The Art of Writing Gothic

There is a real art to writing a Gothic story.  A Gothic story is far more complex than horror or fantasy, which I have commented on in earlier blogs.  It takes more creative detail to really bring this genre alive to your reader.  You are not just trying to scare your reader; you are not just trying to immerse your reader in a unique world; you are trying to do both and then some.

Think of the great Gothic writers, especially those that THE DARK SIRE holds up as the ones to be emulated: Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley.  Consider what THEY did.  Their stories consist of moody landscapes, supernatural experiences, and an atmosphere filled with dread.  Poe was a master at creating a gloomy and decaying setting (think Fall of the House of Usher).  Mary Shelley created the ultimate in supernatural beings.  Her Frankenstein monster went beyond nature as it was known then, or now, for that matter.  Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca was set in, for its time, a modern setting, yet her Manderley is as Gothic a setting as you could find this side of Dracula’s castle.

Therefore, when you are planning your Gothic story, you have to consider a gloomy setting; supernatural (strange) beings; curses/prophecies, which include omens, portents and visions; intense emotions; someone in distress; and heroes (the one who solves the mystery or survives the doom).  When you think about it, Gothic, as a genre, merges many elements of Horror.  And because of this, you have to be careful not to fall into horror cliché (e.g., starting a Gothic story with “It was a dark and stormy night…”, or trying to shock readers into being scared). Instead, think about the true meaning of Gothic literature, which has always been about the psychological and mindset of the characters. A good example of this would be Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, Fall of the House of Usher, and The Raven – even Hop Frog. Poe used emotion, psychology, and mood to create his creepy and eerie stories and poems.

Your first step should be to create an eerie atmosphere.  Castle; mansion; old, seemingly haunted house; abandoned theme park… some place that is eerie but not necessarily “spooky”.  There is a fine line between eerie (gloomy, doom) and spooky (scary, shocking).  Someplace too spooky and you have a Horror setting, which you don’t want. That’s why an old graveyard or abandoned building is very Gothic; they are eerie and a little intimidating, giving you chills, but they are making your run in fear. Fear is horror, not Gothic.  Thus, the setting is important because your characters will be forced to react to it. And they can react to it in numerous ways.  They can react to its history.  They can react to its current condition.  They can react to a foreseeable condition.  The mood (e.g., eeriness, creepiness, chilling) of the environment will then dictate how your characters react. 

Your characters are as important as your setting.  Gothic fiction frequently features specific types of characters reacting to the situations in which they have been placed.  You have your hero or anti-hero; hopefully someone that your readers will like.  Then you have your villain.  Think of your villain as the Pied Piper of your story.  He/she/or it is the creature that leads your hero/heroine down their particular dark path.  You can also have a person or thing that needs “saving” (in this case, meaning helped or aided).  Your hero may need to save themselves or their loved one; maybe, they have to save a ghost, a cat, the condemned – their own sanity. And, the saving doesn’t always have to be appreciated.  Maybe the one in distress did not want to be saved.  The action between the hero and the person being saved is the catalyst that allows your reader to feel the pity, sadness, fear and joy of your story.

As a writer of Gothic fiction, you must maintain an atmosphere of gloom, suspense and even terror throughout your story.  This is why writing a good Gothic story is an art.  You have to be a literary juggler within the conventions that define the Gothic.  There is a certain sentimentality in the narration.  Characters are overcome by anger, surprise, and panic, having to cope with raw nerves.   

With that said, be sure not to use the standard clichés of the Gothic.  You will have to think of new ways to describe the howling wind; the blowing rain; doors grating on rusty hinges; sighs, moans, and other eerie sounds.  Gothic is defined by a dark atmosphere that stimulates a reader’s anxiety over the danger in which you have placed your characters, so think of some unique ways – your own ways – to bring that dread to life.


Want to have some fun?  Try this:  Create a Gothic setting (1 paragraph).
Choose a location. It can be a house, castle, whatever. Then, think about what that location looks like, feels like, taking the feel of the location into high consideration. Create the atmosphere into which you will introduce your characters.  Now, brainstorm that feeling by using some adjectives – a list of words is just fine (black, chilly, cold, broken, wet, sweltering). Remember: You are trying to create something mysterious and claustrophobic.  Fill the setting with gloom, mystery and doom.
Choose a time period. What time is it during the story, or what year is it?  Is this a modern location – or not?  Your setting is not just a “backdrop” in which your characters will act.  The setting is a character in and of itself; it influences the characters, actions and thoughts of the story.  Use time as an element to help create the mood of your setting. Now, brainstorm what time of day or year it would be in your story – and add notes as to why and how it would help make the story work. For instance, 12 noon would feel different than, say, 12 midnight; likewise, April 22, 1892 would feel different than October 31, 2001. Adding how time can be used in the story will help you shape the world and mood that your characters reside.
Write a paragraph about your setting. Now that you have brainstormed, collect your thoughts and write one cohesive paragraph about your setting. Where are you? What do your characters see, feel? When are we? What does the time/year look like in this setting. Your paragraph should be concise and flowing, with wonderful imagery so that the reader can imagine it on their own, like viewing a picture. Remember: No cliches. Be original, unique, and yourself.


When you are satisfied, share your setting with us in the comments below.  We would love to read about the setting of your next Gothic piece. And, if you turn your setting into a full short story, poem, piece of art, screenplay, or novella, don’t forget to submit it to us by visiting darksiremag.com/submissions.html.

Do you want more blogs on Gothic writing?
Let us know: darksiremag@gmail.com.

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