore themes.  Don’t forget about The Big Themes ! A ghost story is very often about death and guilt, about life unlived, about loss. The more you explore these themes, the better it gets. You can ask all the big questions. Where do we come from? Where do we go? If there are ghosts, why do they stay? Does Evil survive Death?
  • Do your research.  Research! Do you know that there ARE ghost hunters? Real ghost hunters! I found it very inspiring to read about them and their theories on ghosts before I wrote Ghost Knight!
  • Create the right writing atmosphere.  Write at night… A very easy way to create just the right writing atmosphere. Candles are helpful too. Maybe you could even try paper and a fountain pen. A quill may be too much of an obstacle getting the words onto a page!
  • There’s more to a ghost story than ghosts . Other creatures. A ghost story can of course deal with other haunting creatures too. Maybe you want werewolves and vampires as well? Why not explore the whole kingdom of the Undead?
  • Ignore the previous 9 rules. Break all the rules! Ignore all the advice! Write a ghost story that’s in bright daylight. Make him a ghostly robot. An apparition from the future… You see, I lied about the thousand ways to write a ghost story. There are millions 🙂

Source for tips: The Guardian

TIP: If you want help writing a book, buy  The Novel Writing Exercises Workbook .

creative writing about a ghost

If you enjoyed this article ,  you will love:

  • Don Delillo’s Writing Guide
  • The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors
  • Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules For Writing Fiction
  • Writing Advice From The World’s Most Famous Authors

Top Tip : Find out more about our  workbooks  and  online courses  in our  shop .

  • Cornelia Funke , Writing Inspiration , Writing Trivia

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Posted on Aug 12, 2022

21 Ghostwriting Tips from Bestselling Ghostwriters

Ghostwriting is a booming industry with many opportunities for development for the savvy writer; you may not get to put your name on your work, but you do get to help authors realize their publishing dreams, while often making a pretty penny.

Whether you’re already an active ghost writing content for others, or you’re looking to start on your ghostwriting journey, this article contains advice on how to improve your skills from some of Reedsy’s top ghosts.

Are you an author looking for tips on how to hire a ghostwriter ? Look no further than this article . Also, on the Reedsy marketplace you'll find some of the top ghostwriters in the industry.

Guiding your clients

Some authors who want to hire you as a ghostwriter may not know what type of services they’re looking for or what you can do for them. Acting as a guide to publishing and ghostwriting is an important part of the job. Here are a few things you can do to point your clients in the right direction:

1. Find out what services your clients actually need

It’s great if your client already knows what they want, but you’ll also get a fair share of requests from authors who understandably know very little about the process. It’s in both your own and your client’s interest that you spend some time guiding them about what the process will look like and what services they might need, so have a conversation before you agree to take on their project to assess their needs and make sure you’re a good fit. 

There are, for instance, many types or ‘levels’ of ghostwriting with many different names, so make sure the terminology is clear.

Book doctoring/mentoring A slightly antiquated term that falls somewhere between editing and rewriting manuscripts that are in need of some resuscitation, or guiding authors as they write largely on their own.
Full ghost Going “full ghost” refers to being part of the whole process, from developing their idea and deciding on a structure, to writing and editing.
Deep ghost “Deep ghosting” is when it’s an absolute top secret that the author didn’t write the book themselves. This often involves NDA’s and a hefty dose of discretion.

Some clients want you to write every single word for them, either because they feel like they don’t have the necessary skills to translate their ideas into writing, or because they don’t have the time (or inclination). Some clients have a rough manuscript and just want you to bridge the gaps. Determining this before you start saves you a lot of potential trouble in the long run.

2. Set realistic expectations

Another part of guiding clients is making sure that they have realistic expectations for what a ghost can do for them. 

For Seth Kaufman , a ghostwriter who is well-versed in writing bestsellers, setting expectations is key to a happy collaboration, but he also notes that this can be a tricky topic: “As a ghost, you want work and you want your client to succeed. But you also want clients to have a sense of reality.” Sometimes, the publishing market can be fickle, and even a well-written book by the best ghostwriter in the world is not always a straight ticket to success. 

creative writing about a ghost

In short, don’t make any promises you can’t keep about bestsellers or literary prizes. The most you can guarantee is a well-polished manuscript, and from there, it’s in the author’s hands. Pointing them towards resources on how to market a book and getting the word out can be one good way to set expectations and remind your authors that writing is only half the battle.



Offer Letter Checklist + Template

Follow our tips to successfully sell clients on your services while setting clear expectations.

3. Refer the author to other professionals when needed

Sometimes you discover that you’ve been approached by an author who is actually looking for something other than ghostwriting, or that they need additional services after your part of the collaboration is finished.

This has happened to award-winning ghost Nicola Cassidy on several occasions: 

Often I'm approached by somebody who asks for a ghostwriter, but when we delve deeper, we find that what they need is a mentor or writing consultant, or even a developmental editor.

Referring them to other professionals instead of hawking your own services (and risk doing a poor job) is a good way to build a reputation for excellence and professionalism. The author will appreciate your honesty and integrity, and you get to focus on projects where you can shine. This can also help you build a network with other professionals, who are more likely to recommend your services whenever they find themselves in similar situations. 

Don't have a network of fellow publishing pros yet? Luckily, Reedsy has done the hard work for you. Our marketplace selection criteria means we only accept 5% of the publishing professionals who apply, and you can feel comfortable recommending any   book editor or marketer  on our platform to authors.

Finding projects that are a good fit

As a ghostwriter, you’re always looking for the next big project to take on — ideally, something that you’ll both enjoy working on, and that will be a good addition to your portfolio. But how do you assess whether a project will be a good fit for you? Our ghosts advise you to:

4. Look for authors who are flexible

When a project lands in your inbox, you might want to look beyond the author’s vision for the manuscript, and try to get a sense of whether you’ll actually enjoy working together. Ghostwriting projects tend to be extensive so this initial time investment can help you avoid being stressed and miserable throughout the project because of poor chemistry.

New York Times bestselling ghost Toni Robino urges other ghosts to “consider whether the author is someone you want to spend a significant amount of time with for the next nine to twelve months, because it’s a really intimate process.”

If you’ve ever read any advice on how to become a ghostwriter, you know that being flexible is a central part of the job description — ghosts need to be able to adapt to the author’s voice and vision. But it’s also important to remember that your client needs to be receptive to your input, and ghosts should also look for a degree of flexibility in potential clients. 

Be careful when dealing with authors who think they have the greatest story ever and you must do it their way. I like to find out how flexible they are to changes in their story. If they're not, best to let someone else deal with them … I recently quit a project and returned the money because the author was so emotionally tied to the story that he was unwilling to accept any variations on the theme. — Rob MacGregor

As ghostwriters, MacGregor continues, you have to balance making the most of your own knowledge and skills with the client’s concern that they’ll lose control of their story. You need to be able to tell clients why something isn’t working and — importantly — why, while also trying to stick close to (and respect) their vision.

5. Do a trial chapter

One way to get a sense of how the collaboration will go and what a client is like to work with is to offer a (paid) trial chapter. Eileen Rendahl , an expert in ghostwriting genre fiction, reminisces that: 

The one contract I’ve had blow up in my face was one where the client didn’t think we needed to do a trial chapter. It would have saved us both a lot of time, money, and heartache if we’d done one. It gives [clients] a chance to see what you would do with their material. It gives you a chance to see what they’re like to work with and what kind of material you’ll be working with.

Another option is, as MacGregor suggests, to start with an outline as a separate project. If it turns out it’s not a good fit, both author and ghostwriter have the option to go separate ways after the outline is completed. The author will have an outline to work from, and the ghost will be paid for the time it took to develop it — win win.


Ghostwriting Proposal Template

Lay out your rates, deliverables, and timeline with a professional template.

6. Make sure they’re actually ready to roll.

Once you’ve taken the time to properly assess the project and you feel confident about taking it on, confirm whether the author is actually ready to start working on it right away, so you can plan your workload accordingly. 

Rendahl is adamant on this point:

Stuff happens. People get busy. It’s totally understandable, but when you’ve said no to other projects because you’ve blocked time for that one just to find out that you can’t start work on it, it can throw your work schedule and your bank account off in unpleasant ways.

Some authors may think that they’re ready to go, but may not actually have all the material that you need for the project. Be clear when you’re communicating with them about what sort of information they need to provide before you block out time to work on it. If they don’t have it, that’s OK, but tell them to get back in touch when they do.

7. Be open-minded, but avoid projects that clash with your beliefs too much

In addition to being flexible, ghostwriters need to be open-minded and non-judgemental. Part of the job description is to communicate the author’s opinions and make sure their arguments are made as clearly as possible — not to insert your own thoughts into the work. Being able to work with people who think differently than you is a great strength and might even teach you something along the way. 

I think you have to be pretty much an empath if you're going to ghostwrite people's books. You have to have an understanding of people's psychology — and, of course, you absolutely cannot be judgmental. — Sandra Cain

With that said, it’s not a good idea to take on a project that goes against your beliefs to the extent that you don’t feel comfortable working on it. In those cases, Rob MacGregor advises you to decline and let someone else take on the project. If the ideas and opinions are contrary to your own and your heart’s not in it, you’re unlikely to produce quality work or enjoy the process.

8. Sometimes it’s OK to withdraw from a project

Call it Murphy’s Law or what have you, but even the most meticulous research and preparations can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to avoid dud projects. Sometimes it takes working on it for a while before you realize that it’s not a good fit, and sometimes life simply gets in the way. Whatever the reason, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and your client is to amicably part ways. 

If that happens, clear contracts are key.

Writing contracts and setting rates

Educating your clients and making sure the project is a good fit for you are good first steps towards successful collaborations. But before you actually start working, it’s essential that you put the scope of the project officially into writing as well. This will protect both you and the author in case either of you need to walk away from the project, or if issues arise. 

creative writing about a ghost

9. Determine the scope of the project, and stick to it

Between the different types of ghostwriting out there — doctoring, full ghost, deep ghost, etc. — and setting clear expectations, most of the ghostwriters we speak to emphasize the importance of making the scope of the project clear in order to avoid confusion, or worse, disappointment. 

But it’s not always the author who may need to be reminded of what the scope is and sticking to it, according to Rendahl’s own experiences: 

If [the author has] already written something and just want you to flesh it out or smooth it out, rein yourself in. It’s tempting to fix everything, but sometimes they like their story the way it is even if you might think it’s flawed. In the end, it’s their story. That’s been a tough one for me to get past, to be honest. I had a romance client who had the hero do something that I felt made him irredeemable. I must have suggested at least three different ways to change it, but the client wanted it the way she wanted it.

MacGregor notes that some authors assume that you’ll also write their query letter and help them get a literary agent or publisher after you’ve ghostwritten their book. You can avoid a lot of confusion and disappointment by clearly communicating what services you’ll be providing for what fee. Because ghostwriting is so flexible and the role shifts slightly from project to project, Toni Robino highlights the importance of clear contracts: 

You need to say exactly what you’re doing for the client, and what they’re agreeing to do as a partner in the process. Having all of that worked out ahead of time so that there's no gray area is super important.

Cain adds that the level of involvement that you will have as a ghostwriter should be clearly stated in the contract and that this might also impact how much or little official acknowledgement you receive (as well as the fee); John Smith with Sandra Cain reflects slightly less involvement than John Smith and Sandra Cain, for instance. So before you sign a contract with an author, make sure you have an open conversation about the level of involvement and the form of credit you will receive, and that your contract reflects this.

10. Remember that every project is unique

Having a contract template to work from is a good place to start, but each project will come with its own set of requirements and rules, according to Nicola Cassidy: 

Every project is unique. No ghost project that I've worked on has been exactly like the one before … I tailor every contract for every client, working off a general outline and updating it based on our interview discussions. Reedsy is great for looking after that side of things, but sometimes clients want something more in writing and I'm always happy to facilitate that.

Authors can be particular about the language that you use in contracts and might want their own legal clauses added to suit the territory that they’re living in, to address issues of privacy, or to specify the project completion date, Nicola explains. If they want to add an NDA, that’s also part of the ghostwriting job description.

11. Don’t underestimate your value

Lastly, the contract should reflect your fees and what services will be included in that price. MacGregor is clear on the point that you shouldn’t write for nothing:  

Don't underestimate your value. If you think you're only worth a thousand dollars, you'll attract authors willing to pay you a thousand dollars.

If you want to learn more about how to set your ghostwriting fees, check out our article on how much ghostwriters make. It answers questions like how much you should charge as a ghostwriter, how to write a quote, and whether you should agree to getting paid in royalties.

Capturing voice

A huge part of the ghostwriting craft is capturing other people’s voices. Ghostwriting is really “a combination of taking what the author tells you, while also researching further to really understand the world the author’s living in,” Cain summarizes. Here are some practical things that you can do to help the process along:

12. Let it take time

Freelance ghostwriter Doug Wagner says that it’s important to set expectations with the author about how long it might take to nail their voice: 

One of the most common problems I’ve encountered with clients is unrealistic expectations — especially with regards to voice. Clients need to understand that no writer nails someone else’s voice on the first try, and shouldn’t be expected to . That’s inevitably a product of a back-and-forth … Ensure you communicate this with clients before you begin so they’re as prepared for the process as possible.

Getting clients on-board with the process is vital, as a patient collaboration will bring about the best results. Cain, for instance, spends up to three or four hours a week interviewing some of her memoirists, listening closely to their story and the way they talk.

13. Practice deep listening

Doing research and interviewing the author you’re working with is an important part of ghostwriting. As you do, practicing deep listening will help you get an insight into how the author thinks and expresses themselves. 

Award-winning ghostwriter Jon Reiner says that a successful ghostwriter is “first a good listener, and then a good writer.” Being a good listener is a skill that you can develop over time, and includes asking the right questions, paying attention to behaviors and habits, manner of speech, and making notes about the way the author perceives and describes the world. 

14. Invite the author to “spot the difference”

It’s important that the author is also involved in this process and sometimes you may need to get a bit creative with how you draw their voice out. 

Robino breaks her process down into some actionable steps: 

Listen to the person speak, pay attention to their word choices, their intonation, how they generally express themselves. Then I like to ask the person to read something I wrote out loud and try to put their personal spin on it. Ask the author to note down things that wouldn’t normally come out of their mouth, and go back and change them until they feel right. Eventually, after a couple of chapters, you will hopefully have a better grasp of their voice. 

Beyond yourself and the author, third parties can be an additional resource.

15. Enlist family members and friends to help

Sometimes authors don’t actually know the sound of their own voice as well as they think they do. Robino notes that consulting a family member or friend can help if an author can’t tell if they recognize their own voice in your writing — as someone who knows the author well, they are sometimes better placed to confirm whether you’ve managed to capture their essence or not. 

creative writing about a ghost

Of course, this step may be a bit more difficult to pull off if you’re deep ghosting, where only you and the other can know what your role is.

16. Try method acting

If you really want to push the boundaries with your ghostwriting but can’t let anyone else know who you’re writing for, you can also give method acting a try — according to Cain, play-acting as the other person whose voice you’re trying to capture (in the comfort and privacy of your own home) can help you get inside their mind without enlisting other people to help. It’s as close to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes as you can get.

17. Use fiction to practice writing different voices

Lastly, you also need to put pen to paper since being able to capture a voice in writing ultimately takes a lot of practice. Robino recommends writing fiction as a great way to hone your skills, since you’ll get to develop characters and practice writing all their different voices. She says that “fiction writing has ultimately helped strengthen my nonfiction as well.”

Building a ghostwriting career

If you want to make a career out of ghostwriting or you’re looking for ways to expand your business, here are some good practices that can help you get your name in front of more people:

18. Produce your own creative work to showcase your skills

In addition to being a great way to practice voice, continuing to produce creative work of your own outside of your ghostwriting is an excellent way to get around the conundrum of anonymity when it comes to building a portfolio.

I continue to produce my own creative work in both fiction and screenplays. I've found these to be most helpful for sample work, or proving the level you work to. This helps me get around the tricky area of writing anonymously but also showing new clients a portfolio. — Nicola Cassidy

When you can’t showcase samples of your work that you’ve written for other authors, this will allow you to show potential clients what quality they can expect from your writing.  

19. Look for ‘White Whales’

Ghostwriting is a competitive field and it can be a long and arduous process building a portfolio that will make clients come to you. Alex Cody Foster , a ghostwriter who has written several Amazon bestsellers, advises both new and veteran ghosts to look out for ‘White Whales’:  

One of the best ways to skip ahead of that lengthy process [of becoming a ghostwriter] is to find a white whale—i.e. someone who has a remarkable story that has not yet been published. You might see a great story about this person on Netflix as you browse documentaries; you might read about them in the New York Times or even in your local paper … The key is to discover someone with a big story and therefore a large platform, and pitch them on ghostwriting their book … While working on regular gigs, I always have a white whale client or two I'm working with at the same time.

