Five Things I've Learned about Writing Killer Ghost Stories

Dave Shelton
Category: Writing

We invited Dave Shelton, the Carnegie Medal-nominated author of A Boy and a Bear in a Boat and the terrifying Thirteen Chairs to sit by our campfire and let us know what he has learned about writing ghost stories. You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveShelton.


Ghost stories are a bit like jokes

I find comedy endlessly fascinating, and beyond the deep satisfaction of laughter I also love to look at the workings of jokes and humour. I love to hear comedians and comic writers talking about their craft and about the mechanics of what they do. And I think there are some interesting parallels between making someone laugh and scaring someone. In both cases a lot depends upon how the expectations of the audience are manipulated. A lot of humour is dependant upon creating an expectation and then subverting it, or maybe about something incongruous in an otherwise normal setting ("A penguin walks into a bar, and he says to the barman...") and a lot of the most successful ghost stories similarly take a believable everyday world and subvert it with one supernatural element. And in both jokes and ghost stories a sudden shock can be very effective. I think it's no coincidence that our reaction to a sudden surprise in real life is often to laugh.

There are some interesting parallels between making someone laugh and scaring someone


Try different voices

On the whole I write very slowly anyway, but for Thirteen Chairs I wrote especially slowly. Part of the reason for this was that, having chosen to have each of the stories told by a separate character, I had to write each one in an individual voice. It seemed like a good idea at the time but, as my previous book had contained only two characters, and so only two narrative voices, it wasn't something for which I had any relevant experience. In the end I had a difficult time of it coming up with the voices and then keeping track of them all. But in a couple of cases I got lucky and the voice I found seemed to free me to write more quickly. This happened most notably in the case of 'The Girl in the Red Coat' in which I wrote in the character of an eight- or nine-year-old schoolgirl called Amelia. This came to me very naturally. Go figure.


Short stories are not an easy option

You probably knew this already (you look the clever sort). I think I sort of knew it myself before I began but I somehow made myself forget. I'd found writing my previous book A Boy and a Bear in a Boat a really quite difficult and agonising and brain-melting experience, so obviously I didn't want to go through that again. So I decided that this time instead of writing a novel (albeit a very short one) I would write a collection of short ghost stories. Because that would be easier, right? (No.) Even if I hadn't written a short story since my school days, how hard could it be? (Pretty hard, actually.) And so what if I hadn't written anything scary before - or even read very many ghost stories come to that - I'd soon get the hang of it wouldn't I? (No, no, no!)

So I blundered in foolishly with no great idea of what I was doing, and I learnt as I went. Very slowly. And of course the 'easy option' took longer and was, by some distance, more difficult and agonising and brain melting than the last book had been. Luckily, I had a very brilliant editor and publisher, both of them long on wisdom and patience and able to point me in the right direction every time the words started dancing on the screen and I couldn't make any sense of them anymore for myself. With their help a very flabby, sloppy first draft was eventually fashioned into a pretty lean finished book.


You don't always spot the influences until later
Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton

The very beginning of Thirteen Chairs came from me hearing the MR James story 'A Warning to the Curious' read on Radio 4. It was such a brilliant story (and so brilliantly read by Alex Jennings) that it set me thinking about ghost stories in general and the possibility of me taking a crack at writing some. So MR James was a conscious influence from the start, and one or two of the finished stories were written with something of his style in mind. But apart from MR James, if anyone had asked me at the time, I would have claimed that I was just doing things my own way in the rest of the stories, playing around with some different styles, but not really influenced by anyone directly. In thinking and talking about the book since its publication, though, it's become clear to me that certain influences - most of them dating back to my childhood - probably had a hold on me without my realising it. The dark twists of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected certainly made an impression on me years ago, both on the page and in their TV incarnation, and I can see their shadow on a couple of my own stories. The no-holds-barred weirdness of cheap British black-and-white reprints of US comic strips called things like Tales of the Uncanny, and Amazing Stories of Suspense surely fed into others. Would I really have come up with the Antarctic location for my story Snowstorms if I had never seen John Carpenter's horrific The Thing? Probably not. Not so many weird alien dog creatures in my story though (although, no doubt, for some readers that would be seen as a negative point).


How to create suspense

This is perhaps the most interesting and important aspect of any scary story. It may at first seem extremely difficult to achieve but, in fact, it's very simple once you know how. All you need to do is...


Looking for some literary chills? Check out our lists of 10 Screaming Reads, 13 Books That are Scarier Than the Film, 8 Scary Scottish Books and 12 Teen Horror Novels.

Dave Shelton

Born and raised in Leicester, Dave now lives in Cambridge with a brilliant woman, a beautiful girl, a bonkers dog and an inexcusable cat. He likes comics, cricket, crosswords and talking to cartoonists about pens. He is the creator of the slapstick comedy noir comic strip Good Dog, Bad Dog, as seen in the DFC, the Guardian and the Phoenix. His debut prose novel for children, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, which he also illustrated, was shortlisted for the Costa children's prize and the Carnegie medal, and won the Branford Boase award. He is fond of cake.

Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton is available now from David Fickling Books.