Ghost from the Past: Elements of the Modern Novel

I fell asleep last Saturday night with the TV on. When I woke up in the morning, the movie Ghost was just starting. Ghost is my brother’s favorite movie, but I had never seen it. Twenty years of mild curiosity (and my reluctance to crawl out of bed before I absolutely had to) overcame me, and I flopped back onto the pillows to watch.

It didn’t take long to see why the film was such a hit, and not much more time to realize that the movie includes many elements of a good novel. (Note: I am assuming that everyone else has already seen Ghost. If you haven’t, head over to Netflix before you read any further —I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.)

1. Hook the Reader:
After some eerie but beautiful music and a brief pan of what appears to be a dusty attic space, the film literally breaks into the action with a sledgehammer through a wall. We are immediately introduced to the main characters (Sam and Molly) and their relationship. Once a reader is hooked, he/she will keep reading.

2. Work in backstory as you go along:
Imperceptibly, we see by his inclusion in the demolition that the couple is friends with Carl, and that he is a coworker of Sam. Swiftly, the viewer realizes that they are bankers, and just as swiftly, that secret codes are best kept secret. Backstory is more easily digested when it is revealed as needed.

3. Only include information that advances the plot or exposes character (to paraphrase Mr. Vonnegut):
We never do find out why the lovebirds seem to have no close friends except for the bad guy, but that doesn’t really matter. If it’s not pertinent to the story, the reader can live without it.

4. Weave in subplots: Oda Mae’s history of being a con artist messes up the original plan of convincing Molly that she needs to protect herself. It is also intriguing that the subway ghost seems to have been a victimized homeless person, and the $4 mil check ends up benefitting a homeless shelter. Subplots lend meaning to a story.

5. Don’t forget the twists: Carl’s character is an impressive source of the unexpected. First, he turns out to be the enemy instead of a friend, THEN he comes on to Molly after Sam’s death, and instead of being scared away by Sam’s ghost, he blackmails him with a threat on Molly’s life. Twists keep the reader engaged.

6. Give the reader the inside scoop:
The audience knows that Carl is the bad guy, but somehow, Sam just doesn’t get it. The suspense is in whether or not he will figure it out before it is too late, and the viewer is worried for him and Molly. A reader will root for a character who is at risk but doesn’t know it.

7. Include some foreshadowing:
There is plenty of foreshadowing in Ghost. “Can you keep a secret?” asks Sam of Carl, right before he goes on to tell him  about the confusion with the accounts. (We know how that turns out!) Later, a ghost mentions in passing [pun intended] that entering someone else’s body is debilitating, but we forget all about that until Sam is suddenly stricken after a visit á la Oda Mae. We also get a dash of premonition when the hospital ghost says that the dead guy was lucky to go to heaven, because sometimes it goes the other way. Foreshadowing adds dimension to a problem/conflict. 

8. Focus on character development: When Sam is first dead, he is completely powerless. As the film progresses, he grows in ghostly knowledge and capabilities, seeking out other ghosts to teach him. He also discovers Oda Mae and achieves his goal of communicating with Molly. By the end of the story, he has used his hard earned skills to save the her. Oda Mae changes from being a con artist to fulfilling her destiny as a ghost whisperer and making a positive difference in people’s lives. Carl experiences character development as well, going from getting involved with the wrong guys to being responsible for a murder. In greedy desperation, he turns into a murderous villain, himself. Character arcs are integral to good storytelling. 

9. Fake out the reader for more suspense: We think that the action is on its way to being wrapped up, with the murderer gone and Sam in full possession of his ghostly capabilities, but he is unexpectedly weakened at the moment of crisis, and we don’t know what is going to happen. Lead the reader through a maze of possibilities to heighten the tension.

1o. Incorporate themes: The most obvious themes in Ghost are “good vs. evil,” and “love conquers all.” Without them, Ghost would be just another urban paranormal. Archetypes grab the reader on a gut level.

11. Denouement:
Immediately after Carl bites the dust and heads South, the pace slows, and we enjoy a leisurely stroll to the end of the film. The swirling light from heaven enables Molly to see and hear her beloved, and there is a tender moment between them as they say goodbye for the last time. The film wraps up with Sam departing for the great beyond. After the crisis has passed, let the reader catch their breath.

12. Tie up loose ends:
Both bad guys are dead, Sam and Molly have exchanged words of love, Oda Mae has turned over a new leaf. Conclusion achieved. Don’t leave unanswered questions (unless you plan a sequel).

A lot of things have changed in twenty years, including Demi Moore’s nose, but the elements of good storytelling will never die.


Filed under Writing

4 responses to “Ghost from the Past: Elements of the Modern Novel

  1. Some great tips here and you are right in that Ghost is a story that works very well. Thanks for sharing this.


  2. Layinda,

    Your line about Demi’s nose cracked me up. You have such a beautiful writing stlye and I always enjoy reading your posts.

    As to the movie: you made good points and illustrated them well. It is well worth our time to analyze other books, movies and storytelling methods to help us become better writers. Everything can and should be a learning experience.

    hugs~ cat


  3. I haven’t seen Ghost in ages – some really good scenes in that movie! Really good list there Layinda 🙂


  4. I’ve never seen the movie, so I jumped right to your italicized summaries. Together, they make as good a list for the teaching of effective plotting as any I’ve come across in twenty-five years of teaching composition and literature! With your permission, I may be borrowing your list in the future.


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