Reaching out to ‘whales’ will often result in one of three things: One — they say no. Two —they say yes. Three — they say yes, but they don't want to pay you. In the case of the latter, you can try to negotiate a deal with a lower fee in exchange for having your name on the cover.

An author with a big platform will ensure that your work reaches a big audience and help build your reputation in the ghostwriting ‘biz. But be wary of taking on any project that sparkles without first knowing if it will play to your strengths.

20. Know where your strengths lie

As with any profession, it’s important to always strive to hone your skills and add more tools to your belt, but it’s also important to know where your strengths lie and where you’ll be able to deliver good results.

I am always honest and never take on a project I don't think my skills are suitable for. In this way, I turn down a lot of work, but equally, I end up working on very interesting jobs and find that I can communicate well with the client … Often I'm approached by writers who have some material written but say they need a ghostwriter as they don't have the confidence to go further. Sometimes the voice is so unique that I tell them they must - that I don't think I could capture it in the way they would like. — Nicola Cassidy

Eileen Rendahl similarly has a clear vision of the projects she’s looking for: 

I’m good at dialogue, setting, and internal motivations [and] gravitate toward projects where the client already knows the overall arc of the story, but doesn’t know how to flesh it out. It makes for a really nice collaborative project.

Knowing your own abilities is not to say that you shouldn’t venture out of your comfort zone — the best projects are ones where you can apply your skills and flex your writing muscles to their fullest extent.

21. Respond immediately when you get a request

Lastly, we’ll end on a tip that seems obvious, but definitely bears repeating — being quick on the ball can give you first dibs on the best projects. To MacGregor, “being first to respond is key.” From there on, you can ask for a sample, explain the process, and gain their attention by showing why you’d be the best ghost for the job.



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And there you have it — 21 ghostwriting tips that will hopefully help you become a better ghost. For more ghostwriting insights, check out our guide to how to find ghostwriting jobs or Barry Napier’s story on how he unexpectedly became a ghost.

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  • December 29, 2023

The Ultimate Ghostwriting Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Picture of Mo Shehu

This easy-to-read ghostwriting guide explains everything about how ghostwriting works, why the right writer matters, and much more.

Table of contents

We’re working on a few books this year and have fielded questions on how ghostwriting works.

Whether you need help finishing a book , want it to sound just like you, or are just curious about ghostwriting, this complete guide has you covered.

Ghostwriting definitions and limitations

What exactly is ghostwriting how is a ghostwriter different from a co-writer, editor, or writing coach.

Ghostwriting is when someone writes your book for you, and you get the credit. It’s different from co-writing, where you and the writer share the credit. 

Editing is when someone improves writing you’ve already done. A writing coach helps you write the book yourself, offering guidance and advice. 

It’s important to know what you need. Sometimes a potential client thinks they just need an editor when really, they need ghostwriting services to help them write from the start. 

Others might think they need a ghostwriter but really just want guidance to write their own book. 

There are also different types of freelance writing professionals. For example, a memoir ghostwriter probably won’t specialize in academic ghostwriting jobs.

Similarly, a freelance writer might lean more toward blog content marketing and struggle with non fiction book writing.

To simplify things:

  • If you just want help polishing your writing, get an editor.
  • If you want guidance as you write, get a writing coach instead.
  • If you want someone to write the book for you, hire a ghostwriter.

Can a ghostwriter help complete a manuscript that has been stalled for a long time?

If you’ve hit a wall with your manuscript, a quality ghostwriter can jump in and help get things moving again.

They’ll bring fresh eyes to your work and can offer new ideas or perspectives you might not have considered. 

A common hiccup is when you’re too close to the project and can’t see what’s missing or what could be improved.

A skilled ghostwriter helps to bridge that gap, but you’ll need to be open to their suggestions to move past the standstill.

What qualifications should a ghostwriter have to write a biography or business book?

Good ghostwriting is less about formal education and more about the writer’s ability to extract and structure your story.

We’ve worked with expert ghostwriters who were previously journalists, teachers, coaches, consultants, and speakers. 

Sometimes, people think any freelance writer can write their book, but it’s best when the writer knows about your world, whether it’s your life story or your business journey.

If you’re a business expert, your ghostwriter should ideally understand your industry’s business terms and ideas.

They should ask you the right questions to get the details they need to write your book. 

How does a ghostwriter capture your voice in the writing?

To write in your voice, a skilled ghost learns how you talk and what matters to you. They listen to your stories and take notes.

Sometimes, writers might get it wrong at first, writing in a way that doesn’t sound like you. It’s a process of shaping their writing style until it matches yours. 

As a client, you’ll need to read their work and tell them what sounds right and what doesn’t. They’ll rewrite parts until it feels like your voice is on the page.

Are there any genres or topics ghostwriters typically don’t work on?

Most ghostwriters are pretty flexible, but some might not write about certain topics, like highly technical subjects they’re not familiar with or genres they’re not comfortable with, like religion or erotica. 

It’s best to be upfront about your book’s topic to match with a ghostwriter who’s a good fit.

Ghostwriting tools

What software tools are essential for managing a ghostwriting project.

Ghostwriting is less about software and more about processes and content creation. You might not handle any software, but it’s good to know how it helps. 

Your ghost will use tools for organizing the project, such as:

  • Word processors with comment and track changes features (we use Google Docs)
  • Collaboration software to stay in touch and share ideas (we use email and Slack)
  • Project management software to keep timelines in check (we use Asana)

You don’t need all the bells and whistles — just the ones that make writing and reviewing your book easier.

It’s important these tools work well because technical issues can lead to lost drafts or missed messages. 

Regular check-ins and clear discussions can help prevent these issues. We recommend a once-monthly call between you and your ghost to align.

Is plagiarism detection software used in the ghostwriting process?

It’s important your book is all original. Plagiarism software checks that the words in your book aren’t the same as someone else’s. 

A small mix-up could happen — like a common phrase getting flagged as plagiarism. Your professional writer should know how to fix any issues without changing your message.

Can’t I just use AI to write my book?

Using AI to write your book might seem like a quick and easy solution, but it has its limits.

AI can help with content creation based on what you feed it, but it doesn’t have personal experiences or emotions. 

Your book isn’t just a collection of facts or stories. It’s your voice, experiences, and unique perspective. AI can’t capture that. Also, AI might miss the nuances of your story or get details wrong. 

Nothing beats the personal touch and understanding a human ghostwriter brings to your project.

They’ll work with you to make sure your book feels real and genuine, something AI just can’t do yet.

Ghostwriting process

How does a ghostwriter structure the workflow of a new writing project.

Your ghostwriter will map out the whole project before starting. They’ll set up deadlines for each part of the book and check in with you to make sure everything’s on track. 

This plan is flexible, though. Sometimes, things take longer than expected, or new ideas come up that you want to include. 

The key is to keep communication open so you both know what’s happening and can adjust the plan as needed. 

As a ghostwriting agency , we have templates and tools to lay out your book’s structure. These help organize everything from the main ideas to the details.

What are the standard frameworks or methods used in ghostwriting a non-fiction book?

When you’re writing a non-fiction book, it helps to have a clear plan. Ghostwriters usually start with an outline to put all your thoughts in order. 

These could be the steps in your business’s success or the key moments in your life.

Your ghostwriter will pick a structure that fits your story, like in the order things happened or grouped by themes. 

Sometimes, the first plan doesn’t cover everything, and you might need to add more details or change things around.

That’s normal — it’s part of making sure your book covers all the important points.

Confidentiality and legal considerations

How is client confidentiality maintained in the ghostwriting process.

Your stories and ideas are private, and a ghostwriter keeps it that way. They agree not to tell anyone anything not agreed, or that they wrote it. 

If there are parts of your story that are sensitive or private, you can talk about how to handle them in the book.

It’s about finding a balance between being honest and protecting the privacy of you or others involved in your story.

What are the legal rights and obligations involved in a ghostwriting agreement?

In a ghostwriting agreement, you keep all the rights to your book, and the ghostwriter promises to keep your work private. 

The agreement says what the ghostwriter will do, how much you’ll pay, and when the work should be done. 

Sometimes, misunderstandings happen if the agreement isn’t clear. It’s important to read the ghostwriting contract carefully and make sure you agree on everything before the writing starts. 

What’s the standard policy on credits and acknowledgments?

Typically, a ghostwriter doesn’t get credit for writing the book — that’s what makes them a ghost. 

The client typically remains the sole credited author. But if you want to thank your ghost in the acknowledgments, that’s okay. 

Some ghostwriters prefer to stay completely in the background, though, so talk about it and agree on what works for both of you.

How are disputes or disagreements resolved during the ghostwriting process?

If there’s a disagreement, the first step is to talk about it and try to find a solution that works for all parties. 

Most problems on a ghostwriting job can be solved with good communication and compromise. 

If you really can’t agree, refer back to your contract to see what it says about resolving disputes.

You might opt to get a mediator or arbitrator before getting lawyers involved. 

The goal is to work things out in a fair and professional way.

Collaboration, alignment, and feedback

What kind of input and collaboration will be needed from me.

Your insights, feedback, and approval are crucial at every step.

Your ghostwriter might ask you to review parts of the book, give them more details on certain topics, or help them understand your perspective better. 

It’s a team effort, so your active involvement is important. They shouldn’t overload you, but rather guide you on where and how you can provide the most helpful input.

How are research and interviews handled in the ghostwriting process?

For your book, your potential ghostwriter will need to gather lots of information. They’ll likely do interviews with you, where you can share your stories and insights. 

They might also look into other sources or talk to other people to make sure they get all the facts right. 

But it’s your story, so what you say is key. Sometimes, research can lead ghostwriting projects in different directions, so it’s important to regularly check that it’s all still aligned with your vision.

How do you resolve issues around alignment or creative differences?

Creative differences are part of the writing process. A professional ghostwriter will listen to your ideas and try to understand your vision for the book. 

If there’s a difference in opinion, they’ll discuss it with you to reach a solution that honors your story while keeping the writing strong. 

Sometimes, there’s a temptation to stick only to what you know, but a good ghostwriter can help you consider options that could enhance your book or memoir. 

It’s a dance of give and take, with the goal of creating a book you’re proud of.

How does the feedback process work?

You’ll talk to your ghostwriter to give feedback, or leave comments in the drafts they send you. They’ll take your comments and make changes to the book. 

Sometimes, what you say might not get through right away, and things might need a few tries before they’re just right. 

Clear and direct feedback helps sort this out faster. It’s all about working together to refine and polish your story.

What happens if I’m not satisfied with the final manuscript?

If you’re not happy with the final draft, you and your ghostwriter can discuss what’s not working for you and make revisions. 

If you both can’t get it right even after several tries, a fair solution might involve adjusting the final payment for the ghostwriting service or parting ways amicably.

Ghostwriting costs and timelines

What is the typical timeline for completing a ghostwritten book.

The time it takes to finish your book can vary — usually around six months to a year. It depends on how complex your story is and how much research is needed. 

Sometimes things can slow down, like if there are delays in getting information or if you need more time to review drafts. 

It’s okay for schedules to shift a bit, as long as you keep the lines of communication open and work together to keep the project moving forward.

How much does ghostwriting cost and how is that determined?

Pricing for ghostwriting services vary widely depending on who you ask.

Some ghostwriters charge a standard rate of $1-$2 per word. Others have a flat base rate of $30,000 or more. Still others mandate a minimum word count, depending on the genre.

The ghostwriting fee depends on the project’s timelines, your ghost’s writing skill, your story’s complexity, any required privacy, the legalities of it all, and more.

A new ghost may charge a more favorable fee, while a successful ghostwriter can command millions. Different business models and genres demand different pricing structures.

At Column, we talk about this at the beginning and agree on a price that fits the scope of your ghostwriting project. Learn more about our pricing here .

Sometimes, the project changes a lot along the way, and the cost might need to be adjusted. But we’ll always discuss this with you first — no surprises.

Publication and promotion

Can a ghostwriter assist in publishing the completed work.

While ghostwriters largley focus on writing, some can help you figure out how to publish your book and point you in the right direction. 

They know about the different ways to get your book out there, like self-publishing or finding a publisher. 

Some ghostwriters can help you create a book proposal or pitch to send to publishers or agents. 

They can’t promise a publisher will accept your book, but a good proposal gives you a fighting chance. 

Marketing a book takes effort and often a separate budget, so it’s good to plan for this early on.

How are book cover design and formatting for publication handled?

Designing the cover and formatting the book for publication are usually done after the writing is finished. 

Your book should look professional and easy to read, whether it’s an e-book or a printed copy.

Your ghostwriter can give you advice on finding a good designer and formatter, or can sometimes handle it for you as part of their services. At Column, we handle this in-house.

Wrapping up

Ghostwriting is all about teamwork and flexibility, turning your thoughts into a great book with quality content.

The perfect ghostwriter can make your story shine and connect with readers, all while keeping it true to what you want to say.

If you’re thinking about making your book a reality, use the tips and advice in this ghostwriting guide to help you get started.

And explore our ghostwriting service for authors and agencies.

Work with us

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How to Describe a Ghost Town in a Story

By Isobel Coughlan

how to describe a ghost town in a story

Do you need some tips on how to describe a ghost town in a story? Use the 10 words featured in this post as guide to help you.

Somewhere with a scary atmosphere that could be haunted.

“He didn’t want to visit the spooky ghost town, but he was worried what the group would call him if he said no.”

“The spooky ghost town was real and scary, unlike those kitsch fairground rides that can’t even scare children.”

How it Adds Description

The word “spooky” is a perfect pairing for a ghost town as it implies an area is scary or even haunted. If your ghost town is literally home to spirits or ghosts, this word can signify their presence. However, it can also point to a general unpleasant atmosphere and portray that your characters are creeped out .

2. Intimidating

Someone or somewhere that’s frightening to the point you lose confidence .

“She took one step towards the intimidating ghost town and changed her mind. She wasn’t going to face her fears today.”

“They looked at the intimidating ghost town and it looked back, taunting them with its presence.”

If your ghost town scares your characters, the word “intimidating” can show the effect it’s having on them. “Intimidating” shows someone is feeling nervous or frightened, and this is a perfect way to show the intensity of your ghost-like setting. It can also foreshadow future plot points in the town, ideal if you want to hint at the future.

Somewhere that’s home to ghosts or spirits.

“But the haunted ghost town is just an old tale… Isn’t it?”

“She flat-out refused to talk about the haunted ghost town, and everyone had to respect her decision.”

The adjective “haunted” clearly implies that the location is home to ghosts or spirits. This is a powerful word to use if you’re writing a horror novel, as it helps to build a scary setting. It can also hint at the ghost town’s past, and you can use this word to build up curiosity surrounding your fictional world’s history.

Somewhere very quiet and almost silent.

“The hushed ghost town didn’t bother her. It was the people back home that got on her nerves.”

“He was shocked by the hushed ghost town. He expected hustle and bustle in all the streets.”

The word “hushed” conveys a place is very quiet or silent. If your ghost town is uninhabited or home to a scare population, “hushed” can portray the atmosphere there. “Hushed” can also build suspense, and you can pair this adjective with creepy action to scare your reader and characters.

Something or somewhere not being used by anyone.

“Don’t turn left off the freeway, there’s an old vacant ghost town over there. People haven’t lived there in years.”

“He crept through the vacant ghost town as if someone was watching him, but no one had lived here since the accident.”

The word “vacant” describes a place that’s completely empty, which is perfect when describing a ghost town. This word lets your reader know there’s no inhabitants. It can also be used to build an image of a neglected place, for example a run-down town that has bad infrastructure.

6. Disgraced

Somewhere that has lost the respect of the authorities of people.

“The locals had left the disgraced ghost town after the accident, and they had no intentions of coming back.”

“The disgraced ghost town never regained respect, and it has been left to rot.”

If your ghost town has been abandoned because of an incident or stigma, the word “disgraced” can help explain the situation to your reader. “Disgraced” describes somewhere that’s fallen out of favor with local opinion, and this can hint that something bad happened in the town. It also implies the town is a bad place, and the inhabitants questionable.

7. Chilling

Somewhere very scary.

“Even the thought of the chilling ghost town made her hair stand up on end.”

“The chilling ghost town made him question his courage; he did not feel safe there at all.”

If your ghost town is unpleasant and scary, “chilling” is a helpful word to use. This adjective shows that the location has a physical effect on the characters, as “chilling” refers to a type of fear that resonates in the body.

Somewhere far away from urban areas or cities.

“She didn’t want to leave the comfort of the city for a remote ghost town, but she had to honor her manager’s instructions.”

