I’ll come clean straight away: I’m not a fan of horror stories. My kind of supernatural tale won’t involve a bloodthirsty monster; rather, the shivery element will be so rooted in the emotional storyline, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Think The Others and The Turn of the Screw.
To create a story with that kind of supernatural chill, here are my top tips:
Atmosphere. In ghost stories this is frequently dark, stormy, thunderous and menacing. With my new children’s book, The Fall of a Sparrow, I wanted to do the opposite, setting the story against the warm, fresh green background of early summer… and slipping in the odd jarring note. A breeze on the back of the neck in an airless room. Footsteps pattering away in the darkness. A fair-haired figure glimpsed against bright sunshine – and gone. Small in themselves, details like these build up a chilling sense of mystery and tension that keeps your reader turning the pages.
Embed the supernatural in your story. Sending your characters into a haunted house as part of an adventure may be fun but it’s not the same as weaving the ghostly element in from the start. In The Fall of a Sparrow, 11 year-old Eleanor is puzzled to find herself followed around by a gawky little boy who – to her horror – knows all about her troubled past. How? Who is he? And why does everyone else pretend not to see him? Then she realises the others aren’t pretending. Davey appears only to her. But – what does he want?
Which brings me to the crux of what makes a truly gripping ghost story:
Desire. A ghost doesn’t just haunt for the sake of it. They need something only the main character can give. What that is, and why your hero should be the one to supply it, is the mystery at the heart of your story, setting in train every twist and turn of the plot. It builds the relationship between haunted and haunter, involving the reader in the emotional life of both while blinding the hero to the growing danger. To Eleanor, in The Fall of a Sparrow, Davey is a weird, needy little boy whose friendliness is so disarming that by the time she stops to think what he wants from her, she’s already trapped in a situation beyond her control.
Make it real. When strange things happen, allow for some explanation other than the supernatural, however unlikely. This ramps up the tension until the evidence has piled up so high your hero can ignore it no longer.
Less is more.
Out with bloodcurdling screams, clanking chains, walls dripping with blood. In with slight, odd sensations that can be far more chilling: a fleeting reflection in a mirror; light catching the cold eye of a hobby horse, hidden in a dark corner; laughter echoing down an empty passage.
Brr. Think someone’s just left a door open somewhere.
The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel is out now with Matador, priced £13, for ages 9-12.
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