Thanks to Bananas for Books for inviting me to write a guest post today! Yesterday's stop at Tales of the Ravenous Reader had me talking about some of the themes and questions ghost stories explore. Today I'll examine ghost stories from a more writerly perspective and discuss some of the challenges you run into when you're writing a novel where the main character starts out dead.
Attend the Convention
From Dickens's A Christmas Carol to Gaiman's The Graveyard Book to the spooky stories your camp counselor told around the fire, the ghost story has a long literary history, and with this history comes expectations and conventions. For example, if I were writing a vampire story, my readers are going to expect that my vampires are immortal, that they drink people's blood through their pointy teeth, that this blood-drinking business makes them morally dubious, and that sunlight hurts or kills them. These are the conventions (or "rules") of a vampire story.
Now, this is make believe, so I'm free to play around with some of these conventions (shine on, you crazy Cullens), and if I do it right, this will make my story fresh and distinctive. Besides, it's tempting to play fast and loose with the conventions that hinder your storytelling. For example, what do you do if you need your vampire in a daytime scene? Joss Whedon has Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Spike running around town in a smoking blanket, and the Blade vampires can take an afternoon stroll as long as they apply sunscreen.
But a writer has to be judicious about how many conventions she changes. For example, if my vampire lives off of banana smoothies, which he pours in his ear, is he still a recognizable vampire? (Actually some vampire folklore is almost this wacky. Google it.) And isn't part of the fun of a convention working somewhat within its boundaries? Isn't that what creates that thrill of familiarity for the reader?
Okay, so there aren't any vampires in ABSENT. Not a one. Not a snaggle-toothed, six-pack-sporting werewolf. No shuffling zombies. There are ghost frogs (more on that later). But mostly, there are just ghosts. So let's review the conventions of the ghost, and then I'll discuss the opportunities and challenges these presented as a writer.
Location, Location, Location
The traditional ghost haunts one location, usually the location of its death. Think haunted house. This convention can present challenges for a writer who wants a wide-ranging field of action and a far-reaching threat for haunted human characters. But for me, the ghosts' limited location was a boon.
First of all, I've always loved contained space stories—boarding schools, boats at sea, secluded houses—because of the drama that's created by characters constantly bumping into each other. Second, my story was about the ghosts, not the haunted humans, and so the more restrictions and challenges I could give my characters, the more tension my story would have. For example, if Paige (my main ghost) could go anywhere she liked, she travel the world as an observer; death wouldn't be so bad.
So I decided that my ghosts would follow the convention of being trapped at the location of their deaths. Essentially, they died at high school, so they can't leave the school grounds. I extended their range to the property boundary because I wanted the option of outdoor scenes for both setting reasons and for practical ones—I needed a variety of believable ways teenagers could die at school, and the outdoors lengthened my list.
Since of course my ghosts would try to leave the school (who wouldn't?), I had to figure out what would happen when they did. I decided that if a ghost crossed the school property line, it would find itself back at the spot of its death. I felt this spoke to the emotional core of the location convention: The ghost is stuck in the moment of its death.
When you decide on a rule for the world of your story, it sometimes raises questions of logic and believability that force you to create other rules. For example, by deciding that if a person dies at this high school, then s/he remains there as a ghost, I had to account for everyone in the past who had died at the high school. Fortunately, my story was set at a school, not a hospital or battleground, so the body-count would be relatively low. But I thought there would be a lot of dead frogs, chloroformed for Biology class dissection, poor things. I have ghost frogs hopping around the school as a darkly humorous setting detail. (The "rule" for this aspect of the world is actually a little more complicated then I'm explaining here. Forgive my coyness. I don't want to spoil the story.)
I See Dead People
Many ghost stories will have one character (often the main character) with special sensitivity to the ghosts. She is the one most likely to sense or see them, though her reports are often doubted by the rest of the group.
Here again, I followed the convention, but because my main group of characters are all ghosts, the supernaturally sensitive character appears later in the story than she otherwise might. Rather than being doubted and scorned, her ability is embraced and causes ripples of reaction through the ghost world.
Let's pause for now, and I'll continue this post later in the blog tour. Tomorrow, visit Actin' Up with Books for a chance to win a free copy of ABSENT, and then the day after tomorrow, I'll finish my thoughts about working with ghost conventions on YA Book Shelf.
When seventeen-year-old Paige dies in a freak fall from the roof during Physics class, her spirit is bound to the grounds of her high school. At least she has company: her fellow ghosts Evan and Brooke, who also died there. But when Paige hears the rumor that her death wasn’t an accident—that she supposedly jumped on purpose—she can’t bear it. Then Paige discovers something amazing. She can possess living people when they think of her, and she can make them do almost anything. Maybe, just maybe, she can get to the most popular girl in school and stop the rumors once and for all.