Ghost Rules

Some years ago, an editor rejected a story of mine because it contained a ghost. He had a policy of not buying supernatural stories because he thought they were gimmicky. Fortunately, a ghost-friendly editor liked the story and bought it. But my take-away from the experience was that if you’re going to use ghosts in your stories, you have to make them as effective as possible.

But before I tell you my ghost rules, I have to interrupt myself to tell a true ghost story.

Not long ago, I was staying at Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, which makes it so hard to reconcile with the horrific end of Anne Boleyn’s life. How could someone who grew up here wind up executed at the Tower of London? Not surprisingly, there are a lot of ghost stories floating around Hever Castle. So one night, after a very busy day of touring around, I went to bed and sank right into sleep. Or quasi -sleep, because as I lay there, I felt clearly someone draw a finger over the back of my neck. Afterwards my husband suggested that it could have been a sheet being pulled across across me, but it wasn’t. I can still feel the touch of that finger. I didn’t feel afraid, precisely, though I was scared about what might happen next. (Nothing did.) This much I can tell you. It’s more fun to write about ghosts to experience them. (For another post about ghosts at Hever Castle, check out this blog by @CathleenRoss.)

Now for the rules

So how do you write about ghosts? How do you win over people who don’t like them? Or how do you make the unbelievable believable? If you insist on having a ghost in your story, what’s the best way to do it?

1. There should be a reason for the ghost

In my short story “Detective Anne Boleyn,” which was published in the May/June 2022 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, the ghost of Anne Boleyn plays an important role. (All right. I might be obsessed with Anne Boleyn.) The protagonist of the story is a modern woman who feels invisible, and she happens to be in the Tower of London, on a trip with her family. She’s the sort of person that people literally look right past. So when I was exploring the theme of the story, invisibility and middle-aged women, I thought who better to play the antagonist than Anne Boleyn, the most visible woman of her time. But she had to be a ghost because she died in 1536. Having her as a ghost, gave me a chance to explore the reason for the story. What is your ghost helping you do? How is she helping you develop your story?

2. What sort of person is your ghost?

Ghosts need personalities, just like everyone else in your story. You don’t just want a random ghost, floating around like a person with a sheet over their head. Simply because a ghost is two-dimensional in real life, doesn’t mean they should be that way in the story. Are they angry? Why? What does your ghost look like? Is she wearing clothes? Can you touch her? Can she eat? Is she hungry? Is she bored? The more developed your ghost, the more vivid the story.

3. What does your ghost want?

This is critical, because this is what’s going to drive the story. Does your ghost want revenge? Then your protagonist has a problem. Perhaps the ghost is atoning for something and needs your protagonist’s help. Perhaps your ghost has fallen in love with your protagonoist. That’s another problem. The key thing is that even though ghosts seem to float around, in fiction they need to be active. Make sure your ghost has a goal.

How about you? Have you ever seen a ghost? Do you write about them? How do you bring your ghosts alive?

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The MWA anthology, Crime Hits Home, in which she has a story, just won an Anthony Award. She teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and is on the staff of the New York Write to Pitch Conference.


  1. Didn’t SEE a ghost. But more than once was lying in bed when one sat down next to me. Same ghost played with wind chimes I had hanging in my bedroom when there was no breeze to account for it. Daughter saw it. Once in a Chicago hotel one came into my room and laid down on top of me apparently oblivious that i was there. I told it to leave and it did.

    I had a question of a ghost in a story and the agent I had at the time ordered me to take it out as it limited marketability. Didn’t sell but I didn’t put it back in. That’s The Sorrowful Girl that I’m self publishing this fall. Maybe I’ll bring it back for next in series.

      1. Thanks so much! I struggled with that one. That had been the name when I started it 10 years ago. Then all those “girl” titles came out. Now they’re gone. Good thing I waited to release it!

  2. Enjoyed hearing about your Anne Boleyn story, Susan. My son is hyper-sensitive to essences, and at times of great stress feels or sees non-threatening apparitions. He decided it’s his grandfather, reassuring him.

    I haven’t used a ghost, but James Oswald in his Inspt. McClean series has a female character it is quite clear is the Devil incarnate. She has tons of malicious personality and appears sporadically. He writes her so skillfully, too, that she’s a totally believable character.

  3. That’s funny. I don’t consider ghost stories gimmicky unless the writer uses them that way. But anything can be a gimmick, not just a ghost.

  4. I don’t know what the actual definition of a ghost is, but I do believe I was visited by two individuals who are dead in separate incidents. They were silent but there was a message I understood from the visit. I wasn’t scared. Both occurred shortly after the death of each person in what I consider a transition phase.

    I could never write a ghost story. They do scare me.

  5. sort of saw one once, when i was twelve and very upset. the presence comforted me. had one touch me, when i was an adult, in broad daylight. played ball with a ghost once, where it diverted the straight path of the ball to a right angle, time after time. and very recently, had a ghost move something to show me it was with me. there were witnesses.

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