When I realised I needed a ghost story for a class I found out that I don't know what the conventions of this genre are. Conversation with a colleague led to agreement that there needs to be a ghost or a supernatural event, but we weren't sure about other common features. For example, although the ending is usually bad (for someone) does it always end in a death? Are they usually third person narratives? Are most ghost stories Gothic i.e. medieval setting, lots of blood, death, etc.?

I am not asking for examples of ghost stories -- I have read a few, though they are not my favourite genre -- but instead for ideas about what you think makes a good ghost story. (Can we take it that suspense and an element of fear are givens?)

3 Answers 3


Mystery. Ghost stories saturate themselve in the unknown. Your lead characters may believe in a factual world, but that belief will be challenged as the story progresses. From the first unexplainable event, their beliefs will be attacked by ever increasing, ever more obvious and undeniable, events which serve to beat down their confidence in their own understanding of how the world works.

The lucky ones will leave your story shattered; still alive be struggling to recapture their faith in a harmless reality. Nightmares and doubt will plague them for the rest of their days.

Ghost stories must involve the afterlife (or at least appear to involve the afterlife). They usually have something unsettling to say about what is waiting for us on the other side of the grave. Happy endings are very rare in ghost stories.

But they are fertile ground for character growth and transformation. Seeing a person when they are scared is more revealing than almost any other emotion. So as you write your characters through their terror, take liberties to illuminate every dark secret and anxiety out of their past. Use their histories to justify who lives and who dies, and try to leave your reader with a shiver in their spine and no hope for restful slumber.


Henry is entirely correct, but I would add a couple of things that seem to be common in ghost stories. First is that there is a sense of escalation, so that at first things just seem odd or mysterious but not supernaturally terrifying. There may be some possible non-ghostly alternative, i.e. "My brother is trying to drive me insane!". Many characters in ghost stories refuse to believe they're dealing with ghosts until they are confronted with iron-clad evidence. This refusal, coupled with some mystery about what's really going on, can lead the reader down the garden path so that the final revelation of the ghost is much more effective.


You should leave your reader hooked and longing for more leaving them on a dramatic cliffhanger at the end of each the chapter is essential in this type of genre. Also, a sense of emotion and trust the reader feels towards the character gives them a bond once again hooking them to the story.you should include a sense of paranormal fear and a thirst for the unknown and unidentifiable thing that is happening to the character in your story. The character should be oblivious at the start and then a sense of realization once they are face to face with the paranormal being.

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