“Don’t talk to me about community, you live in a remote ghost town!”

Ghost towns with few inhabitants are common as you move further away from urban areas. Therefore, “remote” is a good adjective to use if you want to illustrate more about the ghost town’s location. In a horror story, “remote” can create a sense of helplessness, as there are no nearby authorities to help the characters.

9. Disturbing

Somewhere that evokes feelings of sadness or worry.

“It was a disturbing ghost town. All the houses looked as if they were frozen in time.”

“She awoke in the disturbing ghost town, and her stomach instantly sank.”

If you simply want to illustrate how horrible your ghost town is, the word “disturbing” can help. This adjective points to a location that’s scary or physically unpleasant, which is great for building a clear mental image of the settlement.

Somewhere that makes you feel nervous or is slightly strange .

“She couldn’t take the eerie ghost town anymore; it was too quiet and uncanny.”

“Together, they explored the eerie ghost town, but they were shocked at the reason it was so quiet.”

“Eerie” is linked to places that are odd or scary, and this is a great way to insight fear in your reader. The word “eerie” can also help to portray your character’s anxiety, especially when you pair it with more negative descriptive language.

All Write Alright

Writing Prompts About Ghosts

creative writing about a ghost

Ghosts and the paranormal provide a bottomless source of inspiration for writers. Ghost stories have existed since the dawn of humanity in some form or another, and are still a favorite for modern storytellers. If you want to write about ghosts but you’re running low on ideas, checking out some writing prompts can give you the inspiration you need!

Whether you just want to warm up, or you’re looking to find something to spark your next big project, you’ll find many ideas here to get you started!

Short Writing Prompts About Ghosts

  • Your character is a ghost who is stuck haunting something mundane (like a teapot, old cupboard, pair of scissors, eraser, vase, etc). How would you tell this story in an interesting way? What is the unexpected significance of the mundane object? What does it mean to the character? 
  • You never believed in ghosts. You’re in denial, even after you become one yourself. 
  • A realtor is trying to sell a very obviously haunted house, but the ghost haunting it keeps scaring off potential buyers. 
  • You can see ghosts, and they’re everywhere—and often very annoying.
  • Describe a haunted house in detail. Is it an old house, or a new house? What elements betray the house’s haunted nature? How can you create an eerie atmosphere by only describing what the house looks like, and not by what haunted things occur there? 
  • There’s a ghost haunting your character’s laptop. They can browse the web, upload to social media, and even chat with the character by typing into a word processor. Does this ghost torment the character by ruining their online reputation? Does the ghost help them get dates by going through dating sites for them? Does the ghost do their online homework for them? Are they friends? Explore this dynamic. 
  • You’re a ghost, and you delight in scaring the amateur paranormal investigators who come to try to communicate with you.
  • You can talk to ghosts, and they give you all the hottest gossip on your neighbors, since they roam the neighborhood. 
  • Write an argument between two characters. One believes in ghosts wholeheartedly, while the other one doesn’t believe in ghosts at all. Try to make both characters sound passionate and reasonable.
  • Your character is being haunted by several old ghosts. Since the ghosts died before many electronic devices were invented, they don’t know what a phone, a microwave, or maybe even electric lights are. As a result, these curious ghosts are constantly pushing buttons, turning lights on and off, and overall just messing around with all the technology in the house. 
  • There are two ghosts living in your character’s house: one recently passed away and is still getting used to being a ghost, while the other is several centuries old. Your character often has to listen to them arguing about just about everything, from culture and politics to food and decor. 
  • A person can only gain the ability to communicate with ghosts if they have had a near-death experience. Describe an experienced ghost hunter’s past and how they developed their ability. 
  • You find out your best friend is just a bored demon, and has been this whole time.
  • Your pet has grown up with you and has gotten you through a lot of hard times. When the pet passes away, it never truly leaves, and instead continues to watch over you from the afterlife.
  • Write a backstory for a ghost. Where does the ghost stay? Why are they stuck there? When did they die? Did they die a violent death? Are there other ghosts with them? What are the relationships between the ghosts? How is their story similar to, and different from, other traditional ghost stories? 
  • You don’t know it but you are, in fact, a ghost. One day, you meet someone who tries to convince you that you’re dead. Utilize an unreliable narrator to tell this story. 

If you need help writing an unreliable narrator, check out my other post: What is an Unreliable Narrator? (And How to Write One!)

Ghost Story Writing Prompts

  • There is a ghost attached to a high-schooler, but they can only communicate with them using mirrors. The ghost can either appear behind the character’s reflection, or they can become the character’s reflection. This old ghost then often finds themself giving life advice to this teen about navigating high school, figuring themself out, and planning for the future—along with other classic teen drama scenarios. 
  • A complete skeptic gets haunted. They are adamant about ignoring the ghost and its antics, brushing off even the most obvious paranormal signs. It’s not that they can’t see the books flying off the shelves or the locked doors suddenly swinging open, they just don’t believe a ghost is behind it, and instead cite earthquakes, the wind, the old house, neighbors, and anything else they can think of. This is really frustrating for the ghost haunting them. 
  • You and your buddy are professional ghost hunters. You two go into a job thinking it’ll be easy money, and you are the only one to leave alive. On top of that, you’re now the lead suspect in the investigation into their death. Only you know that your partner was killed by an evil spirit, but you don’t know how to prove that to the authorities, and frustratingly, the spirit isn’t active when the police are around—almost like it’s trying to get you in trouble. 
  • Your grandfather, who you really didn’t visit as often as you should have, unexpectedly passes away, and he leaves you a box of his old belongings. You expect it to be filled with old records or sentimental objects, but instead, it’s filled to the brim with ghost hunting equipment. There is also a letter written by your grandfather, requesting that you try to contact him from beyond the grave. 
  • Your character tragically lost their child in an accident, but ever since, the child’s ghost has been hanging around their house. The character is overjoyed that they can still spend time with their child, and things are okay for a little while. However, more ominous things begin to happen, and the character starts to question if this kid really is the child they lost. Demons have been known to disguise themselves as children, after all… 
  • You’re haunted by a ghost who can’t move on—but they can’t remember why. You embark on a quest to discover who this ghost is, and what could possibly be keeping them tethered to the mortal realm. 
  • A small child has an invisible friend. Their parents encourage this and don’t think much of it, but this “friend” is actually the ghost of a young boy who is trying to get the child killed so he will have company in the afterlife. He is never successful, however, as all his plans are comically foiled one way or another. 
  • You’ve always been fascinated by the paranormal, so despite everyone’s warnings, you decide to meddle in occult practices. It starts simple enough, with a clumsy séance or two, but when you can’t make contact with anything, you seek out increasingly haunted locations. After a while, you admit defeat, but soon meet someone who claims that you’re being followed by several spirits—you just can’t tell. It turns out, there really are people who can see spirits, you just aren’t one of them. You team up with this new friend to learn the stories of the ghosts that have attached themselves to you. 
  • There are legends of a ghost ship sailing around in the seas of a small town. What most people don’t know, however, is that this ghost ship isn’t a pirate ship—it’s a luxury cruiseliner. 
  • There is only one house that isn’t abandoned in the old culdesac at the edge of town. In it lives a little six-year-old girl, by herself. At least, that’s what the rumors are. They don’t see any adults coming in or out of the home, and no one sees her off to school in the mornings or steps out to welcome her home in the afternoons. Occasionally, someone will see an adult move past a window, so the police have never been called to investigate this rumor. What no one in the neighborhood knows, however, is that the girl’s parents have been dead for a while, and continue to care for her as ghosts. 
  • You were at the peak of your life when you died. You had a good job, you were about to get married, and you had just signed the lease on a new house. Things were really starting to look up for you, so it’s understandable that you weren’t able to pass on after your unexpected death. Your fiance moves into the house alone and grieves you for quite a long time. However, it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, they find someone else, get married, and have kids. They move on, and you are stuck watching them build their life without you. 
  • Tragedy has followed you all your life. You decide to visit a psychic to have your fortune told. They inform you that your misfortune is due to a generations-long curse that was bestowed upon your family. You embark on a mission to finally break the curse using whatever means necessary, no matter the risk. Whether or not the curse is real, the character believes in it wholeheartedly.

creative writing about a ghost

Writing About Ghosts

When you write about ghosts, you have a vast network of cultural and spiritual resources at your disposal. There’s a huge variety of ghosts that you can draw inspiration from, such as banshees, poltergeists, and mylingar, but you can also draw from existing stories about well-known ghosts in media, such as Bloody Mary, The Headless Horseman, and many others. 

Humans have an inherent curiosity about the unknown, particularly in reference to death and the possibility of some form of afterlife. Stories about ghosts have been popular for so long because they satisfy some of that morbid curiosity, while also often making a subtle commentary about what it means to be alive. 

If you’re having a hard time writing ghost origin stories, check out A Guide to Killing Your Characters . It might help you out!

Good luck, and have fun!

creative writing about a ghost

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creating stunning character arcs your character's ghost

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 4: Your Character’s Ghost

creative writing about a ghost

What is your character’s ghost, and how does it affect his character arc? Once you’ve figured out the Lie Your Character Believes , as well as Thing He Wants and the Thing He Needs , the next question you need to ask yourself is: Why does the character believe the Lie in the first place? To find the answer, start looking for something ghostly in your character’s past!

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (affiliate link)

If there’s one solid rule in fiction, it’s that every effect must have a cause . If your character is in need of undergoing a change arc, then one of your first tasks is figuring out why he needs to change. What happened to him to cause him to embrace this obviously damaging Lie?

Humans are survivors. We’ll do anything we can to move toward life, comfort, and peace. But we’re also a generally self-destructive lot. We can focus so tightly on one aspect of survival that we sacrifice other elements. In our quest to be top dog in our chosen careers, we can sacrifice our emotional health through poor relationship choices and our physical health through poor lifestyle choices. Worse than that, we’re usually deliberately blind to our destructive behaviors. We rationalize our actions and convince ourselves—rightly or wrongly—that the end justifies the means.

In other words we lie to ourselves. But there’s always a reason for that Lie. There’s always a reason why we value survival in one aspect of our lives over survival in another. Sometimes these reasons are obvious (you have to earn enough money to eat, even it means busting your back day in and day out); sometimes the reasons are so obscure even you don’t recognize them (you have to work like a dog to earn a six-figure income or you’ll feel like the loser your father always said you were). Find the reason, and you’ll find the ghost .

Your Character’s Ghost

“Ghost” is moviespeak for something in your character’s past that haunts him. You may also see it sometimes referred to as the “wound.” In their fabulous Negative Trait Thesaurus , Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi explain:

Wounds are often kept secret from others because embedded within them is the lie —an untruth that the character believes about himself…. For example, if a man believes he is unworthy of love ( the lie ) because he was unable to stop his fiancée from being shot during a robbery ( the wound ), he may adopt attitudes, habits, and negative traits that make him undesirable to other women.

Often, the wound will be something shocking and traumatic (such as the massacre of the French and Indians at Ft. Charles that haunts Benjamin Martin in Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot or Jason Bourne’s forgotten past as an assassin in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity ), but it can also be something smaller and more ordinary, such as a breakup (Jane Austen’s  Persuasion ), a stressful parental relationship (Barry Levinson’s Rain Man ), or physical inferiority (Mike Wazowski in Dan Scanlon’s Monsters University ).

The bigger and more destructive the Lie, the more shocking and impactful the ghost should be. Or to flip that on its head: the bigger the ghost, the bigger the Lie, the bigger the arc.

The ghost will often be a part of your character’s backstory , and readers will discover it only bit by bit. In these cases, the ghost can often provide a tantalizing mystery. The why behind your character’s belief in the Lie will hook readers’ curiosity, and you can string them along for most the book with only little clues, until finally the ghost is presented in a grand reveal toward the end.

In other stories, we may never discover the specifics about the ghost. The character may have an obviously significant past, but it remains cloaked in secrecy. Or his past, in itself, may not seem so interesting, even though it obviously contributed in some way to his Lie, but the author chooses not reveal it, for whatever reason.

And in still other stories, the ghost’s origin may be dramatized in the First Act, in a prologue of sorts. This is particularly prominent in origins stories, such as Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins . In these instances, the ghost segment is a story unto itself that explains the protagonist’s motivations, before the book or movie moves on to the real story. In these stories, the character probably won’t start out believing in a Lie in Chapter One. Only once the ghost has appeared and changed his normal world will he find himself struggling to justify his new mindsets and actions. In The Writer’s Journey , Christopher Vogler notes:

 Other stories show the hero as essentially complete until a close friend or relative is kidnapped or killed in the first act.

What Is Your Character’s Ghost?

Your character’s ghost may take any number of forms. The ghost may be:

  • The promise that he would grow up to be king, regardless his personal merits. ( Thor )
  • Her aunt’s refusal to love her. ( Jane Eyre )
  • [Unstated.] ( Jurassic Park )
  • His mother’s pathological deceit. ( Secondhand Lions )
  • Knowledge of what happens to unloved toys. ( Toy Story )
  • Disillusionment about an Army career. ( Three Kings )
  • An absentee father. ( Green Street H o oligans )
  • A divorce. ( What About Bob? )

The ghost may be as simple as someone else’s lie to the protagonist (Jane Eyre’s aunt tells her she’s wicked and worthless, and, deep down, Jane believes her). The ghost may be something obviously horrific that the protagonist did (as in The Patriot ) or that was done to him or someone he loved (as in  Spider-Man ), or the ghost may be something the protagonist embraces without realizing the damage it’s causing (as in Thor ). The key thing to remember about identifying the ghost is that it will always be the underlying cause for the protagonist’s belief in the Lie. For more inspiration, check out Angela Ackerman’s “ 7 Common Wound Themes .”

Examples of Your Character’s Ghost

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Scrooge has a superfluity of literal ghosts flying around his story, and one of them—the Ghost of Christmas Past—gives us a front-row seat to the figurative ghost in Scrooge’s backstory. Turns out he had a wretched childhood, thanks to a father who never showed him affection and locked him away at a boarding school, even during the Christmas holidays.

Cars directed by John Lasseter: We’re never told what Lightning McQueen’s ghost is. The race commentators say, “The rookie sensation came into the season unknown”—and that is largely how he comes into the movie. We never discover why he’s so intent on being free from depending on others.

Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Ghost

1. Why does your character believe the Lie?

2. Is there a notable event in his past that has traumatized him?

3. If not, will there be a notable event in the First Act that will traumatize him?

4. Why does the character nourish the Lie?

5. How will he benefit from the Truth?

6. How “big” is your character’s ghost? If you made it bigger, would you end up with a stronger arc?

7. Where will you reveal your character’s ghost? All at once early on? Or piece by piece throughout the story, with big reveal toward the end?

8. Does your story need the ghost to be revealed? Would it work better if you never revealed it?

Backstory is always one of the most interesting aspects of a character. In constructing yours, pay special attention to the ghost. If you know what started your character’s belief in the Lie, you’re halfway to helping him overcome it.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how to begin your character’s arc by introducing him in a Characteristic Moment in the first chapter.

Read Previous Posts in This Series:  Part 1:   Can You Structure Character?

Part 2:  The Lie Your Character Believes

Part 3:   The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

Tell me your opinion: What is your character’s ghost?

Your Character's Ghost

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creative writing about a ghost

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel , Structuring Your Novel , and Creating Character Arcs . A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Some of the details to the story I’m researching is difficult to explain, but essentially the protagonist, Mac, is in a strange mental state where he’s reliving his life like it’s the first time, but subconsciously knows that something bad will happen later that will traumatize him (a nightmarish incident serving in Vietnam) and is trying his best to escape from memory, and even does to a point, but must eventually embrace it fully to move on and have peace within himself.

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Ah, great premise! And a healthy ghost as well. The shadow is there, even if the protagonist himself doesn’t know exactly what’s casting it.

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My two protagonists are brothers, separated as small kids (one was two, the other about a month). Neither of them knows the other exists at the start of the story, but at least the older one has big issues with protecting loved ones and keeping them close and safe. He’s left in his original family. The younger one was taken away, raised by others. He harbours a feeling of not belonging, a need to prove that he fits in.

The purpose of the ghost is as much to indicate that the “normal world” isn’t as perfect as the protagonist would like to think it is. As such, he doesn’t even have to know what exactly his ghost is, just as long as he knows something’s not quite right – as your example proves.

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Is your protagonist the only character that should have a ghost? It seems that a story can sometimes be made richer by giving your antagonist(s) a ghost as well.

It’s most obvious in some horror movies. The writer will give you the hero’s ghost and well as the villain’s. Freddy Kruger, Jason and Michael Meyers jump to mind. Oh, and Dracula.

