• Ivy L. James

How to Plot a Ghost Story 

Updated: Jan 29

Want to write a ghost story, but not sure where to start? Wanna plot it FAST? Well, my friend, have I got some good news for you.

It's Friday the 13th and I am all about ghost stories, in any medium. (See what I did there?) But writing one myself has felt intimidating because there are so many facets to consider. I wasn't even sure where to start.


Fun fact: Feeling like a subject is too difficult is a surefire motivator for me to figure it out. If it taunts me, I must win. Shoutout to the French language as exhibit A.

So how do we break down the elements of a ghost story? And how do we translate them into a Plotting Strategy? Glad you asked.


We're gonna break it down into these 5 categories, because I love organization.

  • Overall mood and goal

  • Setting

  • Main character (the living one)

  • Ghost(s)

  • Side characters

Your ghost story's overall mood/goal

What's the overall mood you're aiming for? You might want your reader/audience to feel unsettled, afraid, regretful, satisfied…

The story's mood influences all the following choices, so decide that first.

Your ghost story's setting

For the setting, consider both the literal setting and the societal setting.

The physical setting can mirror the spookiness or make the story eerie via juxtaposition.

Classic spooky settings include abandoned hospitals and asylums, because we associate them with the patients' pain and historical malpractice, plus abandoned buildings are always creepy in general. Dreary or stormy weather adds to the ominous aura.

Juxtaposition in the setting can up the eerieness factor. A sunny day, a playground, a club or party… Anywhere that your character should be enjoying themselves but can't relax because they have a Bad Feeling, because someone/something is following them, because they keep seeing a dead person, etc.

For the social setting, what's the society's general approach to ghosts and the supernatural? Do people know and accept that ghosts exist? Do they know but hate it and try to exterminate them? Do most people not believe at all? This will influence your MC's approach and how the side characters respond.

Your ghost story's main (living) character

The main aspects to consider about the MC:

  • Does your MC start out as a believer or a skeptic?

  • Why does the MC first encounter the ghost(s)?

  • Why does MC continue to interact with the ghost(s)? (What does the MC get out of it?)

  • How do the ghost and the MC communicate?

  • What's the MC's relationship with the ghost, and how does that relationship evolve over the course of the story?

Does your MC start out as a believer or a skeptic? On top of this, keep in mind how society in general would perceive their position. If MC believes in ghosts but society generally doesn't (or vice versa), is MC outspoken or secretive about their belief?

Why does MC first encounter the ghost(s)? Are they looking for answers about something, unknowingly attached to the dead person, avoiding something important, intentionally seeking out a ghost, etc.?


Why does MC continue to interact with the ghost(s)? When the ghost first shows up, your MC could say "nope, bye" and move out of town and the end credits would roll… but unless you're writing a satire, that's not how the story's going to go, is it?


So why does the MC return to the haunted place or contact the ghost again? If they first encountered the ghost intentionally, maybe they think the ghost can help them find answers.


If the ghost needs help, maaaybe MC is kind and generous, but that's not a good enough reason to hold a story together.


To solidify the plot, decide what the MC wants to get out of this.

Does the ghost promise them something in return? Is MC trying to make up for something they feel guilty about? Did they know and care about the dead person? Was the person murdered by someone who will kill again unless MC finds and stops them?


How do the ghost and the MC communicate? They have to be able to get their thoughts across somehow. Do they have audible conversation? Does the ghost write and MC talks? Does the ghost manipulate music or radio waves to create sentences? Do they both know sign language?


What's the MC's relationship with the ghost, and how does that relationship evolve over the course of the story? In other words, how do they start out and what do they become?

  • Are they strangers at the beginning and grow into allies?

  • Do they fall in love (prime angst potential)?

  • Were they close in life and now allied in death?

  • Do they start out as strangers, become allies, and then become ENEMIES because one betrays the other?

Your ghost story's ghost(s)

This ghost is as much of a main character as your actual living main character. Craft him/her carefully.

The main aspects to consider about your ghost:

  • How does the ghost look?

  • How did the ghost die?

  • Why didn't the ghost Pass On?

  • What does the ghost need to Pass On?

  • Who or what is the ghost tethered to?

  • What's the ghost's overall mood?

How does the ghost look? Are they invisible? A shimmer in the air? A translucent version of themselves in life? A solid-looking version of themselves in life? Or do they look like their dead body post-murder? Looking at you, Hanging Lady.

How did the ghost die? Odds are good that the person didn't die peacefully in their sleep at the end of a long, happy life. Murder is a common reason. Suicide or murder framed to look like suicide also come up a lot. (For obvious reasons, you need to handle this subject delicately.) It might also be an untimely death or an odd death somehow connected to whatever secrets they might've been hiding.

Why didn't the ghost Pass On™? (Whatever "passing on" entails in your story.) Usually the person has unfinished business, was murdered, weren't buried, has a secret that needs to come out, or doesn't know or refuses to accept their death.


What does the ghost need to Pass On? Obvs, this is directly connected to the reason they didn't pass on. Do they need justice? Answers? Revenge? A proper burial? To finish their unfinished business? To have their big secret unveiled? To accept their death? To finally beat that last level on Mario Kart?

Who or what is the ghost tethered to? Your ghost is trapped in this dimension for one reason or another. They shouldn't be touring the world for funsies. To emphasize that they're trapped here, stick them to one thing or person in particular.

Is the ghost stuck near a person, such as their murderer or a loved one? An item, such as a favorite toy (for a child ghost) or treasured possession? A place, such as their home or the place they died? Their dead body/remains?


Note: This refers to tethering, as in, the ghost can only travel so far from whatever the thing is. Not the same thing as possession, which is typically reserved for demons.


What's the ghost's overall mood? Are they regretful, sad, angry, playful, guilty, lonely…? Stay away from neutral, and stay FAR away from contentment. If the ghost doesn't care or is happy as is, there's no motivation for the MC to do anything.

Your ghost story's side characters

Your story may primarily feature the MC and the ghost(s), but at least 3 side characters should show up:

  • the believer

  • the skeptic

  • the opposition

Who believes MC about the ghost and/or informs them about the ghost in the first place? Someone points them in the right direction. This may be the only person who makes the MC feel like they're not out of their mind.

Who disbelieves the MC and/or preemptively dismisses any rumors about the ghost(s)? Someone scoffs at the idea and leaves MC feeling more alone. Cue the angst.

Who or what is the antagonist or opposing force? It could be a Bad Guy, or it could just be someone with goals that oppose the MC's goal. It could be a ghost hunter, another ghost, a demon, the ghost's murderer, THE GHOST ITSELF… It could even be the Believer or the Skeptic we just discussed. Plot twist.

TL;DR

Ask yourself these questions as you plot your ghost story:

  • What's the overall mood you're aiming for?

  • Is the physical setting spooky or eerily normal?

  • What's the society's general approach to ghosts and the supernatural?

  • Why does MC first encounter the ghost(s)?

  • Why does MC continue to interact with the ghost(s)? (What do they get out of it?)

  • How do the ghost and the MC communicate?

  • What's the MC's relationship with the ghost, and how does that relationship evolve over the course of the story?

  • How did the ghost die?

  • Why didn't the ghost Pass On?

  • What does the ghost need to Pass On?

  • Who or what is the ghost tethered to?

  • What's the ghost's overall mood?

  • Who believes the MC?

  • Who scoffs at the MC?

  • Who is the MC's and/or the ghost's opposition?

Now go forth and write a creepy ghost story! I believe in you!

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