What makes a good ghost story?

Inspired by a writing challenge that, 200 years ago, resulted in the creation of Frankenstein and the world’s first vampire, the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Storytelling Centre are holding a ghost story competition to mark the anniversary of the first appearance of these landmark works of Gothic horror. But what makes a great ghost story? Storyteller Fiona Herbert shares her top tips:

What makes a good ghost story?

The stories that have terrified me all contain fear of the unknown. The best stories don’t show you the ghost, the murderer or the monster – they only hint at it. We get glimpses through sound, smell or shadow, making us have to imagine what is really there.

The best stories know what not to tell, what to leave out so the reader or listener has to fill in the gaps themselves – and nothing is more frightening than what our own imagination comes up with when given that push. So the best stories don’t give long descriptions of how terrifying something looks.

Don’t explain what the horror is: don’t tell us it’s a ghost or a vampire or what not, because if you do, we will know what to expect. It’s doubt, uncertainty that is genuinely unsettling.

Make the setting  believable – horror is more horrifying when it happens in a familiar setting, one the reader can easily imagine themselves in, and not in some fantasy world. Don’t start with a horrific scene; start with a safe one and slowly and, hint by hint, make the reader realise that something is not right, and keep building from there.

Write in third or first person. In either case, flesh out your character with an inner life of their own. Avoid having a two dimensional character – if a character has more depth, they are easier to relate to, and therefore the horror that happens to them carries more weight.

And the old favourite – show don’t tell. Don’t tell the reader “I/she was terrified”; show it by how their body reacts or by their actions.

Feeling inspired? Send your tales to us before the deadline of 5 September. Six winning entries will be brought to life by professional storytellers at the National Library of Scotland on Halloween – 31 October 2016 – as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. Click the link below for details on how to enter.

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