The purpose of the villain’s ghost seems to be to give him a weakness that proves to be his undoing. If the Protag and Antag share a ghost, sometimes you have the added benefit of the contrast in their paths to overcome it. (There was some of that in the TV series “Heroes”) There’s probably more, but that’s what jumps to mind right now.

So I wonder… is giving your antagonist a ghost basic stuff? Is it necessary? Or is that sort of next-level story telling?

Other characters can definitely have ghosts. At its most basic level, the ghost is just a dramatized and compelling motivation for the character’s actions. A sympathy-inducing ghost can often be a good (if sometimes cliched) way to humanize an antagonist. Any character in your story could potentially benefit from a ghost, particularly if he’s also undergoing some kind of change arc.

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I learned it with the term backstory wound, but ghost is a good one too.

For my current hero and heroine, their wounds are part of the story and on the page. Hers is more obvious than his, though, right from the beginning. He doesn’t reveal any part of his until midway through the story.

I always think it’s fun when the ghost has to be a secret for some reason. I love backstory reveals that drive the plot forward.

If he doesn’t lay his ghost to rest he’ll lose his girl. For him the personal stakes are very high. Love or duty?

One of the most classic internal conflicts of all time.

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I have to agree that ghosts are most fun when they are revealed part way through or a bit at a time. They do add depth to a character.

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On the ‘keeping the ghost a secret’ point… Could the protag/antag be doing so as a ‘self-preservation/defensive’ reflex? Having had smaller confidences’ betrayed and/or ignored, mocked; so driven further into isolation. Playing cards a lot closer to the chest: (Jack Sparrow, loose example; Inception, maybe… )

But then the payoff would have to be really big, correct? I mean if they go to that extent, are so protective of… there has to be that sense of scale, that it really deserves the care given it.

Yes, it can definitely be a self-preservation thing. Inception is a good example, to an extent, since Dom doesn’t want most people to know he’s been accused of his wife’s murder. But, for him, it also goes deeper, since he simply doesn’t want to talk about it, because it brings the grief closer to the surface.

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‘Where will you reveal your character’s ghost? All at once early on? Or piece by piece throughout the story, with big reveal toward the end?’

Neither…. I hope there is not a problem with that. It comes out somewhere near the middle of the book, when the MC is still not fully conscious of the lie and the problems that it’s creating and such, and the reveal does not have any immediate tension associated with it. There is only second hand tension for the reader to pick up on, since the person the MC is talking to _is_ aware of the lie and the problems associated with it.

Not a problem at all, although you’ll get more bang for your buck if you can foreshadow the Ghost – through the tension if nothing else – earlier in the book. In some senses, the Lie itself is foreshadowing for the Ghost. But payoffs (reveals) are always stronger when we’ve first included a plant (foreshadowing).

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Love how you explain this aspect of characterization. It is definitely a deepening factor that will make that character of yours so compelling the reader can’t help but read to the end.

And if we can do that much, we’re 3/4 of our way to a great book!

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This particular topic is one that I struggle with as a reader (or viewer in the case of movies).

It seems alarmingly common for authors to turn an otherwise interesting character into a walking cliche as soon as the ghost is revealed. (Mommy/Daddy issues, romantically snubbed, “perfect” friend/sibling, etc) Every time that happens I find myself frustrated, upset and sometimes angry because I’ve been yanked out of a story I might have been enjoying. I guess that would mean that the suspension of disbelief has been broken and as a result the trust relationship with the author is damaged as well.

So it might be worth reinforcing the idea that not all ghosts need to come out of the closet.

I agree. The more dramatic ghosts have often been done over and over, to the point of repetition. The importance of the ghost is not so much any inherent drama it brings as it is simply a causal link between the character’s actions and his original motivations.

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I’m rereading this series of posts (which has seriously changed my writing life–thank you!) and noticed that the link to the Characteristic Moment post (in the Stay Tuned paragraph) is actually a link back to this Ghost post. Just to let you know. =)

Again, thanks for writing such an amazing blog! I have a bachelor’s in creative writing, and this blog has been infinitely more informative than that whole degree program. You’re the best. =D

Whoopsie-daisy! Thanks so much for letting me know. I’ll get that fixed. And I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the series!

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I am finding that it is much more difficult to ‘retro-fit’ this kind of thing to an existing written story than it is to build it in from the very beginnings of your outline.

Yes, that’s true of just about anything in a story. Elements are so much more organic (and just plain easy) when we’ve planned them from the start, rather than trying to shoehorn them into the story later on.

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That’s what I’ve been doing. I started out with my story (a very rough draft) and then tried to go in and do my character arcs. So far I’ve been lucky (I had subconsciously already given my two main characters ghosts, or instances where ghosts and/or lies were already somewhat apparent or easy to tweak into their lives, but I’m learning that it definitely is easier to start out developing your characters and their arcs before writing the story.

Thanks for another great post!

That, in nutshell, is why I love outlining so much. I’m lazy. I like making my life easier. And preparation makes life *so* much easier in the long run.

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I have a question! I can’t come up with a very interesting ghost. I’m thinking that my MC’s lie comes from the fact that her parents weren’t very nice people – but they weren’t necessarily abusive. If I my ghost isn’t worth stringing the reader along, couldn’t I talk about it at the story’s beginning and leave it at that? I don’t want to make the reader think it’s some BIG thing and then have it be something small, right?

I was also thinking that, since her “ghost” is a bit boring, I could make her ghost the inciting incident. My inciting incident is when she accidentally kills someone, and I’m thinking that might be a better ghost but is it even ok to make your inciting incident your ghost??

Sorry if my questions are confusing! I’m a little all-over-the-place!

In answer to the first question: Yes, definitely. If the Ghost isn’t worth making a mystery of, then definitely don’t do so. It’s fine to tell readers about it upfront (or not to explain it at all if it’s unnecessary).

You *can* make the Ghost the Inciting Event. We see this a lot in movies that start out with a “prologue” opening in which the story then shifts time dramatically after the 1/8th mark. I don’t generally recommend this for all the reasons that I don’t generally recommend prologues , but also because it prevents you from opening with your character’s Lie already in place. Still, you *can* do it.

Thanks so much for your quick reply! I may explain her ghost upfront then, since I ‘m trying to keep away from a prologue.

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First off, thanks so much for the posts. I really enjoy how you think about character arcs, and it’s helped me think about wants and needs in new ways. However, I’m a little confused.

You say the character’s need (truth) is “the personalized antidote to his Lie.”

And that the the thing he wants is “the perceived cure for the symptoms of the Lie.”

This seems to be the case in Toy Story and Three kings, but not in other stories. It makes sense that the need is always directly related to the lie, but the want doesn’t always seem to be. For instance, in Thor…

Want – Be king. Need – Learn humility and compassion. Lie – Might makes right.

Maybe I just need to rewatch Thor, but it doesn’t seem that his wanting to be king is derived from him being the strongest, but because it was promised to him (his ghost).

Also, what would you call the symptom of his Lie?

True. It’s not always cut and dried. I think the best stories keep their Lie and Truth very tightly related. But it simply doesn’t work out that way every time. However, Thor at least offers a Lie that is inherently involved with the desire. He wants to be king but his Lie has forced him to have entirely the wrong conception of what that even means. At the beginning of the movie, he basically wants to be king just so he impose his will on others. He overcomes that throughout the story and thanks to embracing the Truth ends up not only getting what he wants, but being that much more capable of actually wielding it wisely.

The symptoms of his Lie: making war on the Frost Giants, telling everybody on Earth that he’s the “mighty Thor,” trying to get what he wants by physically throwing his weight around, etc.

Ahhh that makes sense. Thanks!

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Just guessing – he was already supposed to be king, but the Lie made it more of an obsession rather than a healthy desire?

Must a Ghost be a trauma, or can it be a positively-felt event that still has negative effects?

I just discovered another arc: the MC stays the same and the rest of the world gets worse.

My MC has his life all planned out: he just earned his master’s degree, he’s got a job lined up, and he’s scheduled a wedding in a foreign country with a mail-order bride for June, right after graduation and before the job starts. So he believes in planning his life.

Then he gets a ticket to the wrong city and country, he texts his bride to say he’ll be late, and his bride jilts him for another man (apparently she was making plans too; but what did he do wrong besides the ticket mixup?). Being jilted could be one Ghost. Whatever reason he didn’t appeal to the bride is a Ghost.

Then he visits a curio shop and finds a box of papers formerly owned by a late psychiatrist. He starts reading a shorthand transcript of a therapy session and discovers stories of what he thinks is abuse. (Reminds him of some abuse in his own past?)

He wants to help the apparent victims so he plays private investigator. He flirts with the idea of going to the police. (He believes the police are always the best people to help?) He sees a traffic violation and goes into the police station to report it, so he builds familiarity.

Maybe he dates one of the female cops.

He meets the son of the late psychiatrist, who is also a psychiatrist and works at the mental hospital.

He contacts the former patients and talks with them. They are appreciative of his wisdom and he discovers a talent as counselor. The more he learns, the more unhinged he becomes by the horrific stories, and the more he is driven mad by the uncertainty of not knowing whether they are true or just the imaginings of mental patients (he believes the truth is knowable, and that he is entitled to it?) — and by his frustrated desires to help the apparent victims. (What about him makes him susceptible to being unhinged by these things?)

He visits a local church intending to talk to the minister, but can’t find the courage to bring up the subject.

Maybe he asks one of his new friends to marry him (to replace his mail-order bride and continue with his plans intact) and she says no.

He goes to a bar, tells the barmaid what’s up; she says “sounds fake.” He stumbles on his way out, and is arrested for public drunkenness by a cop who happened to be in the bar and to overhear him. The cop takes him to the station and he tells all. The cop puts him in the mental hospital (either assuming he’s crazy or to get rid of him because high-up people are involved in the abuse).

In the mental hospital he reflects in isolation (“maybe I belong here?”), talks to the other “nuts” (“that happened to me too,” “the police don’t help with that,” “they’re a bunch of crooks,” “your schooling has steered you wrong”) and has dreams (INSERT DREAM HERE). He has a moment of enlightenment, his turning point—the end of belief in his Lie. (He realizes that the police are not the solution to this problem? That he does not know best, as he thinks he does?) Next morning he sees the shrink (whom he already met as the son of the late shrink) and uses his knowledge of psychology to talk his way into being released.

He visits one of his new friends (MAYBE we learn at this point that in childhood he suffered the same type of abuse as he is investigating). One of his new friends says “it’s all lies” and convinces him; relieved, he lets his guard down and jokes about how he told the police everything and now they have nothing to investigate, they will be chasing ghosts; he is summarily rejected from his new community. He gives up on trying to figure this thing out and decides to write a book so maybe someone, somewhere, will figure it out. THE END. We assume he will go back to his job on schedule. (So, the concept of sudden endings will have to be foreshadowed–the jilting bride is certainly one example–and any tying up of loose ends must happen before this.)

Considering that the story begins and ends with sudden rejections, his Lie might be: “You can plan your life and other people will go along with your plans and not disrupt them.” His Lie might be “My psychological skills make me Superman.” His Lie might be: “I know better than the ‘victims’ what constitutes abuse and what to do about it, and who should do it” – perhaps because of his schooling. So his Lie might be: “Book-learning is directly applicable to the real world” or “My degree makes me better than you.” His Lie might be: “I with my degree, and authority figures, know better than you do what’s good for you.”

He discovers a talent as counselor (a real way to help people), and gets over his tendency to call the police (an unreal way to help people). Maybe he’s in love with police generally because of some past event? (Must a Ghost be a trauma, or can it be a positively-felt event that still has negative effects? Reminds me of addiction) Maybe he’s in love with police generally because they tend to share his Lie that they (and he) know best? The Lie might be that force is better than persuasion

Can there exist a type of Ghost that causes him to over-plan?

I wonder what Lie or Ghost caused the bride to jilt him? Did a Lie or Ghost cause him to buy the wrong ticket? Did a Lie or Ghost cause him to visit the police, get drunk, stumble? =================================== 1. What misconception does your protagonist have about himself or the world? His academic learning can be applied directly to the real world; he knows best; police always know best; the truth about what other people are doing is knowable and he is entitled to know it 2. What is he lacking mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, as a result? NO ANSWER YET 3. How is the interior Lie reflected in the character’s exterior world? Professors reinforce it; police contacts reinforce it; his father tells him to plan his life; 4. Is the Lie making his life miserable when the story opens? If so, how? Not really miserable; He had to resort to a mail-order bride because he couldn’t attract an American woman; then his mail-order bride rejected him too 5. If not, will the Inciting Event (ticket mixup) and/or the First Plot Point (finding box of notes) begin to make him uncomfortable as a result of his Lie? He is uncomfortable, but fascinated, reading the stories of apparent abuse; he realizes there are people who are not controlled by police 6. Does your character’s Lie require any qualifiers to narrow its focus? Force is better than persuasion, as long as it’s exercised by an authority figure (police or someone with a degree). 7. What are the symptoms of your character’s Lie? Maybe success at school; can’t attract an American woman; foreign bride jilts him; he is unhinged by stories of apparent abuse; he calls police too often; nobody is close to him =================================== 1. Why does your character believe the Lie? It kept him going thru school and landed him a job; it props up his belief that his degree wasn’t a waste of time and money; it helps him feel superior, wanted and useful. (But if the Lie landed him a job, what happens to the job when the Lie ends?) 2. Is there a notable event in his past that has traumatized him? Maybe a botched circumcision 3. If not, will there be a notable event in the First Act that will traumatize him? Being jilted, but he takes it in stride, at least on the surface 4. Why does the character nourish the Lie? It makes him feel effective 5. How will he benefit from the Truth? People will stop rejecting him; he learns his lesson before getting fired, so the Truth saves his job 6. How “big” is your character’s ghost? If you made it bigger, would you end up with a stronger arc? Big enough to keep women from wanting him; if it’s a botched circumcision, it’s pretty big 7. Where will you reveal your character’s ghost? All at once early on? Or piece by piece throughout the story, with big reveal toward the end? Botched circumcision, hinted at, then big reveal near the end. Other ghosts, piece by piece 8. Does your story need the ghost to be revealed? Would it work better if you never revealed it? A botched circumcision would have to be revealed, or maybe could just be hinted at. Other reason(s) women don’t want him could remain unrevealed

The Ghost doesn’t necessarily have to be something that drives the plot. It just has to be something that informs the character’s Lie.

It seems to me that a positively-felt event (something the MC enjoyed) could still inform the Lie.

Can you think of any stories where the Ghost was positively felt — but was still harmful?

The killing of the sow in “Lord of the Flies” was arguably a negative event that was experienced positively by the killer(s). Of course that wasn’t really a Ghost.

Only if that something positive is viewed now in at least a melancholy light. The whole point of the Ghost/Wound is that it has damaged the character’s mindset.

I am thinking also of addiction. Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure … the AUTHOR (and reader) can see it negatively, but the MC may be deluded and see it positively.

Isn’t delusion part of the package, when you need to do one thing to fix the problem, but want to do another to alleviate the symptoms while leaving the underlying problem (and the Lie) undisturbed?

Reporter’s five questions:

“WHO first told or gave the Lie to your character? WHO reinforces it?”

“WHAT is the Lie? WHAT happened? WHAT is the Truth? WHAT is your character avoiding? WHAT benefit does your character get from the Lie?”

“WHEN did your character first start believing the Lie?”

“WHERE did your character first start believing the Lie?”

“HOW does the Lie ease your character’s pain? HOW is the Lie reinforced? HOW does the Lie cause problems in your character’s life?”

(“WHY” is not among the Reporter’s Five Questions because it is subjective, conclusory, subject to argument, not factual)

Great list!

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What if the villain of the story has a ghost?

All the better! Antagonists with strong backstories/motives sometimes ends up being the best characters in the book.

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My main character’s ghost was actually created by the ghost in his parents’ backstory. Because of their ghosts (his mother’s rape and his father’s inability to help her), they never loved him and barely tolerated his presence in the house. So he grew up feeling unworthy of love. When he searched for it and thought he found it, he ran into further betrayal, confirming his belief in his unworthiness (the Lie). So, he continually pushes people away well into adulthood.

Thank you so much for this series! It’s been sooooo helpful in breaking down the mysteries of character arc!

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My character Samantha had an abusive father and killed him to protect her mom and he was probably abusive all those years and started killing and torturing bad people because of her past, and it gives her closure, so, yeah. She enjoys inflicting pain on bad people.

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Hi! Thank you for writing this series because I think I’ve found that missing chunk in my novel. However, I’ve been struggling to find the lie that fits with my MC’s past.

