Ghosts are my Least Favourite Plot Device

January 21, 2010 at 5:39 am (Character, fantasy) (, , , , , , , )

Ghost stories are fantastic.  Who doesn’t love a good ghost story?  The key word being good.  The traditional ghost story that sends tingles down your spine and makes you laugh that strange, high pitched relieved giggle at the end.  I have always enjoyed ghost stories.

However, I don’t enjoy ghosts that are used as a plot device because the author just wrote themselves into a corner and now they need the ghost to explain something to the protagonist or the entire story will collapse in on itself.  The final book of the Harry Potter series was one of the more recent books to seriously annoy me by doing this.

Yes there will be spoilers for people who have not yet read the Harry Potter books.

Book six sees Dumbledore (mentor and guide) finally removed from the story.  Great.  We can finally see Harry take some initiative and take control.  He has been the protagonist for six books and he still hasn’t actually made any decision other than, I’m going to walk into danger and see what happens.  Book seven.  The final year of school (assuming any of the main characters were still in school), the final show down with evil, this is Harry’s chance.

Oh wait a second.  He doesn’t know about this and that.  He doesn’t understand this.  Nobody told him that yet.  In point of fact, nobody told the reader either so they don’t have a clue what is going on.  Great.  Bring on the ghost of Dumbledore past and in an extremely long winded flash back he can explain an entire back story that didn’t exist until this point but will conveniently tell Harry exactly what he needs to do next.

Ghosts can be great characters.  They can also fill in the a few of the blanks.  However if you entire plot relies on the summoning of a ghost to do a massive info dump at the last minute I’m pretty sure some of your readers will be upset.

So what is your opinion?  Is the ghost a useful plot device or a crux used to explain things away?


  1. avidgoldfield said,

    Ghost can be a great tool in a story, but I agree with you that one need to be careful not to overuse it or misuse it. One of my personal favorites amongst “ghost” stories is Anne Rice’s “Lasher”.
    I don’t agree on your point about the Harry Potter books though, it might be laziness but it doesn’t really matters, Harry Potter is not an intellectual book nor is it anything but a fantasy and in a fantasy most anything is allowed. Besides, Harry Potter is a feel-good-book. A book you read in your couch just to flee reality for a while. Therefore the ghost is most validated and also suitable for the couch-potato like me reading it. 😉

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Anything may be allowed in fantasy but not bad story telling. Ghosts are freqently used effectively in fantasy and can reveal key bits of information but if your entire plot hinges on an dead character explaining the entire backstory of certain other characters and items then there is a real issue with the story.

  2. Crystal Clear Proofing said,

    I agree with your comments on this subject whole-heartedly. If done correctly, ghosts can be a useful plot device, or…and your Potter example is an excellent one, they can be a nuisance, and irritating.

  3. Carol J. Garvin said,

    I’ve only read one of the Harry Potter books so have to take your word for it on that one, but I agree it would be annoying. The use of any convenient “coincidence” to resolve a plot is an equally bad idea. The hero just happens to arrive one second before the knife finds its mark. Neighbours in their New York apartment just happen to discover they are twins who were separated by adoption in childhood. It’s an indication that the author didn’t have the story figured out and needs some kind of extraordinary situation to resolve the plot. Bad writing, IMHO.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      That said, most of these could be used effectively by a writer if they really worked on it, but too often it feels like they got stuck and threw something in at the last minute.

  4. Carolyn Yalin said,

    I’ve read a few books where ghosts have been used to explain something. It drives me crazy, esp. when they are used to have dialogue with the main character and reveal important information.

    Thanks for stopping by yesterday.

  5. barbaraannwright said,

    I liked the ghost in Hamlet. Good info dump there. Maybe ghosts should only be around if they’re going to cry out for vengeance.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Ghosts definitely serve their purpose. I actually really enjoy ghosts. I just find that sometimes they are relied on too heavily in solving a puzzle and it feels a bit like a cheat sometimes.

  6. Jemi Fraser said,

    I agree with Barbara on both counts 🙂

  7. Tooty Nolan said,

    One of my short stories could never have happened if it wasn’t for the sudden ‘inspiration’ of including a ghost to get me out of a literary corner. This one was different to the run-of-the-mill ghost though. Her name was Granny Arseblower, and she was famous for breaking wind. You didn’t really want to know that – did you?

  8. Corra McFeydon said,

    I’ve never read Harry Potter, but I agree the outline you indicate sounds like a cheesy way out! I can’t stand that sort of cheap end to a novel.

    (Though I love a ghost story!)

    ~ Corra

    from the desk of a writer

  9. j-a brock said,

    hmm. i’ve not thought about this before, but i can see your point. i like ghosts when they are the centre of the story (ie one of the main characters right from the start and the story is about them). i don’t mind them when it’s not clear whether they are ‘real’ or are a part of a character’s imagination either, but i guess it could be argued they’re more an integral part of the plot that is revealing something about the character rather than a device to reveal crucial facts as such.

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