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How to write a ghost story | Part 2

Stories come to me in different ways. I’m hoping that by telling you how I devise my stories and give you a few direct examples, this might help inform you of ways you too can create your own stories. Bizarre or otherwise.

Whilst my first major release in terms of a story telling trick was ‘The Deceased’, it was in fact, ‘Scream’ that was the first fully formed story I wrote. The interesting thing about this story is, it is approaching 10 years since I first wrote it and it has become such a popular effect amongst bizzarrists, the story itself is known by heart by many performers the world over. The funny thing about this is, there is a strange crossover where fa story almost feels like it was something from history.

I would like to quickly caveat all of this by saying, I don’t consider myself a particularly skills writer or story teller. I truly feel as though I’m as good as anyone else. So, please don’t even for a second think that I truly believe my stories are anything especially groundbreaking. But, they are stories that have lived and breathed inside my mind for a long time and therefore, I am very proud of them non the less.

The idea for ‘Scream’ came from a University project I was doing. My thought was, I wonder if I could create a horror film experience in a close up setting. It is a tall order, I’m sure you’ll agree. Without lighting, effects, music, atmosphere and certainly not in a controlled environment. Could I really scare someone to the point that they would jump or even scream? I thought about it a lot over the course of about a month. I even remember being by the pool in Spain, the sun glaring down on me and yet all I could think of is horror themes and ideas. I researched several different books designed for writers, specifically for film. I attended a horror writers course in London. I watched films like The Blair Witch, The Exorcist and Insidious. I went to see The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre in London. Anything I could latch onto in an attempt to try and understand what affects an audience so profusely.

I really wanted a good jump scare, this was pretty much the first thing I had settled on. You could say, this was the start of building the story for Scream. I didn’t want the jump scare to be out of context however. I wanted it to have meaning and purpose. I remember as a kid, I had an ‘exploding pen’. It was basically a hollow pen with a small mouse trap gizmo inside. You would load a small ‘cap’, which was a small red cup with a tiny bit of what I presume is gunpowder of some kind, then when someone opened the pen, it would trigger the mousetrap and BANG! It was designed as a practical joke and had no other purpose other than to be mean. I didn’t want that same feeling. But I did like the bang.

The first part of the story formed from that bang and giving that bang a purpose. I settled on it sounding like a gun shot which wasn’t much of a stretch if we are completely honest, but, this is how it all began! From that, I had the idea of having photos change and people appearing in and out of them. A big theme in my early releases was the idea of having the spectator question their reality. I wanted them to not be sure of what they had seen. So, I found a photo of an old creepy house, one of a creepy lady sitting down and one of some old woodland. Then I photoshopped the woman into the window of the house and as a shadow in the woods. I printed one of each photo WITH the woman and one of each WITHOUT the woman. I then had 2 identical envelopes and I stuck one of the mousetrap bangers on the back of one of the envelopes. This method was later adjusted with the help of Dave Forrest who mention the idea of only one photo changing in someway and the others being questionable. So I had the idea of the woman’s face disappearing, and I worked on a method for this to happen.

Now all of the set pieces were in place but the narrative wasn’t really formed. This is where the bulk of my process begins. I imagined a name for the woman and I concluded that she was from Illinois in the USA. Mainly, because the house style didn’t feel particularly urban. I then googled female names from the early 1900’s in America and with a mishmash of different name options, I settled on Susannah Cartwright. Great! So now she has a hometown and a name. I also know she has to have some link to a gun.

With her name in a bubble, I began to create a ‘Mind Map’ full of things that might have happened to her. I noticed she was sitting on her own and she had a small mask on her lap. She also looked like she was mourning the loss of someone, draped in black. So, I figured, she must have been mourning the loss of a loved one, maybe a husband. But the look on her face wasn’t sullen. It was determined, empty and almost unsettling. Like she was looking through the laminate of the photo, directly at me. I realised almost immediately, she had murdered her husband. This was a photo taken at his funeral, her all alone. But the photo was giving clues. The look on her face, the mask on her lap.

Now, everything began snowballing, falling into place. Why would she kill her husband? He cheated on her, of course! What about the gun? Where did she get it from? She doesn’t look like a lady who would own a gun! Well, it must have been her husbands! Why would he have a gun? Maybe, since they lived next to woodland, he was a hunter and the gun was a riffle! YES! That completely makes sense. But he is proud, he would hang his guns on the wall like a prized possession!