My MC, Danielle, has had a rough past. She listened to her parent’s murders in the dead of the night when she was just five. Now, nine years down the line, someone is trying to kidnap her. They fail at the first attempt, as they are interrupted to the sound of her adoptive parent coming home.

The lies I’ve been coming up with are revolving around the idea of first impressions are always correct or people can never change. This does help with the plot and works nicely at the end when the truth (people aren’t always what they seem to be) is then revealed to her. Although this doesn’t really have any links to her past so the character’s ghost is not exactly there.

The second lie I’ve come up with is that she feels people won’t listen to her, therefore not calling out for help. However, she confides in her best friend, who she feels comfortable with, after the attempted kidnapping. He pushes her to tell the police. Someone else comes into her life (an older, strange man) and she’s plunged into fear that it may be him. Just when she’s about confide in her best friend, his sister is in hospital due to an accident. They drift apart because they are occupied in totally different things and she goes back to not calling out for help until another friend weeds his way back into her life to ‘help’ her.

I feel like the lies work rather well for the storyline but the ghost doesn’t seem to be linked to either of the lies. I can’t think of lies that link to the ghost but also work out in terms of plot. Can you help me out?

The “good” thing about traumatic Ghosts is that they can spawn any number of fear-based Lies. People who listen to their parents being murdered in the dead of night are usually messed up in any number of ways. I think you could work it so either of the Lies you’ve suggested are born of her childhood trauma.

It could also be that her Lies are products of events that actually happened *after* her parents’ murders. For example, perhaps her “first impressions are always correct” Lie is based on her experiences in foster care or something like that.

What I would recommend doing is looking at both of these potential Lies and asking yourself *why* your protagonist believes them. That may help you find a more pertinent Ghost in her backstory. (And, BTW, just because an event is the *worst* thing that’s ever happened to the character doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right Ghost for her journey in this particular story.)

We could ask: What Lie would we expect to result from parental murder?

We could ask: What Lie would she need in order to have the later events come out the way they do?

We could ask: What change does Danielle go thru? How does she start and how does she end? This will tell us the Lie she believed at the start and the Truth she knows at the end.

“not calling out for help. However, she confides in her best friend” – Maybe it’s something as simple as a fear of raising her voice? She has to remain quiet because if she had made any noise during the murder then she would have been murdered too?

Maybe she was in her parents’ room (or wherever they were if they weren’t in their room) and for some reason she “called out for help” and her voice guided the murderer to find them.

Thank you both for your help. I’ve had a chance to mull over Danielle’s backstory in relation to the lies I came up with. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I were to have different lies, they would have different ghosts.

Lie 1: “Nobody will listen to you”

Her mother hears the murderer break in and tells her to hide and not make a sound until they’re gone. When she does start crying out for help (after the murderer is gone), nobody comes to her. Therefore, she believes nobody will listen to her.

Symptoms: not calling out for help.

Lie 2: “First impressions are always correct”

In the foster care home, she was with another child who had been moved constantly from care home to care home yet never adopted. This child had constant anger outbursts from the first day she had met her. This would make her feel first impressions are always correct. This is then reinforced when she makes a good impression of herself when she meets someone who then adopts her. This person also has a good first impression, further reinforcing the lie.

Symptoms: judging people too quickly

Lie 3: “People never change”

This is mainly caused by her belief in the second lie and also because of the fact that her adoptive father was always loving towards her and treated her like his own flesh and blood. It is also proved the other way around in foster care as the child she saw (with angry outbursts) never changed.

Symptoms: she is never able to see past the first impression

Do you think the ghosts are okay? Have I gone completely off track?

I think you’ve worked everything out logically, so you’ve solved the problem you set out to solve. 🙂 I can only hope it resonates emotionally. I think this will depend on the execution: the specific sccenes and images both during the events and afterward, her self-talk about it, and how (and whether) you reveal all this at the end. I would guess: don’t reveal, just use it to “inform” (=give form to) your story. Best wishes!

This all sounds very on-track to me. It’s possible that a big, complex Ghost can spawn varied (but related) Lies. However, generally, different Lies get different Ghosts. What you’ve done here, basically, is create one big Ghost (the parents’ murders) that is then the cause creating the effect of later Ghosts (the foster system). It’s all related, so it all works nicely.

Thanks so much! I was worried that the Ghosts seemed too ‘forced’.

I’d best get writing! 🙂

I hope you both have a great day and thanks again for helping me out!

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My intellectual, nerdish character was abandoned by his parents at birth. His foster family left him to an older relative who helped him refine his abilities. When that relative died, he was thrust back into the system, but is now intelligent enough to cheat and survive on his own.

This has given him a superiority complex, and his observation that those without intellect made foolish decisions, and the focus on it by his only authority figure, leads him to the conclusion that intellect is the most important thing in life. Without a loving family to teach him, he does not know what it means to truly trust someone.

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My MC’s Ghost is truly horrific: he more or less accidentally set fire to their Christmas tree while his beautiful little sister (think Jon Benet Ramsey) was upstairs with Mom & Dad trying on her latest princess outfit. He was 8, got horribly burned on half his face, and of course became an orphan, unloved, unwanted. Joined the army right out of high school, wounded in Afghanistan. While in recovery at a VA hospital in the US, a male nurse worms his story out of him and uses it to blackmail him into becoming his killer-partner in a black widower insurance fraud scheme in which the partner marries and insures women and arranges for them to die when he’s on a business trip. My MC believes the Lie that he’s unworthy of love (though he craves love.) My question: my current draft reveals his awful act in an extended flashback within the first 1/4 of the book. Would it be better to hold back the reveal until much later in the story? I could tease it out, but the facial scar is an important element in his character, and I’m worried that readers would pretty much guess from the hints, which would make that reveal anti-climactic.

It’s hard to say for sure, but as a general rule I would advise against lengthy flashback segments anywhere in the book, but particularly in the beginning. One of the greatest advantages of the Ghost is is ability to sustain mystery throughout the story, keeping readers hooked and drawing them to the point in the character’s arc where the revelation of the Ghost is necessary for his personal growth.

wait, a story about when he was 8 years old can be used to blackmail him ?????

I agree it would never hold up in a law court, but Charlie’s burden of guilt (for which he carries the visible scars) makes him vulnerable to a blackmailer. It’s only his own perception of his act that makes the threat effective.

He also has had a lifetime of being scorned by women, so even though he craves love, he’s never had it. His frustration leads him to dislike women. His “partner” manipulates him to amplify that dislike into hatred or at least a desire for revenge for all those rejections.

*still doesn’t have a ghost for the main characters yet has one for side characters*

I have a ghost for three characters so far.

The heroine’s brother: The Lie the heroine’s brother believes is that if he failed one family member, he’ll fail them all. The reason is because his Ghost is the fact he wasn’t fast enough to save the heroine (aka his sister) from falling into the river, which is how she ended up separated from their family. Ever since that happened, he’s felt like he failed her, and he’s scared that he’ll eventually fail the rest of his loved ones.

The hero’s father: Not sure what the Lie is yet, but his Ghost might be how his brother died.

The hero’s cousin: The hero’s cousin is the captain of the guard, and since the story is partially based off Robin Hood, he’s supposed to be the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy mixed up. His father was captain of the guard before him, which was before the rebellion happened. Now what happens is he (the cousin’s father) is accused of treason, and when no evidence emerges that he’s innocent, he’s sentenced to be executed. This is what is going to prompt his brother (the hero’s father) to join the rebels. But after the execution, evidence he was innocent all along is going to show, and that is what incites the rebellion.

But the rebellion could also be incited by the arrest, which would then prompt the hero’s father to join the rebels, due to them claiming that they can help the hero’s father help his brother escape. But of course, the rebels are backstabbers, because after the cousin’s father refuses an order from them (an order that he believes to be wrong), he’s killed.

So, his father’s death is the cousin’s Ghost, and the Lie he believes is that. . .standing up for what’s right will only lead to death? He is just a kid when it happens after all. Perhaps he’s even a little jealous of his cousin, because he (the cousin/hero) still has his father. But then again, the cousin is really torn up about killing his uncle in the Climax, because after his father died, he became an orphan, so his uncle and aunt (the hero’s parents) raised him. Then his aunt died and his uncle was pretty much the only parental figure he had left in his life.

Maybe the heroine’s Ghost could be the separation from her family? She was six when it happened. Or maybe she doesn’t have a Ghost yet.

The Lie the hero believes might be that his father is disappointed in him? No, wait, that was his fear. Wait, a Lie and a Fear can be the same, right? Anyways, he also doesn’t want his father to know he’s the Robin Hood vigilante, because then his father will worry, like when the hero was a child and he was sickly. I know they’re not on the best of terms when they first interact in the story.

Mmpf. . .writing is hard.

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You have an awesome series, here!

I was very curious about creating believable characters in a story that I plan to tell through an RPG, but I have never written a story with any sort of arc or to any degree of notable complexity. I know for sure that this series is bringing me closer and closer to creating something that I can be proud of. Thank you for this series! I can’t wait to read the rest.

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Great post! When you start interviewing your characters would you consider the ghost for all of them or just the MC?

Never hurts to look past the surface on supporting characters, and finding their “pain” is a great way to mine them for extra dimensions. However, you don’t *have* to look for a Ghost for any character who won’t be displaying a prominent arc.

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I am still struggling with this one for my new WIP. Can the Ghost be something the Lead does not consciously know – like coming from another background as she is made to believe? (she has been stolen from her real family and originates from a group of people that is heavily exploited by her kind and thought of as “lesser humans”.

She will discover that during the course of the story, but it does not really connect directly to her Lie/Truth – Want/Need setup.

She is taught, by society as well as her parents, several lies (Supremacy, Competitiveness, Worth by Winning). These and her whole upbringing will lead her to adapt her personal lie: Life is a game and only the winner is worthy. As a result she pursues the Want of “Winning all the games and knowing all the secrets – regardless of consequences for others” She will eventually learn the Truth: All life is valuable and all humans are indeed equal. That will prompt her to address her need: a purpose worth winning/fighting for at the end of the first book.

Does that make sense? I do believe her abduction as a toddler even though she does not remember it would be her ghost, even if it does not prompt the Lie. But making up a “lack of love and approval” incident in her early years is …. cheesy and somehow over-contrived. That does, of course, happen.. but more like a general and repeated behaviour her father shows towards her.

– Katja

“She is taught, by society as well as her parents, several lies”

How exactly did this teaching happen? Maybe the Ghost (trauma) is the way the lies were taught.

The Ghost is said to be the reason why the character believes the lie(s) in the first place. Why does the character believe “(Supremacy, Competitiveness, Worth by Winning)…Life is a game and only the winner is worthy.” ?

Both “why” in the sense of “what caused it,” and “why” in the sense of “what’s the payoff, why continue to believe”

– Rod

thanks so much for taking the time to read and reply to my comment here – it’s very much appreciated! I found your 5 reporter’s questions in an earlier reply and liked those, too.

I have come to realise only the 1st half of my Lead’s LIE is actually stated to her in the same exact words. The 2nd half is based on experiences.

I’d reason like this:

WHO first told the MC?: Her father. Ever since she has been small he has taken great time and effort to advance her abilities. When she was very young her played “learning games” with her. If you have kids, you know the sort of “games” you can find to school any number of abilities in children at an early age – starting at fine motor skills up to pre-school prep and early attachment to music or sport… It would have been multiple occasions like: “Come on darling daughter let’s play a game … and then he would have her show/test her abilities”

–> motive/goal of father: because he, like the rest of the upper crust they belong to, thinks of her origin as lesser humans and he was not supposed to take her in. In fact he stole her from a high security facility. His goal is to not get caught and loose his position within the society as a trustee of their “leader/king/head”. This results in his reasoning he’ll have to “bring her up to speed” so that nobody would notice he took her from the low-class. He hope to advance her abilities by doing just that, thinking otherwise she will attract attention by not meeting the standards.

This paragraph answers questions WHEN and WHERE: When: beginning from an early age, over and over again. Where: at first at home. later, the society reinforces the Lie. How? Well, since they don’t really age an can live for a very long time (10-fold time span – think 1 year normal age equals 10 to 15 their enhanced ageing process) the society had to come up with something to DO for the population. And they came up with contests and competitions of various kinds to keep the people busy and happy. So she sees others (adults) engaging in the same pattern: compete in a “game” – the winner is praised accordingly. This is how the LIE is reinforced, too.

WHAT is the LIE: Life is only a game. But only if you don’t have to worry about life-support and/or injuries. Only if you live the privileged life that is sustained by exploit of others. Furthermore: A game and winning said game can’t be the sole meaning of life. A life needs purpose and it has a natural expiration date. (that’s the TRUTH)

What is she avoiding in believing the lie? Deal with the obvious discrepancies in what she sees and what she is told. She (still) feels dissent over the “lesser-human” teachings. She can’t spot a difference in the few people of the low class she sees/meets. She is still empathic enough to notice their plight and the unfairness of it. But she focuses on the games to distract her from these nagging feelings that are in dissonance with her peer group’s views. -> Of course, as soon as I’ll have her “displaced” in the world of the lower-class by end of act 1, she’ll learn quickly enough.

Believing the lie – and especially the 2nd part: only the winner is worthy – gives her life purpose. And it explains her fathers behaviour – how he reacts toward her when she “wins” and “does well” – his “love” (attention and affection really) is always linked to her progress and success. This part is reinforced by her society insofar as that the winners get attention and praise at first (big tam-tam for the winner of the annual contests) AND that only those successful in the games are advanced in status up to a point where they are introduced in the innermost “circle of confidants” – that is lead by the big boss. This is the ultimate goal for the LEAD – to prove her worth by becoming a member of this elusive circle.

All these behaviour patterns by her father and society stand in stark contrast to her mothers behaviour. She, who lost a child and “got” the MC as replacement, is nearly suffocation her with attention and love and care. Since the mother is not highly competitive, she never made it into the “circle of confidents” and therefore, like the majority, does not know about the true mechanics and reasons for the longevity and has therefore reason to believe “her substitute child” will die after a normal life-span. The clinginess and suffocating love leads to overprotection the MC wants to remove herself from. It makes her feel incapable and weak. So she rebels against it and shows somewhat of contempt towards her mother. This, too, stems from the GHOST – her abduction and the subsequent secrecy connected to it.

OK … this turned out VERY long, I am sorry. But it was a great exercise to go ahead and break it down into these 5-questions.

Katie suggested earlier, that the resulting dissonance between father’s and mother’s behaviour in her childhood is her ghost. This would make the abduction by her parents after death of their own child the Ghost of her parents!

So in the end, Katie and you both had good input for me. Thanks!

If the Lie is “only the winner is worthy” then what kind of action would that character take as a result of believing it? To treat other people badly because they didn’t win a Game? To treat self badly because he didn’t win a Game? Conversely, to treat “bad” people favorably because they did win?

And “worthy” of what? In daily life, do you classify people as “worthy” or “unworthy” on the basis of whatever — so that the only problem is getting the right basis? Or is there something wrong with classifying people as “worthy” or “unworthy” AT ALL? In which case, there’s a deeper Lie here, buried within the one you’ve named: that one person has the right to judge another, or that “worthiness” is among the things that we have the right to judge.

We’re mostly looking for self-destructive actions here, although actions that are destructive to other people do count as they are ultimately self-destructive since we live in a community.

I still see that you have two kinds of “winners” here: of the Games, and of the economic game which determines who are the “uppers” and who are the “lowers.”

I’m interested in the origin-of-evil story here. Your world has “uppers” and “lowers” and also has a Big Boss and also has life-extension (for some) and also has Games. (Did I miss anything? What other features does it have?) So which came first? What caused what? Can you sketch out a brief sequence of events? Did this country start out like ours, and then what happened? Or did it start out like a communal utopia? Or did it start out like the ancient world, where uppers and lowers have always existed? Does the society as a whole have a Ghost?

And is it a country on our Earth? in the future? on Earth in a different timeline? on a different planet? or in the past, perhaps?

I just re-read. So her Want is “Winning all the games and knowing all the secrets – regardless of consequences for others”

Interesting about the “secrets” — what’s that about?

What are the “consequences for others” of winning the games? Obviously if she wins, others must lose, but do you have something more in mind? If she lets someone else win, then she loses, and that’s really no better. Can she refuse to play?

“the Truth: All life is valuable and all humans are indeed equal.” We have the old debate about equality-of-opportunity vs. equality-of-results; can you say more about equality and how it relates to your story? “Life is valuable.” How does this relate to your story? Are no-value lives disposed of in some gas-chamber type system? What is at stake in the Games besides praise? How are participants chosen–does everyone play once in a lifetime, or every year? Or do only a few play, like gladiators? Value is determined both by economic standing and by Game outcomes; how do these two [measures] relate to each other? If a “lower” wins does he become an “upper”? It seems not, as the “lowers” are not just poor but (perceived as) unteachable, so it’s more of a permanent caste system than a capitalist system.

