I just spent about a week posting my very own West Virginia ghost tale. You can read the genesis of the story and start with part one on this post if you like. I did this for several reasons:
- For fun.
- To get the story out of my own head.
- Because I think certain elements of the story make a decent contribution to West Virginia folklore/ghost tales beyond the “old” stories.
- Because it is a great chance to blog about the joys and pitfalls of writing a story.
Let’s start with the obvious: jealous husbands, fatal attractions, good cops/bad cops, and stereotyped church people don’t exactly scream originality, they scream CLICHE! And this is something I saw right away in this story and yet couldn’t help myself from sticking with it. I first thought I might draw this out into a much longer piece of writing that would allow greater exploration and nuance that helps clichés “be OK” in a story, but I decided to cut it down to 3,000 words as a personal challenge in brevity and getting right to the point. One example is that all of the law enforcement people in the original conception of this story had names and personalities. A friend advised me that these characters appear too late in the story to warrant detailed identities, and I agree. The consequence is, though, that they become stereotypes in a shorter story.
(I just realized I kept the sheriff’s name in there. That should come out I suppose.)
Speaking of the sheriff, let’s talk about three of this story’s worst offenses:
- Yanking the reader out of the story; and,
- Refusing to “kill your darlings.”
Head-hopping is a writer’s term for shifting point of view (POV). One example is this line I became attached to, “For a moment, the cop lost his bravado and had to shake off the feeling of ice and mud in his chest.” The vast majority of this story is told from the Webb Thomas POV. If he isn’t thinking, saying, or seeing it himself, it really technically shouldn’t be expressed. This goes to the “kill your darlings” requirement (read more here), that if you want to turn out the best product you can’t fall in love with your own one liners and paragraphs unto themselves. If they aren’t working, they have to go. Not get moved around. GO.
Finally, what do we as writers do that works against keeping our reader in the world we want them to know, the world of our making and our characters? A classic tendency is to pull back ourselves and start explaining things from the 10,000-foot level. One example (of many) from my story:
“A female detective crossed the yard to approach the young detective. They were longtime friends . . .”
Ideally, as a writer I would not TELL you they are longtime friends. I would craft their interaction and dialogue, body-language, etc. to SHOW you that they are longtime friends. In a short story, I could cop-out and say I had to tell you because I didn’t have enough words to show you. Sometimes this may be true, but in that case is it relevant? Here is a great case in point about how you can “know” plenty without the writer telling you much at all. From “A Ball of Fire” in The Telltale Lilac Bush:
No one noticed when the old peddler rode toward the residence of his bachelor friend. This was his third month in Glenville, and the neighbors were used to seeing him go one day and return a week later. This evening he was tired, nervous, and wanted a shave, so he asked his friend to shave him. The bachelor agreed, . . . .
There is a fair amount of “telling” here in some respects, but there is also an obvious back story that sets the reader’s nerves on alert and suggests many underlying dynamics. Aside: This is one of my favorite ghost tales in TTTLB. It is in a section of the book called “Murdered Peddlers.”
And this leads me to a final word about telling ghost stories, a cautionary word if you will. I am not sure that before or since The Sixth Sense has anyone really cooked up a completely unexpected ghost story. In folktales like those in the TTTLB, the craft is more storytelling than writing. That tradition had a significant influence on how I chose to relay my story. When I think of sharing ghost stories, I think of sitting around a fire in the dark. I think of ramping up suspense vs. mystery. And frankly, I think of TELLING. We don’t say, “Let’s SHOW ghost stories!” after all.
We tell them.
Thanks for letting me tell you my story!
Image credit: Google search for original TTLB illustrations and Touchstone Pictures for The Sixth Sense. A huge shout out to Ruth Ann Musick and the University Press of Kentucky for TTLB. This was without a doubt the most-checked-out book in the 1970s at Overbrook Elementary School. There was a waiting list. I hope there still is.