From this point on, the story became more elaborate and I has essentially used the props, the details in the photos to create a rational story that cohesively connects every part of the puzzle. Of course, as the story developed, more and more details came to mind and before I knew it, I could accurately picture their bed room. Where he would hang the gun. Even down to the pressing of the barrel into his head as he slept.

All pretty grim in we are all being honest but nothing worse than the true crime series you seem so obsessed with on Netflix!

So in this instance, I had to give a reason to use the banger. That idea then allowed me to build from it and construct the rest of the story.

Photos already speak a thousand words, just fill in the gaps.

Now, whilst this was one way I might write a story, sometimes a pre-existing story can be altered and adjusted to make something entirely new!

In 2010, I went to the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End to see a friend of mine star in a show called Dirty White Boy. It was this show that informed another popular story of mine, Love and War. I’m going to give you the whole short story for context:

“James and Elizabeth were childhood sweethearts. They met at school and firrst started dating at the tender age of 16, James was the eldest of the couple at 17. It was love at first sight and wherever you found James, you always found Elizabeth. They were inseparable. When Elizabeth turn’t 21, James took her to her favourite restaurant, got down on bended knee and proposed to her. She of course said yes and James took out a ring and placed it upon her finger. They were destined to be together forever.

Sadly, before they had the chance to get married, the Second World War started. He was told that he we be leaving for France but before he left, the members of his Platoon were given the opportunity to have a photo taken with their loved ones. The army believed this would help boost morale during their duties.

The day before he left, he took the photo from his pocket, and tore it down the middle and placed in his pocket the half of the photograph with Elizabeth on it. She took the half with him on it and she held it to her chest with tears streaming from her eyes. They kissed and went their separate ways.

They both had every intention to one day marry but sadly, Elizabeth was relocated for safety. The town which she lived was turn’t to rubble including the restaurant in which they were engaged. They both lost contact and sadly, they never met again…

50 years later, James lived in the centre of London and often visited the cafe which stood in place of the restaurant that him and Elizabeth would frequent. He had become well acquainted with the cafe owner and was telling him about his long lost love and the photo that he still kept. Curiously, the cafe owner asked to see the photo.

James took the piece of photo from his wallet and upon seeing it, the cafe owner instantly burst into tears. He told James to stay where he was, he made a coffee and placed it in front of James before leaving the cafe.

Nearly 45 minutes later and James, sitting with his back to the entrance of the cafe, heard his name being called. He turn’t around to face the doorway and saw the silhouette of a women in the sunlight. The figure moved closer toward him so for the first time he could see her face. He quickly realised... it was Elizabeth. She was stood in front of him as beautiful as ever. She took out a piece of photograph that she had with her and he took out his. When placed together, they matched perfectly.

Elizabeth had also returned to the same area just a few years before in hope she would find James but gave up. She often visited the cafe on many occasions but had never bumped into James.

At the ripe old age of 71 and 72, James and Elizabeth finally got married and lived happily ever after”

James and Elizabeth from Love and War

This was the original story I wrote for my effect Love and War but this whole story started it’s life from Dirty White Boy. In DWB, there is a shop owner in London who has an old man come into his shop. Every week he went into the shop and spoke about a man he once loved and how they lost touch. This went on for months until the shop owner realised, on a different day every week, another customer would come in matching the description. Eventually the shop owner realised that they were both speaking about each other and by some crazy turn of fate, he reunited them. It just so happened they both ended up going to the same shop, at different times. This story is also true.

I always remembered a Derren Brown routine in which he talks about strange coincidences. He speaks about a man who goes away for work, he is passing a phone booth when it rings and he decides to answer it. It ends up being his wife asking him a question. But he doesn’t understand how she knew where he was and that he would be at that phone booth at that time. She doesn’t realise but thinking she was calling his work phone, she actually typed his Payroll number into the phone by accident. That payroll number just happened to be the number of the phone booth that he was walking past at that moment.

This story is likely not true but still excellent!

I’ve always enjoyed this idea of serendipitous luck as a theme and I loved the idea of two star crossed lovers accidentally finding each other. However, whilst amazing, the story from Dirty White Boy lacked drama in the build up to that moment and didn’t feel ‘universally commercial’ and relatable the way it was written. So, I constructed this idea of two people being torn apart by war and finding themselves back together in unbelievable circumstance.

Whilst the stories both have that same serendipitous undertone, they hopefully feel like completely different stories. But, born from a real life event that captured my imagination.

Whenever I write a story, I always let my drama training kick in. I remember one of the best pieces of advice one of my lecturers gave me:

“Drip feed the information. Give them it little by little. Build suspense and give them a satisfying conclusion”

Every story I write now, I allow the pieces to fall into place over time. It is also how I write my shows. Those who have seen my Alakazam Academies, please reference back to the Clown Murders and the Ouija Murders. Both are comprehensive, fully formed stories in which I have used the dripping of information to keep the audience on their feet.