“her need: a purpose [in life].” OK, did she have a purpose before her Ghost happened? What kind of Lie would turn you away from pursuing your purpose, or thinking you have a purpose, or wanting a purpose? How does someone develop negative feelings toward purpose? Usually this happens when they try to play the “game” of pursuing a purpose (usually somebody else’s purpose, I’m thinking of school or a job) and disaster ensues. “Don’t play that game,” goes the Lie. “It will hurt you, or you will hurt somebody else. Drop out and wait for the capitalist system to be destroyed. Here, have some drugs.” I’m again stumbling over the two types of games. In the economic game, you pick a purpose and pursue it and (hopefully) make money. How does purpose relate to the Games?

The abduction can be the Ghost, but in order for it to catalyze the Lie, there has to be a connection that the protagonist is unwittingly carrying with her. For example, even if she doesn’t remember the abduction, perhaps she always felt that she didn’t quite fit in. Or perhaps the Ghost is her brainwashed childhood with her adopted parents as a result of her abduction.

thanks a lot for your input. I replied to Rod’s comment above (in length … sorry about that, but was a good exercise 😉 ) and included your comment in the reasoning. Am quite happy with my progress by now. Guess I am good to go plot out the rest…

Excellent. You go! 😀

Lot of themes here, and not 100% harmonious.

He risked his position by stealing her from a high security facility. Why on earth did he do that?

He’ll have to “bring her up to speed” so that nobody would notice he took her from the low-class. This reminds me of “The King and I”

So, the Lie is institutionalized, the entire upper crust (but not lower? What about the inner circle?) believes it, including her father, who taught it to her? Is there no personalized, individualized Lie? Dissonance. (Widely believed Lie reminds me of “The Island”)

The society had to come up with something to DO for the population – contests, competitions. Reminds me of ancient Roman bread and circuses

The winner is praised accordingly. What else is at stake in these games? It’s not the Hunger Games

WHAT is the LIE: Life is only a game. But only if you don’t have to worry about life-support and/or injuries. Only if you live the privileged

Another Lie?: Our (upper-crust) life is NOT sustained by exploit of others.

Another Lie? (Or the same one?): A game and winning said game ARE the sole meaning of life. But what about reproduction?

Another Lie?: A life needs NO purpose

Another Lie?: Life has. NO natural expiration date.

What is she avoiding in believing the lie? Well, what would happen if she stopped believing it? What if EVERYBODY stopped?

Does the “lower” society have its own Lie(s)?

Another Lie?: People of the low class have NO plight

Only the winner is worthy – of WHAT? Is survival at stake in these games? Only praise? Job adnavcement? Something else?

“love” (attention and affection really) is always linked to her progress and success. This sounds like a slightly differenct Lie. It reminds me of an interview with the Willy Wonka actor: Gene Wilder: speaking about an audience’s clapping: “It sounds like love”

The innermost “circle of confidants” – is that REALLY a desirable position to be in? Another Lie?

How does the big boss get to be the big boss? More games? What is his Lie?

Nearly suffocating her with attention and love and care. There is another Lie in here somewhere

WHY is the mother not highly competitive? And what is her Lie?

It makes her feel incapable and weak. Is there another Lie here, about strength? What exactly is this overprotective smothering?

Dissonance is great!

But for the privileged class, maybe life IS a game. And meaningless?

Marie Antoinette believed that everyone was like her, and had cake to eat. The peasants are rioting because they don’t have bread? Well, why don’t they just eat cake?

When she was very young her played “learning games” with her. Is this the teaching of the Lie? But everybody does this; is it always teaching a Lie? What’s different here? Something more must go along with this, to teach the Lie(s). How does he treat her when she “wins” and “loses”? (Or when she doesn’t want to play, or wants to stop, or wants to change the rules or play some other game?) Bill Gates’ grandma made everything into a competition. Swimming in the pond? Who can swim to this log the fastest?

Wooza! You bring up a lot of good questions and suggestions! Thanks for that and all the effort. Very much appreciated.

I see I may not yet be quite there with the lie… will digest what you wrote and digg deeper – especially regarding the interaction and relationship of the family (Lead, mother, father) and their connection to society.

The father’s motive to take her from the facility: twofold. 1) his beloved wife is in pain. She has recently lost their child and is hurtling toward depression and suicide… bearing a child within the society is a great honor … they allow few children to be born due to population regulations. So being choosen, bear and deliver a child but loose after it’s born is the ultimate failure for the mother. He seeks to protect her. For that he is willing to cross the line and steal a similar looking child of the same age. 2) curiosity. Can the low-class be taught?

Will have to look deeper into your other ideas & question…many good points to think through.

Thanks again! 🙂

FKatja, Why is this lower-class (poor) child kept in a high-security facility? Around here, they live in foster homes or on the streets.

The story function of the Lie is to push the character toward the Want and away from the Need, right? For each candidate Lie, let’s ask: if I believe this, what does that belief cause me to do and to move toward (the Want), and to avoid doing and to move away from (the Need)?

What does the Lie “only the winner is worthy” steer you toward and away from? Toward always trying to win, of course; what about your treatment of others perceived to be winners and losers? Are the “lowers” all perceived to be losers, and the “uppers” all perceived to be winners? But then we have the Games, so two contradictory methods of identifying winners and losers. Or do people shift classes as a result of Game performance (upward and downward mobility)?

What if you set the Lie aside for a moment, and look at the trauma (loss of child; abduction of other child; something else?) and identify the Needs that started to be neglected, and the artificial Wants that started to be pursued instead, as a result of the trauma?

Does the society as a whole (personified maybe by the Big Boss) have a Ghost that precipitated its Lie(s)? Discovery of life extension: interesting, not something I’d normally consider a trauma. Does the society as a whole have neglected Needs and misguided Wants connected to the Lie(s)? A need to die, a need to grieve? A desire to play Games to distract themselves from facing the fact that they’re trying to cheat nature? (Reminds me of Frankenstein) Is life extension connected to something else, some bigger project of cheating or denying nature or God? What about the society’s Need to take care of its poor? Did the upper/lower caste system begin at the same time as the Games, as a result of life extension? Why is life extension available only to the “uppers”? Is there some artificial reason–the result of a Lie (“not enough to go around”)? Or was life extension discovered in a society that was already upper/lower? Could it be that they already had Games? Did the Games. Have a different purpose before life extension was discovered? Was it discovered by a cult that had religious beliefs at odds with the (formerly healthy) society?

Changing subject: Why does the mother believe the child was lost–what does she blame it on? Did she exercise a lot, and now believe that exercise causes death? Does she blame it on the father, or weakness, or competition? Did the father talk her into entering a swimming competition to stay in shape? Or was she overprotective of the unborn child, if there is such a thing?

How does she feel about the idea of a stolen replacement child?

Does the mother even know that the switch happened? What if your child died and your husband substituted a different child, all without telling you? At some level you’d know; maybe she’s in denial, she’s repressed the memory, so her Lie is that this is her kid and “everythig is normal” and she doesn’t have to grieve? What Need would be neglected and what artificial Want would be pursued as a result of that?

Katja, you’re welcome. So the loss of the baby (miscarriage) is a secret? I suppose the “upper crust” believes a number of Lies about the lower class? And I suppose vice versa: the lower class believes a number of Lies about the “uppers”? Does this child-stealing happen in the beginning of the story, or later, or in flashback? Before we learn of the child-stealing, we should learn of this curiosity that the father has, about whether the “lowers” can be taught. How does he demonstrate this curiosity? Does he try experiments, does he argue with his peers, is he told by some older wiser guy? Oh — if he isn’t sure they can be taught, then he’s taking an ENORMOUS risk, because if his theory is wrong and they can’t be taught, then he’ll be caught for sure. I suppose his theory is unusual. Why does he believe they can be taught, if his peers don’t? Do they know that he has this theory — has he argued about it with them? Or is it a secret belief? Rod

Oh I see, not miscarriage, but death of a young child. Still, they keep it secret? The child is too young for school, and just lived with mom and dad? Why does nobody else “miss” the child — nobody else ever routinely saw the child? Neighbors far away? No doctor? Do they have a housekeeper — a sympathetic “lower” who will keep the secret? Maybe the father has (secretly) taught the housekeeper and so is convinced it can be done?

Okay, so what kind of Ghost would be befitting someone who wants to be alone? (other than the Batman version)

Just about anything could prompt that. Take your pick of bad experiences with other people. 😀

Hmm. . .well, I guess I’ll have to count out the one experience I’ve had, because my character doesn’t mind if she’s ignored. After all, she does want to be left alone.

Maybe she tried too hard to impress someone or some people and it ended in disaster, which could have led to gossip about her and how she can’t do this or that right? Then she grew to crave being alone, because what’s the point of trying to impress people if they’re just going to always be finding fault?

So. . .maybe her Ghost is insecurity?

What else is going on with this character who wants to be alone?

Well, if almost being murdered and then getting stuck with a grumpy detective bodyguard because of said attempt on her life is anything to go by. . . .

OK, this happens during the story? Not during childhood? Is it connected with anything in childhood? (Not that the Ghost must necessarily occur in childhood).

What happened to make this character particularly sensitive to grumpiness?

(Most central question) What about this character caused or triggered the murder attempt?

What is the Lie? (Don’t need protection? Nobody will try to kill me again?)

What is the Want? (To be alone and away from grumpy detectives)

What is the Need? (To be protected)

What about this grumpy detective is particularly annoying?

OK, why is the detective grumpy? Is there another Lie/Need/Want/Ghost here? (Hint: yes)

People often falsely impute cause. So if there was a murder attempt after she did x or while she was doing y, she can develop the Lie that x or y causes murder attempts. Take your pick: washing dishes, jogging, doing crossword puzzles, having honest conversations … But more to the point, something that she Needs to do, in line with the theme(s) of the story and the overall message you want to “say” to the reader.

Does this theme of gossip show up in the story? Does the grumpy detective tell stories about her behind her back? Or listen to them?

Does she try to impress the detective or the murderer or anyone else?

What did she do to try to impress someone? Why was it a disaster? Did she only THINK it was a disaster because she holds herself to unrealistically high standards? Or the opposite? How is this past attempt related to any event in the story?

And what else is going on with this character — what was her life like before the murder attempt?

If there had been no murder attempt, what would her story be about?

Ok, so to start, I started on this almost a week ago, so I’m not sure why someone wants to kill her yet. It could be a jealous someone, or someone who she humiliated or they thought she humiliated them? I haven’t decided whether the first attempt will happen before the story or during the beginning.

The Lie may be “It’s no use being around people if they’re just going to continuously criticize you.” The Want, of course, is to be away from society where her every move isn’t criticized, and the Need has something to do with people.

Perhaps she tried impressing a potential suitor?

I guess gossip does show up – but the detective isn’t part of it. Also, the socialite does end up impressing him at one point without even trying.

As for the detective, he’s only grumpy when he can’t solve a case, and at story’s beginning, there’s only one he hasn’t solved.

He does have a Lie/Want/Need/Ghost; I just have the Ghost so far.

His Ghost happened five years before the main story, and it’s the murder of his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. That one case he can’t solve is this one, since he hasn’t found the culprit yet.

Oooooooh, I just got an idea! So, soon after the wife dies, the culprit is running away, and he/she runs into the society queen. And maybe she tried to help them, seeing as how they had blood on himself/herself, so and so happened, the chain reaction turned into the disaster, which is why people started criticizing her and it sort of turned into almost all the time. And then five years later, after the detective finally tells her about it, she puts two and two together and realizes that she remembers what the culprit looks like!

What are the larger themes — what is this story REALLY about? The answer to that will, ideally, guide you in making these decisions (finding these other answers).

So far: alone vs. company (related to “socialite” — ironic, a socialite who wants to be alone), grumpiness, jealousy, humiliation, criticism (an example of something needed but not wanted), socialites vs. the rest of us (class war, see Prince and Pauper; see also Beauty and Beast, since he’s not a socialite), the desire to impress, gossip vs ???, trying vs. achieving, ability vs. inability (to solve cases) (causing grumpiness vs. happiness)

What if it’s really the detective’s story? See: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/protagonist-and-main-character-same-person-the-answer-may-transform-your-story/

What if it’s a romance? The woman and the detective complete each other — each has what the other lacks or needs?

Why was the first wife murdered? (maybe another theme here) What happened to the child (who now has a Ghost too)? What if it’s really the child’s story? Or what if it’s even the first wife’s story, all told in flashback and illuminated by the present events?

If the woman sees the culprit, was that a coincidence? Why is it that the same woman who sees the detective’s culprit is assigned that very same detective? (Coincidence is frowned on, so if you can establish a chain of cause-and-effect, some common reason why these two events happened involving the same people, you’ll be ahead. I say “common reason” because I can’t imagine that the seeing of the culprit causes the assignment of that detective. Are they all members of some club that causes them to land on top of each other all the time? Is it a really small town? Do any of your themes help provide a common cause?).

If she puts two and two together, it should be long after the reader has had ample opportunity to put the same two and two together. I mean, this is a murder mystery and that’s the solution, right? And there should be false clues to false solutions also, so it’s not too easy for the reader.

Blood? How does she react to blood? Does she volunteer at a hospital?

This socialite who wants to be alone — is she paired with a detective who is alone but wants to be with someone?

Why is he alone? How did the murder cause people to turn away from him, or him to turn away from people?

Did the socialite’s attempted murder cause people to become sympathetic and try to bother her all the time with their gestures of sympathy (despite her desire to be alone which may be rooted in some earlier disaster)?

The detective is, of course, in pain — as she probably is too, but not so much, as he’s suffered a murder while she’s only suffered an attempted murder. Why would his pain express itself as an inability to be

Why would his pain express itself as an inability to be around people?

Is he not only grumpy but clingy (thus triggering her worst reactions)? Does she trigger his worst reactions by being aloof?

Socialite means rich. Where did her wealth come from? (“Steal it, marry it, inherit it”). Does she manage her money well or badly? Did this change with her trauma?

Conversely, can we assume the detective is stereotypically poor? How does he manage his money? What do you want to “say” about money? Can’t buy happiness? Sometimes it can buy insulation — from other people, from problems — or illusory insulation, e.g. with drinking (another facet of that stereotype). Does he drink? Gamble? Does she drink, etc.? Whiskey vs. wine?

What was the motive for the murder of the detective’s wife?

Why was the detective assigned the investigation of his own wife’s murder? That’s one heartless police captain! Or was it not officially assigned to him? What’s going on with the detective who’s supposed to be doing that? I assume he’s falling down on the job, leading to conflict between the two detectives.

What if you flip the genders? Male socialite, female detective?

I recommend looking at that list of themes, and any other themes that resonate, while figuring out why the murders occurred.

The Lie may be “It’s no use being around people if they’re just going to continuously criticize you.”

This has buried within it the simpler Lie: “People are just going to continuously criticize you.”

(The Need might have something to do with criticism. It might be a need for criticism.)

The corresponding Truths would be: “People aren’t just going to criticize” and “Even if people criticize you, it’s not necessarily a bad thing” i.e. “Criticism may be needed and healthy” or “Critics may be good people.” This suggests a character, probably a new one, who personifies this criticism: first this character is seen as an enemy, and finally as a friend. Or does the detective play this role? Does he criticize her? Does she criticize him?

To personify the first of the two Truths above: a character who she THINKS is criticizing, but who really isn’t. And she finally realizes that the constant criticism which she thought she was enduring, was really all in her head.

“His Ghost happened five years before the main story, and it’s the murder of his wife, who was pregnant with their first child.”

Oh, I thought the child survived. Maybe there’s another child, so the detective is a single dad; maybe he gave it up for adoption, or it was taken by Children’s Services.

Of course, one Want is to have his wife back, but that can never be. And he Wants to solve that case and catch the culprit — nothing wrong with that. What other Want can come from the murder of a wife and baby?

Maybe his Need is to move on from that murder, and marry someone else. Or maybe his Need is to get over grieving and pay proper attention to the surviving child.

