One thing that always bugs me about ghost stories is how there doesn’t seem to be any consistency In how a Ghost operates. Theyre built up as scary only to have them be really incompetent. There’s this particular case in IT. Where one of the kids gets grabbed by Pennywise then just wrestles out and runs away. It makes Pennywise seem really incompetent. Other ghost stories do this. Where the ghost can hurt you. . . except when it cant. No logic behind it. How can a writer avoid this?
The short answer is: By making sure there are logical rules underpinning your setting. With horror this is a little harder than it seems, but I’ll get into that in a moment.
Start by writing up the rules for the monsters in your setting. How are they created? What are their powers and limitations? What do they want? How do they go about getting that?
To an extent, this is something you should probably do anyway, if you’re creating an elaborate setting. But, it can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with monsters, or other fantasy creatures.
Exactly how you format this is, obviously, up to you. There’s no strict list of things you need. If you’ve got multiple kinds of monsters, the document doesn’t even need to be uniform between them.
Also, if anyone’s wondering, there is no “One True Set of Rules for Ghosts,” or any other kind of monster. There’s a lot of variety in folklore, which gets even more diverse when you start taking other cultures into account. When you’re creating a monster, either from scratch or from some basic template, like a ghost, you have a lot of latitude to decide how they work in your story.
Once you have those rules, keep them with you when you write. Depending on how large it is, and how you work, you may want to physically tape it to your wall, or you might simply keep them open in another window while you’re typing on your computer. It doesn’t matter where the document is, just make sure you keep that stuff close and accessible.
So, I said this is a little harder with horror. Most horror, as a genre, thrives on fear of the unknown. Once you’ve taken the rules for a horror setting, dragged them out in the open, and poked them with a stick, the illusion collapses, and much of the fear escapes. If you want to scare someone, you need their imagination to do the work for you.
This means, you do not want to put those rules out in the open for your audience. Even in a normal setting, you’ll probably want to hold back a bit, and spool those out over time, as your characters learn, and discover new information. But, with horror, hiding those rules, while still clearly enforcing them is a difficult, but vital, skill to master.
There’s an important detail here. Even if you clearly infer a rule in your horror, so long as you don’t go out and explicitly define it, there’s going to be a degree of unease. Horror thrives on that space, where you should be safe, but you’re not completely sure.
The other set of rules you should keep in mind, are the ones your characters create for the monster. If it’s trying to kill them, they’re going to be trying to figure out how to avoid that. Looking for what the monster’s limits are, and trying to identify its methodology. After all, if they know that it can’t kill them under certain circumstances, then they’ll want to find a way to engineer that situation.
The thing about your characters is that they can be wrong. They can look at the information available, and make an entirely rational but incorrect assumption. This can create situations where the monster is suddenly able to “break the rules,” because the rules your characters worked out aren’t the real limitations you set at the beginning. This should send your characters back to the drawing board, looking for something they got wrong.
Now, obviously, if your character is a veteran monster hunter, then they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the rules are. Though, even with that, there’s a lot of room for a character to prepare for the wrong monster. To be fair, this kind of character doesn’t usually work well in horror. It’s not a hard, “no,” but it does make your life more difficult. This is because they’re likely to have a (mostly) accurate version of your rules internalized. Point of view characters like this can work, but it requires you to be a lot more creative. If you think you’re up to it, feel free to experiment. However, stories with characters like this will often trend more into supernatural action rather than horror.
One more vitally important thing: Don’t pull your punches. Not in horror. If there’s a monster out there in the forest trying to kill them, and it gets the opportunity to pick someone off, kill them. The only time I’d caution against this is if you’re late in the story and running out of characters to snuff. In those cases, I’d suggest stepping back a scene or two, and figuring out how to keep them alive by avoiding that situation entirely.
Even then, I’d still recommend you roll with a death, even if its your designated protagonist. As a genre, horror is an indiscriminate killer. The story will survive your favorites dying. Also, sometimes, the monster wins, and your story ends with the last survivor down. That’s okay. It’s far better than a situation where your monster loses credibility because it fumbles a kill. If you find the story really doesn’t work without them, then that’s what rewrites are for.
I should add, I’ve been approaching this from the perspective of a story where the monster is trying to kill the protagonists, but this isn’t a certainty. Sometimes in horror, the monster doesn’t want to kill your characters. If it wants something else from them, that can be even more horrifying. Another possibility worth mentioning is, sometimes you’ve got monsters that honestly do not care about your characters at all. They’re content to go about their business, oblivious to the damage they cause.