Another thing I use for reference is music. In particular Cadence. The cadence of the song allows the listener to either feel satisfaction at the end of the song or not. For example, the ‘Amen’ sung at the end of a Church hymn is incredibly satisfying. I feels ‘finished’. However, an ‘imperfect’ cadence makes a song feel unfinished. I realise it must feel like im going completely off topic here but if you want a quick understanding, here is a 3 minutes Youtube video explaining them so you can understand what it sounds like when it is finished and unfinished.

What is the point in this? Well, we can use cadence in our performance and story telling. If we drip feed information to create intrigue and suspense, if we confused the order of things to create this imperfect cadence, then at someone point we can resolve this and create that satisfying end cadence.

For example, here are 4 points to my story:

  • The young man came from a poor family and couldn’t have what other kids had

  • He began stealing food and money just to survive

  • He ran from the law, met a young lady who was killed during a heist because of him

  • He went crazy and because the most prolific murderer, killing millions

So, this is the story in sequence. Not a true story and genuinely one I’ve just written off the top of my head. Probably influenced by a Bonnie and Clyde show I saw last week but I digress.

Al the moment, there is that perfect cadence. The structure works, we feel satisfied that the story has reached a conclusion. But what happened if we move everything out of order. Things wont feel ‘finished’ until much later on. We are creating questions that need resolutions. Here is how it might sound written as a story and again, I’m writing this off the top of my head so it wont be good. But hopefully it’ll illustrate the point.

“How could one man kill millions? How could he turn from a normal town boy to one of the most prolific killers in history? Some say it was his mental health and some say it was because of her.

He would steal whatever he could. Food, money, even cars. He’d been doing it since he was a kid and it was all he knew. He would even pick up road kill, cook it up and take his chances with whatever diseases might have been brewing it its carcass.

By the time he was in his early 20’s, he just ran from the law. He knew one day he would die doing it but he always felt lost. Empty. Alone. Until he met her. Rosie-Anne was the most beautiful, reckless lady he had ever seen. Like Marilyn Monroe with a hint of Harlequin. He fell madly in love with her and vowed to give her everything he never had.

Joe was an orphan boy who’s parents had left him on the church step only 2 weeks after he was born. Wrapped in newspaper and nothing more. He grew up in an orphanage, full of children who’s parents couldn’t handle their angry and violent outbursts. So, through no fault of his own, Joe was always having to watch over his shoulder just hoping that from day to day, he’d survive to see the next. He never had what the kids at his school had. He couldn’t eat what they ate. He couldn’t be who the teachers wanted him to be. All he could do, is survive. He would have to steal food to make it through the day and when finally he was banned from every shop in the area, he had no other choice but to survive on the roadkill and hope it didnt kill him.

Society and it’s expectations had done this to him. There was no way out. But he vowed to start up his own orphanage one day. To help save other children who had been through what he had. But, he needed money. Joe and Rosie-Anne agreed one last heist, that would give them enough money to run away, start their new life together and save the children of the world.

Except that night, something went wrong. She tried to save him. She jumped in front of that bullet. He still has the guilt on that day weighing on his heart.

Joe snapped…”

Again, not very good but I wanted to include one final thing. Changing the narrative. Hopefully, at the beginning of this, you thought he was evil. You might end the story thinking the same thing. But, my intention when writing this was to not give him much for you to connect to. I gave him no name, only those bad things he had done. Then I introduced Rosie-Anne. Hopefully, you had more of an idea of what she was like by me giving you popular reference points to connect to. Only then, did I introduce Joe has a named character. And I change the narrative in the hope I could make you question the misconceptions you had about him from the beginning. Suddenly, you find out out he has had an awful life, he had to fend for himself and the world quite literally turned it’s back on him. Suddenly, you get a sense of empathy for him and maybe, you associate yourself and something that happened to you with him.

Finally, you find out he wants the money to turn his life around and change the world for the better but something goes wrong. His girlfriend pays the ultimate price for his love and saves him from being shot. Now, we feel sympathy for her because that is such an incredible thing she has just done for him. Finally, we get that end line which makes us wonder about Joe being a good guy again. But it is an open ended question aimed at allowing the audience to make up their own minds.

There we have it. An in-depth look at some of the techniques I use to write my stories and I really hope some of these help you. But, now we have our story, how do we tell it effectively?


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