The best Lie is the one that pushes him toward the Want and away from the Need, right? A Lie might be: “Don’t get close to a woman, she’ll leave you or get murdered.” Or: “Don’t invest in the next generation, they’ll all just vanish on a moment’s notice.” Or: “You’ll never love anyone the way you loved her.” Or: “No other woman will ever love you the way she did.” Or: “No matter what I try to do in the way of security, it won’t work; criminals are everywhere and they will always eventually win.” (She died because he failed to protect her; what caused this failure? How exactly does he blame himself–what does he tell himself about why the murder happened and why he was unable to protect her? Did he pick some aspect of his personality and call it a flaw? E.g. he was away at a party that night, so a Lie is that partying is irresponsible and always causes death; or he was working late, so a Lie is that work is evil, or police captains are evil)

Did she die in childbirth? I know it was a murder, but it still could have happened in the hospital. Or maybe she died in childbirth but he THINKS it was a murder. Being in the business of detecting murderers, he just can’t believe that an honest mistake would kill a woman in a hospital. So during the daily grind, he developed a Lie that says all deaths are murders. So then the story is really about forgiveness — quite a twist on a murder mystery! The culprit was covered in blood because, of course, he worked in the hospital. The socialite assumed at the time that the blood had an honest explanation, but the detective later convinced her otherwise (he made her believe his Lie).

What did this detective do before he became a detective? Does he have some other background? What happened to that career and why did he become a detective instead? Or did he want to become a detective even from high school? Was his father a detective or cop or something similar? Is his family progressing, or regressing — was his father more successful, or less?

Same questions for the socialite: does she, or did she ever, pursue a career? Is her family on the way up or on the way down?

So yes, his Want is to catch and punish the culprit, and it’s a misguided Want (the kind that works for a story!) because the culprit is really innocent. And his Need is to accept the truth that his wife’s death was NOT a murder, and to forgive everyone involved. Including himself.

Wow … a murder mystery where the solution is that there was no murder! Of course there would be clues and anti-clues and false clues, as usual.

These are all good questions and good ideas. . .I need a notebook.

Matter of fact, it is a romance, and the detective is more like a Sherlock Holmes type. And they (the socialite and detective) do have a ‘criticism battle’ at some point.

The wife is around five or six months along when she dies, along with the child. I’m thinking about the whole hospital thing and the socialite is a fifth-generation, I guess?

Add to your notebook a list of all the forces and obstacles that keep the lovers apart–including personal flaws, conflicts of will and simple misunderstandings.

Sherlock doesn’t seem the romantic type, but what do I know? Does he have enough flaws? So far we have grumpiness and possibly clinginess.

I do think you’re passing up an opportunity for a good character by not having a surviving kid. Lots of trauma, plus plenty of complications for the lovers. Maybe you have the feeling that you want to avoid complications as a bad thing; but for a novelist, it’s all backwards: complications are good.

And many of your readers will be in the position of trying to woo partners with kids — there are so many broken families and single moms nowadays. A story with an extra kid will resonate better than a story about a pair of pristine potential partners.

What if the lovers have a spat, and when the socialite finally remembers seeing the culprit, she decides to withhold that information from him?

What caused the spat?

What if the police captain takes the detective off the case at the crucial moment (because he has “too much stress”) and gives it to an incompetent or uncaring detective (your detective’s career-long rival), who has wrong ideas about how to proceed or who the culprit is? (Thus adding to his stress, of course!)

What if the other detective suspects the SOCIALITE?????? And she doesn’t know her buddy is off the case, because he’s withholding information from her too, so she doesn’t know that the other detective is closing in on her!!!

Hmm. . .thinking about adding a kid. . .

Part of the impulse against adding a kid, I think, is the idea of the “perfect tragedy” of an otherwise childless pregnant mom getting killed. But in a way, that’s too “pat.” More grief for the man if he has no surviving kid; but more to write about if he does.

AND a kid would be one more annoyance for the socialite who wants to be alone.

There’s a POV problem in what I wrote above (about the other detective suspecting the socialite): how do we know what the other detective is up to? Do we see his POV? Do we see an omniscient POV? Or do we see the information through the eyes of our detective who for some reason doesn’t understand what it means, though the reader will? Maybe our detective is drunk and about to pass out, and doesn’t remember it later. Hey, maybe we see through the kid’s POV, and the kid is present in a meeting between the two detectives (had to drag the kid along because some problem with daycare) and our detective goes to the bathroom or something and the other detective comments/gloats/brags to the kid, knowing or expecting that there will be no comprehension?

What if the socialite likes kids though? Or at least tolerates them?

If the socialite gets along OK with kids, then that’s one less source of conflict. But then the socialite can make friends with the kid and then participate in the kid’s internal conflict (in other words, we can see the kid’s internal conflict thru the socialite’s eyes/ears). Might be even better!

When I say “participate in someone else’s internal conflict” — suppose you want to lose weight, but you also want to eat a slice of pie. That’s a conflict between present benefit and future benefit, or a conflict between the desire for good flavors and the desire for pride. Imagine an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other (representing the Need and the Want, or two incompatible Wants). Now, along comes me, and you say “I want this pie but I also want to lose weight.” I can take sides with either the angel or the devil. I can say “oh, go ahead, have some pie” or I can say “stay strong, eyes on the prize, lose the weight.” So I’m participating in your internal conflict.

The kid’s Ghost, I suppose, is the mom being killed. What kind of (legitimate) Need would the kid neglect as a result of that? What kind of (artificial and destructive or self-destructive) Want would the kid pursue as a result of that?

Does the kid blame self for the mom’s death? Or blame the dad? Or something else?

The police captain and the rival detective — were they on the job five years ago? What do they blame it on? Does the captain think that our detective’s performance has suffered as a result?

What was the “origin of evil” in this little world?

Motive for attempt on the socialite: her money? Somebody wants to inherit, or collect insurance, OR somebody’s running a con/scam to illegally scoop up her wealth? It has to be a motive to try TWICE. Or is that just what she thinks? Was it just a random street robbery, and nobody’s targeting her for a second attempt? Was it not even a murder attempt at all — do we have here a paranoid police captain who goes around assigning bodyguards for no solid reason? (but don’t use the same gimmick twice). What other traits does she have — what was her life like before the murder attempt?

Is the motive related to money, but not in such a simple way? Maybe she owns a company that is doing some project that hurts the environment, or maybe a rival company wants the competition out of the way. Or maybe she’s. A philanthropist, donates money to the arts or whatever, and some rival philanthropist wants to be #1. Maybe she helps the homeless and it’s driving down property values and some ruthless real estate developer wants it stopped? (In my town, whenever someone tries to set up a homeless camp, all the neighbors get together and sue to stop it.) She donates to Catholic Charities and thereby runs afoul of an Islamic terorrist group?

Or motive: sexual jealousy? Who’s her mate/beau, that someone wants? Does that mate/beau get in the way of her budding romance with the detective? Or is there no mate/beau? Is she really hot — beauty queen? Runner-up in beauty comtest wants to be #1? (Wicked Stepmother syndrome)

Or motive: revenge for past humiliation? That had to be a heck of a humiliation, to cause someone to try to kill her and then to try AGAIN despite that she has a bodyguard.

Oh, there IS a second attempt, right? Otherwise the bodyguard spends all of his time watching over her while nothing happens — defending her from nothing — so no action. Plot Summary: “Guy watches nothing happen.”

I finally figured something out. It’s not just any old lie, it’s specifically a lie that causes the character to turn away from a legitimate Need and pursue instead a destructive Want.

So the Lie is: “You don’t need x, and instead you need y.” And our game is to figure out what x and y are for the particular character, and what kind of traumatic event caused the character to believe a Lie of this form.

(According to Cybernetic Transposition theory, if I’ve understood it correctly, a “blocker,” or self-defeating habit pattern, is a Lie of the form: “x is dangerous or harmful to you, therefore you must avoid x so that you can keep safe.”)

Not sure if this is exactly ironic, but for someone who wants to be alone, the socialite is pretty lively.

It’s almost like her desire to be left alone is really a mask to hide that deep down inside, she really does want to be around people, but is afraid she’ll get hurt by more criticism.

Sounds like conflicting desires.

When we have conflicting desires, I’m not sure that one is really on top of another. That may be more complication than you need (how would you convey layered desires through dialogue and action?).

What I’m hearing is: She wants to be social (because that’s her nature), and she also wants to be alone (because of fear of criticism). Natural enough.

Likewise, does the detective want to love again? Does he want to get married again? Yet he chooses not to, so that another woman won’t die? So, deep down, he wants to be alone, but chooses to be around others so that they won’t get hurt?

A socialite who wants to be around others, but chooses to be alone so she won’t get hurt. A detective who wants to be alone, but chooses to be around others in order to prevent them from getting hurt. And so that they won’t have to (hopefully) go through the same hurt he’s still going through.

Does any of that make sense?

I like the symmetry of your second paragraph, I think that push-pull dynamic works very well.

Her Lie: People will hurt you by criticizing you, so to stay safe, you must be alone.

He’s got two Lies: #1 Anyone you marry will get killed, so to stay safe, you must remain unmarried. And: #2 Anyone you aren’t guarding will get killed, so to keep everyone safe, you must guard them. Both of these together would make him into a sort of a yo-yo, trying to get close enough to guard her but not close enough to put her in “danger” of repeating his wife’s tragedy.

If his lie #1 predominates, then you have both parties wanting to be around others, but choosing to stay distant.

Is there some Lie that would make him cling to her in an annoying way? (#2 could be that) Or is he just trying to stay close to her in a reasonable way for the purpose of guarding her, and she reacts badly because she’s afraid he will criticize her? Hmm … he OUGHT to criticize her on first meeting! And she ought to threaten to die, or something. Start them off on the wrong foot. Try writing the scene where they meet, and see how it turns out.

Their desires to be alone both come from fear–of criticism and superstition–and those fears will be cured by the events of the story, right? as they learn their Truths: her, that not everyone will criticize, or alternately, that criticism isn’t so bad; him, that women don’t die just from being married to him, and also that he’s not so desperately needed that everyone will die if he isn’t guarding them. If that resonates, then the next question will be what story events will teach them their Truths.

Your characters are both self-sacrificing, and you’ve framed it as wants vs. choices. What if we frame it as (neglected) Needs vs. (destructive) Wants?

You could go another way: His tragedy turns him against the human race, so he wants to get close to another woman so she’ll get killed. That may be too complicated.

She threatens to die (I’ve known women who did this), or she mentions that her relatives died of cancer or something and she thinks she’s got bad genes.

When framing it as neglected Needs vs. destructive Wants — please bear in mind that as they get better they will abandon the Wants and tend to the Needs, and what kind of relationship will that lead to at the end of the story?

Once you get your head filled with all this theory and start writing, you may find that it deviates from your plan. Editor Harrison Demchick says “I have never seen an outline that survived the writing process.”

So it may be time for you to write a couple of scenes and see how it goes.

Ok, so I did start writing a scene between them, but it’s more of a bittersweetness that leads to fluff scene. Basically, she finds his deceased wife’s piano and starts playing it. He catches her playing and she starts getting all flustered and accidentally knocks over a stack of books. (She also notices that by shaving, he looks younger than she thought) As he’s helping her pick up the books, she’s like, “I’m so sorry,” and he’s like, “Don’t be. It’s been far too long since it was last played.”

To top it off, his mother-in-law and five-year old son come in at the last second and when the kid also notices that his father has shaved and gotten rid of the small beard he had, the kid says he looks strange without it. The socialite says she thinks he (the detective) looks handsome without it. Cue the eyebrow raising from both the detective and his mother-in-law, along with the detective’s amused smile and the kid’s giggles.

Ok, I think I’m getting offtrack. I meant to put down that I think I’ve figured out the lessons they both learn:

Her: Some criticism is healthy.

Him: Failing once does not mean it will happen again. Or maybe, failing does not make you a failure? You are not a failure? Something like that.

OK, so far so good. I like the symbolism of “It’s been far too long since it was last played.” (Is it out of tune?)

Whose POV is it? How does the detective feel about someone new playing that piano? Does his feeling change during the scene? How does she feel upon discovering whose piano it was — or is she not told?

How do they meet? It’s a professional meeting, right, because he has a job to do.

What is the setup for their first meeting? Each one is told about the other, right? How do they feel about each other before they meet — what are their expectations, are they surprised, do their feelings or attitudes toward each other change during the first meeting?

If you get stuck, you can re-write that same scene, the last bit of it, from the POV of the five-year-old kid and again from the mother-in-law’s POV.

And heck, from the piano’s POV. 🙂

Hannah, how are you doing with this?

These posts about character arcs are brilliant and I’ve learned so much, thank you. I’m currently outlining my novel using Scrivener and I’m left wondering how you outline other characters. All of your posts regarding character arcs e.g. The Lie, The Ghost, seem to relate to the Protagonist although I know the Antagonist has been discussed in previous comments. How do you outline other characters? I have many characters going through my head relating to my plot, for example, the Proganist’s family and friends, mentors. Another example are minor charachters (eg an obnoxious flower seller). Do you try and find wants/needs, lies and ghosts for all of them? Sorry if I sound confused, but I suppose I am a little confused right now!

Kerry, I believe the overcoming of the Lie is a positive change arc, so a character who will have such an arc will begin by believing the Lie. A character with a negative change arc will end by believing the Lie. A character with no change arc will not necessarily ever believe a Lie.

The short answer is that you can create characters for as many or as few characters as you want to. I talk about that in this post: Should All Your Minor Characters Have Arcs? .

I think you meant: “you can create arcs”

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Is constant/repeated failure to accomplish a specific goal (like a protagonist in a dystopian setting might face) a workable Ghost, or is it usually best to go with a singular event?

Singular events are tidier. If possible, perhaps try to crystallize the long-term failures into one specific event, perhaps in which the character finally realized or admitted his failure.

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These posts are so thought-provoking! I’m going to have to get some of your books.

I’m really confused about my MC’s ghost. I thought it was finding, when he was seven, his father dead of a heroin overdose. The result was people in his small town either treated the boy as a victim or as trash. Is that the actual ghost if his Lie is whatever people believe about him is true? (I think his Truth is that he is actually a good person.) In the end, he goes against everything he has been taught and gives up a lucrative career to stop a genocide. I’m not sure if that all fits together. It does in my head, but when I start dissecting it, I’m not sure. The theme is basically defying authority when authority is wrong.

Take a look at what might be inspiring the Lie. Where did the Lie originate? What’s causing it? That will be the Ghost.

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Hi, I have a question. Can the Ghost be the Call to Adventure itself? Or is the Call to Adventure more like the presentation of what the main character needs? With “Call to Adventure” I mean the first stage in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”. There, the Hero (that would be the main character) gets his/her goal from that call to adventure itself. But it’s not always a traumatizing event that sets a lie, when I read Joseph Campbell I didn’t have the impression that there is a lie. It’s more the character is living an ordinary life, and something (sometimes an “herald”) comes to the hero with the presentation of the adventure. The hero would refuse at first but eventually will attend the call.

Should I interpret that “Call to Adventure” as the presentation of what the hero “needs”? Could it be the moment the hero realizes the ordinary life is the lie? But if that’s the case, then the switch from what the character wants to what the character needs is done in the beginning of the story, or am I interpreting all this wrong?

I ask this because I was recently reading Joseph Campbell and I’m trying to connect this information about the Lie and the Ghost that is new to me, with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.

No, the Ghost should preexist the Call to Adventure. The Call to Adventure coincides with the Inciting Event, which should be placed halfway through the First Act at around the 12% mark. The Call to Adventure/Inciting Event marks the first the time protagonist properly encounters (and tries to avoid in some way) the main conflict that will come fully into play at the First Plot Point beginning the Second Act.

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So, I think I figured out the ghost for my characters Dani and Kes. For Kes, it’s “the past memory of being weak and helpless.” Which ties into her lie that she has to be stronger, faster and smarter to protect those she loves. For Dani, it’s “the knowledge of people’s deceit.” This ties into the fact that Dani has the ability to read souls. Also, the ghost ties with Dani’s lie which is that people can break you with their lies.

I hope I got that right.

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Can I make ghost story as mini arc to tell “Corruption Arc”?

(continuation) in my case, the main arc for my MC is Positive Change Arc. And I want this ghost (story of Corruption Arc) tells how my MC believes in lie. Will this method work for my story?

Some stories will dramatize the Ghost in the First Act. It’s tricky and not always advisable, but can definitely be done well.

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Dear Katie, You might remember from another one of my comments that my character’s lie is that she believes poor people are evil. I realize after reading this article that this is only a symptom of a much larger lie. Her real lie is that she believes that she’ll be worthless if she doesn’t fit in with her friend group, which is mostly made up of people who were either brought up to believe that poor people are evil or who just happen to think they’re better than everyone because they’re rich. I realized this after thinking about what my character’s ghost was.

Now I just have to figure out what my character’s actual ghost is. I was thinking bullying, but that would be a bit cliche. Maybe I’ll make it so that she had an anxiety disorder as a kid that made it hard for her to make friends.

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Great post, I’ve been learning a lot from your posts but I’m having a trouble with finding my character’s ghost. His lie is that he believes that he doesnt need help from no one (pride and ego). His need is that he needs help, and that he should let go of his pride. What could be the ghost of someone who is prideful? Maybe a bad experience?

Or it could be that he’s really good at something (exemplified by a single past experience, optimally). If he’s never needed help before that would certainly feed into a Lie that he’ll never need it.

So the ghost could be that he never received helped from no one and this created the lie that he`ll never need help? Is this what you mean?

Yes, exactly. However, it’s usually best if you can distill the Ghost into a single catalyzing event from the backstory.

Oh I see, can you give examples? So that I can understand better.

Maybe as a child or a young adult just starting on a career he was put in a specific crisis situation where he wanted help but given none–and succeeded brilliantly anyway. It created a Lie that not only will people not help him, but that he doesn’t need them anyway.

Oh I see now, Thank you very much for your help.

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Hi Kate, I’m absolutely loving this series about character arcs. My character’s ghost is her Catholic upbringing and simplistic world view. Needless to say, she’s in for a very big disillusionment arc. Thanks for a great post!! Cheers, Naomi.

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Hello Kate, do you think that there are any significant downsides to not having a ghost for the main character of a story? I was wondering this because as stated in your article, Cars and Jurassic Park do not reveal exactly why their main characters are the way they are, yet their character arcs seem to work just fine anyway. Is there something special about those arcs that frees them from needing to have a ghost in their story?

Whether or not a Ghost needs to be made explicit will depend on the specific factors of the story and its thematic Lie. However, I do believe it’s important for authors to know their characters’ Ghosts, so they then decide whether it needs to be explicitly referenced or can instead remain subtext.

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What is the best time (in the structure of the three acts) to insert an event similar to the wound or ghost, so that the character sees it from a new perspective and faces his fears? Is there more than one moment (e.g. close to Midpoint to start seeing the Truth and close to Climax to face his fear once and for all and prove that it has changed)?

Thanks for your wonderful manuals, they were really enlightening!

If the character retains a lot of fear around the Ghost, then that fear is almost certainly linked in some way to the Lie. So as the character progresses through the arc to a rejection of the Lie and acceptance of the Truth, s/he will also be facing the Ghost and perhaps “editing” his or her understanding of the past in regards to this event.

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My antagonist does not have a heart (she’s a sculpture brought to life, never had one to begin with), and her plot goal is to grow a heart for herself. I would classify this as a physical defect, however, it’s a defect that cannot be seen by anyone. She looks human enough on the outside.

I know it’s my story, my character, and my responsibility to decide, but I can’t tell if the defect itself (the lack of the heart) is her ghost/wound, or if there should be some sort of painful experience or event brought upon by that defect. For example, someone realizing she doesn’t have a heart and asking if she remembers what it’s like to be human.

I guess my question is whether this defect itself can be called her ghost, even if no one were to find out that a heart does not beat in her chest?

I would look deeper into the reason she wants a heart–since she obviously is able to live and function without it. Probably her Ghost/Lie has to do with her belief that she’s incomplete without this heart for some reason.

Thank you for your reply! Yes, her lie is definitely something like “I’m inferior to those who have a heart” and I think I even managed to narrow down her ghost yesterday.

In the past, there have been several occasions where someone close to her realized she didn’t have heart and soon after left her. It happened with the man who sculpted her, then, centuries later, a close friend and even her adoptive daughter. Of course, that was how she interpreted things, that everyone leaves her after they find out her secret. While actually each character had their own personal reasons, some even out of their control. The sculptor left in pursuit of his past, her friend died in the accident and her daughter blames the antagonist for that (it was partly the antagonist’s fault).

Thank you again, your blog is a gift, I can’t believe how productive in my writing I have become thanks to you!

Interesting. Usually the Lie is what gets in the way of the character achieving the goal, right? So that when the Lie is overcome, just before the climax, the character then has the strength to make the final push? And here the Lie provides that motivation for the character to achieve the goal, so that when the Lie is overcome, suddenly the goal is moot and does not need to be achieved? (Reminds me of Dramatica’s Failure/Good: the character fails to achieve the goal, and the outcome is good; see: The Patchwork Girl of Oz; Rainman)

I see here also Want vs. Need; the Lie causes the character to pursue the Want (the heart) rather than the Need (and what does this statue character Need while pursuing the unnecessary heart?)

Does she perhaps Want the physical object “heart” while she Needs the emotional “heart”? Is she neglecting or avoiding her emotional development while pursuing a mere symbol of it? So, symbols vs. realities? Kind of like pursuing the outward trappings and appearances of success (fancy car) while neglecting the business (serving customers) and maybe borrowing to unsustainable levels, so that the car will inevitably be repossessed?

This also reminds me of Pinocchio: wooden boy goes on a physical journey and corresponding emotional journey to become a real live boy

And of course the Tin Man: he was emotional all along but never realized it until an authority figure told him so and gave him a heart-symbol

So, characters reject her, she thinks for lack of a heart-symbol, but really for random reasons? Or are they not random? When she has her grand realization, that the rejections were NOT about the heart-symbol, it seems weak if there is not something that they WERE about. Is “it’s not all about you (so get over yourself)” enough of a message or theme?

Is she emotionally cold? Is this part of why they reject her? Does she develop warmth? Or does this story have nothing to do with any change in her emotional level?

How different would this story be if she had a heart but she was missing a pancreas? (Just substitute “pancreas” for “heart” and think about how this changes your story; it may help clarify things)

Normally the Ghost causes the Lie which impedes the character from achieving the Story Goal. If her Story Goal is to get a heart, then what internal flaw stops her? Or if her internal flaw is the lack of a heart, or is a belief about the lack of a heart, then what goal does this stop her from achieving?

(This could be a horror story: her method of getting a heart is to kill someone and take theirs; maybe this tragedy is averted at the last minute when she realizes she doesn’t need it after all)

Yes, I must agree it is exactly as you have described it – once she overcomes her lie, the goal becomes moot. To answer questions proposed in your second comment – yes, she confuses symbolic heart with a real physical one.

As for the thing she needs… well, I don’t want to set anything in stone yet, I want to see how it unfolds organically. There are various other characters in play with their own arcs, and I think I will determine my antagonist’s ending based on her interactions with other characters.

However, I do have some ideas written down. For example, my initial plan was for her to discard the lie only to adopt a worse one – ‘I don’t deserve to have a heart’. I haven’t rejected this idea, I’ll have to see whether it blends in well or not. Another possibility is that she realizes the truth (the thing she needs) and it’s an epiphany that there’s some sort of emptiness inside of everyone, and that’s what makes them human. People leave because they search for ways to fill their own voids, not because they discover there’s emptiness inside her (the antagonist).

I like the latter route because she does discover the truth, but it does her little good. She becomes a better person, perhaps even thinks of herself as human, however, she also realizes having spent hundreds of years pursuing the wrong thing, hurting those close to her. The truth equips her with the right mindset to search for the right thing to fill a cavity in her chest with (in all honesty, it’s probably a relationship with her daughter). Unfortunately, she cannot stomach the risk of going through the same process only to realize she was searching for the wrong thing again. At least, when she was pursuing a heart, she had hope. The truth robs her of that, and she’s too tired to try something else. The tricky part is, I don’t yet know how she comes to this realization.

As for her personality: people mostly regard her as a calculating and manipulative. Yes, she’s a liar, but not in a calculating way, her lies are a defensive mechanism, a way to prevent others from discovering she doesn’t have a heart. I wouldn’t say she’s cold, tactless maybe, but not cold. She’s always a good hostess and welcomes everyone in her home (the antique’s shop). Patient and curious, she genuinely wants to understand human heart and condition. It makes her a good listener and oddly enough people are drawn to her because of that, though she doesn’t necessarily see it. She even uses her powers to help others fix their personal problems. Upon request, she can make an object called memento (made of three objects brought to her – one dear, one stolen, one broken). Memento fixes some sort of problem or enhances an ability of its intended owner. The downside of mementos is that they usually cost something for their owners, and they blame it on the person who created it.

You might ask, well, if she has such powers, why doesn’t she just craft a heart for herself? The truth is, she did. Her daughter is actually someone who she saved some 15 years ago and replaced her heart with memento (artificial heart). In other words, the girl is a vessel that grows a heart for the antagonist. The idea was to allow the girl to lead a long life and grow old, and only then take her heart. However, they had a major fight when the antagonist refused to save a life of a person who all those years was nothing but a dear friend, a family member for both of them. All because the antagonist, for some inexplicable reason, wouldn’t go inside the jungle where the said person was dying. After the incident, her daughter stayed inside the jungle as a punishment for the antagonist’s actions. Her daughter deemed the antagonist ‘unworthy of a heart’.

By the way, I appreciate your questions 🙂 it warms my heart (no pun intended) to see how someone takes interest in the things I try to turn into a book!

“Normally the Ghost causes the Lie which impedes the character from achieving the Story Goal. If her Story Goal is to get a heart, then what internal flaw stops her? Or if her internal flaw is the lack of a heart, or is a belief about the lack of a heart, then what goal does this stop her from achieving?”


I would say her internal flaw is a belief about the lack of a heart. As for the goal, she consciously wants the heart she has been growing for years. Perhaps, for the antagonist, her daughter and the heart has assimilated and is the same thing. So while she thinks she wants to have her heart back, it’s her daughter she wants by her side again. How does the internal flaw impede her goal of getting her daughter back? Well, she clearly communicates her intent on ripping the heart out of the girl’s chest, and with no room for negotiations or hope for the initial deal to let the girl grow old.

Though, I’m not sure if that makes sense and is not contrived.

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In cases where the character acquires their lie and ghost as part of the story, how do you draw the line between using it as the first plot point of a positive change arc versus writing it as a separate negative change arc prior to undergoing a positive one?

It’s almost always inadvisable to include two character arcs in the same story. In instances where you want to dramatize the Ghost, it’s best to frame it as the Inciting Event halfway through the First Act. Otherwise, it can mess too much with the realistic progression of the story’s structure and pacing.

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In cases where your protagonist obtains their ghost and lie as part of the story, how exactly do you draw the line between making this the first act of their positive change arc, versus making that its own separate negative change arc prior to the positive one?

It’s almost always inadvisable to include more than one character arc for the same character in one book. This is because the structure of the arc is linked to the plot structure. If you must include the Ghost in the First Act instead of the backstory, it’s best to confine it to the earliest part of the story, leading up to the Inciting Event halfway through the First Act, so that it doesn’t mess with the rest of the timing and pacing too much.

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Can a character have 2-4 Ghosts and several Lies?

You’ll want one central Lie/Truth in order to create a unified thematic premise, with one solid motivating Ghost. But there can be multiple “supporting” Lies that tie into the larger thematic whole.

Coulf you give some examples of several Lies in one character, please?

This discussion has been very helpful! (Along with several other of your threads I’ve been following these last few days!) My main character is a police detective. Often in books featuring a detective as the main character, he needn’t change. (Especially if it’s a series.) But in my WIP, I WANT my guy to have issues. His wound, you might say, is his divorce after what he’d thought was a perfect match. His work has soured him in many ways and pulled him away from his wife and his two kids. Now (the lie) he believes is that as a cop, he is incapable of a healthy relationship–that his career has ruined him for that. Yet his need for a loving relationship is what’s driving him–and even what causes him to distort his approach to the abduction he’s investigating. (He has become involved with the mother of the abducted boy.) As secrets come out during the investigation, he violates the rules of justice in order to protect the woman he loves from the toxic truth he uncovers. He goes for an extra-judicial solution (hence the book’s title, Justice Deferred.) So in a way, he heals his wound by changing the rules he operates by. This wouldn’t necessarily work as a series, but it should work as a one-off, I think!

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So excited to find this rich treasure trove of story-structure gems – powerful in helping me fine-tune my second-draft novel. The “ghosts” issue is absolutely on point. In my novel, the MC is a failed artist who yearns to maintain a simple, safe “surface” life. The “ghost” is the traumatic death of his beloved, musically gifted mother when he was 8; nobody would talk about what happened, until years later when, on the verge of his own creative breakthrough as an artist, a family friend cautions him that his mother actually killed herself because she believed herself to be gifted, and wasn’t – and warns him against the same delusion. What really happened to his mother, and why, is integral to the main storyline and is revealed with multiple deceptive twists and turns … but only when Paul is courageous enough to go beyond the “surface” and into the mystery of his own past, in order to learn what he now needs to save his wife and unborn child from an unexpected and sudden threat.

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How is this? • Ellie’s arc – Starts as a relatively weak people pleaser, learns about independence and courage from Jake, learns to fight for her rights at the end. Cannot accept herself for who she is and needs to learn how to let go, she is also very lonely and poor. The lie she believes is that she is unworthy and unworthy people should submit to those who are. This makes her a servant to those who threaten her and extremely guilty and fearful. What she wants is to gain acceptance through gaining approval from gaslighting antagonists and standing by while her true friend, Jake, is mistreated by them. The thing she needs is to learn to accept herself and fight for her real friends. Her ghost is her dysfunctional family and being repeatedly told by her ‘masters’ that she is wrong and should not be this way, and her guilt from the start of the story.

Sounds good!

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My protagonist is part of an all-male military caste called the surplus-males. I suppose that his ghost in general is his general ignorance of the outside world. But specifically, it’s how he was chosen to be a surplus-male when he was six.

[…] Jody Hedlund has 6 key things to consider when developing characters; K.M. Weiland asks: why do your characters believe their Lies?; and Angela Ackerman gives a list of common themes to help us understand character […]

[…] writing techniques, I’ve enjoyed K.M. Weiland’s posts: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2014/03/character-arcs-4.html and on character […]

[…] Helping Writers Become Authors. K.M. Weiland has a ton of great stuff on her blog. In her post on Character’s Ghosts, she discussed why characters needed to believe lies. And I’m sitting here going, “ah, […]

[…] According to K. M. Weiland, a Ghost is something in the past that haunts a character. For instance, if your protagonist is an university student who came second in the state shotput finals, his Ghost is the fact that he failed to win the finals. […]

[…] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/character-arcs-4/ […]

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Inside 13 American Ghost Towns And The Eerie Stories Behind Them

From the 19th-century boomtown of bodie, california to the real-life "silent hill" in centralia, pennsylvania, these ghost towns across the u.s. serve as haunting reminders of what life was like there before they were abandoned..

Before it burned down, there was a building in Cerro Gordo, California, filled with blood and bullet holes. What happened here? No one knows. There’s no one left alive in this ghost town to tell the tale.

Cerro Gordo, like all the ghost towns on our list, was once a thriving place. People lived, worked, and died there. But when good times became bad times, the town emptied out. Today, just a few dusty buildings remain.

Though they all met the same fate, the ghost towns below have unique stories. Many were mining towns that thrived as long as gold, silver, or other resources could be found. Some were doomed by environmental disaster. And at least one was abandoned — allegedly — because of a monster.

Read on to learn the stories of some of America’s most fascinating ghost towns, from aptly named Helltown in Ohio to the blood-soaked history of Nelson, Nevada.

The Hellish Legend Of Helltown, Ohio

Ghost Towns

Andrew Borgen/Flickr An eerie road leading to Helltown, Ohio.

Most ghost towns are filled with tumbleweeds. But legend long held that Helltown, Ohio , was home to more terrifying residents.

Originally called Boston, this village in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley became a ghost town in the 1970s when the federal government started buying up its residences to make room for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Many people weren’t happy about this — one wrote, “Now we know how the Indians felt” on the wall of their home — but the town was soon abandoned.

Then, creepy stories about Helltown started to spread.

Urban legend stated that Helltown was a magnet for Satanists because of an upside-down cross on the front of its church. (In fact, this was a common motif in the Gothic Revival style.) Legend also suggested that an abandoned school bus in Hellown was the site of a grisly murder, perhaps by an insane killer or (you guessed it) a group of Satanists.

Church In Helltown Ghost Town

Andrew Borgen/Flickr The upside-down cross on Helltown’s church prompted rumors that this ghost town was a magnet for Satanists.

Rumors even spread that a chemical spill produced a monster known as the Peninsula Python. While theories about Satanists in Helltown are unfounded, there is a grain of truth to the Peninsula Python legend. When the National Park Service acquired nearby Krejci Dump in 1985, park rangers got sick and broke out in rashes. The dump is a Superfund site today.

Despite Helltown’s creepy reputation, it’s not a very interesting ghost town to visit. Though curious tourists were once able to sneak through abandoned homes and look at the town’s old church, upside-down cross and all, the remaining structures in Helltown were destroyed in 2016.

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  23. Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 4: Your Character's Ghost

    K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

  24. 13 Ghost Towns Across America, From Bodie To Zzyzx

    These 13 ghost towns range from old mining settlements like Goldfield, Arizona to villages abandoned because of a "monster" like Portlock, Alaska. ... South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of ...