What Is Dark Fiction?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin
Elements of dark fiction appear in Homer's "The Odyssey".
Elements of dark fiction appear in Homer's "The Odyssey".

Dark fiction is another term for horror, a genre of fiction concerned with fear, death, and the sinister side of human nature. This is not limited to written literature, but encompasses a wide body of popular media, including movies and television series. Although such fiction is not for all tastes, writers of horror maintain that their work discusses important aspects of the human experience. The term dark fiction is sometimes used to distinguish certain stories from the mainstream horror genre. These stories may be less fantasy-oriented than most horror fiction and contain subtler emotional effects.

Beowulf, one of the earliest epic poems, contains fantastical beasts and monsters.
Beowulf, one of the earliest epic poems, contains fantastical beasts and monsters.

Monsters and other elements of horror have appeared in storytelling since prehistory and figure in such early narratives as Beowulf and The Odyssey. In the 1800s, novelists such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Henry James incorporated monsters, vampires, and ghosts into their stories, creating the earliest horror novels. During the 20th century, the genre enjoyed widespread popularity, although its subjects are controversial to some. In his nonfiction treatise Danse Macabre, author Stephen King maintains that writing and reading horror fiction is a healthy way for people to deal with the inevitability of death.

Many graphic novels can be considered dark fiction.
Many graphic novels can be considered dark fiction.

Dark fiction describes fiction that contains horrific elements, but may fall outside the standard definition of horror literature. Similar terms include dark fantasy, which is used for fantasy stories concerned with death and horror. Such stories may be told from the monster’s point of view, for example. The word dark can be added to any genre term to denote bleak moods and story lines. The phrase dark suspense, for example, can describe suspense stories that do not end well for the protagonist.

Dark fiction explores the darker side of human nature.
Dark fiction explores the darker side of human nature.

Dark fiction appears frequently in other media, such as television, movies, and comic books. Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman was a highly praised example in the 1990s. Drawing on elements of horror, fantasy, and superhero stories, the series nonetheless provided a worldview that fit well within the definition of dark fiction. The TV series Twin Peaks and The X Files also contained strong elements of this form.

Spiritual elements may be present in a dark fiction story.
Spiritual elements may be present in a dark fiction story.

Horror fiction often contains elements of fantasy such as demons or monsters. Dark fiction can explore the darker side of human nature without employing such fantasy. A well-known example of dark fiction without obvious fantasy elements is the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club, made into a film by director David Fincher in 1999. Both versions of the story present bleak views of human nature, society, and the future. Although Fight Club features graphic violence, the story is generally not considered part of the horror genre.

What Are Examples of Dark Fiction Novels?

While most noir fiction is dark, some works also contain unexpected elements of black or satirical humor.
While most noir fiction is dark, some works also contain unexpected elements of black or satirical humor.

Dark fiction as a genre has become very popular, with many novels being turned into blockbuster films and streaming series. Well-known examples range from classics that can be found in the classroom to suspense-filled books best read with a night light on.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This 2012 novel follows the story of Nick and Amy, a seemingly perfect, wealthy couple that has it all. After Amy goes missing, however, things begin to unravel. The media focuses on Nick as a suspect in her disappearance, and details begin to reveal the cracks that permeated their marriage. Flipping between both characters' perspectives, readers are left on the edge of their seats to figure out what really happened to Amy and if Nick was responsible.

Weather can sometimes be used to create the atmosphere in dark fiction.
Weather can sometimes be used to create the atmosphere in dark fiction.

After being turned into a massively successful movie starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl helped open the reading market for dark fiction to thrive. Marital trouble, murder, and manipulation of perspective are elements that nudge the book into the dark category, while its focus on the real world and probable events keep it from being true horror.

You by Caroline Kepnes

Another book that has made it to the screen, this time in the form of a Netflix series, You revolves around Joe Goldberg, an attractive young worker at a bookstore in New York City. After he meets Guinevere Beck in the shop where he works, he becomes obsessed with her. Joe begins to stalk Beck, as she is known to her friends, and manipulate her into believing they have met by chance. After worming his way into her social life, and her bed, Joe will stop at nothing to keep Beck all to himself.

You launched an entire series that has readers rooting for its objectively psychopathic main character. It is undoubtedly dark, dealing with serial killings, kidnapping, and abuse, but it is also lighthearted and playful at times. Outside of the qualities that make the book thrilling, it could easily be a fiction novel about life and relationships.

How To Write Dark Fiction

If you are interested in dipping your toe into the world of dark fiction, you may want to start by getting your ideas out of your head and down on the page. Having a journal where you only write about your book can help you start to build the world your characters live in. You will also want to think about what will set your book apart from other similar genres, like crime or horror.

Characters

As with any story, writing characters well is crucial to the success of the story. Your characters must seem like real people in order for readers to relate to them. Having likes, dislikes, traits, strengths, and flaws are all important parts of being a person, so they should be attributed to your character as well. Main characters should have a distinctive voice and personality, so readers believe their actions or feel that much more betrayed when the character does something bad. Asking yourself open-ended questions about how the person might respond in a certain situation can help characterize each central player in the novel.

Plot

There are five basic elements of plot in most stories: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The plot is the meat of what is happening in your story, so it is not something to gloss over. The exposition is the point at which you set up the story, introduce your characters, and establish the setting. Rising action begins when the story starts to ramp up, typically due to some sort of conflict. The climax is the point where the story hits its peak and the reader should be on the edge of their seat. The falling action begins to decelerate the story and reveal motivations to the reader, while the resolution, or ending, closes out the book. It is important to develop each aspect so no part of the story feels rushed.

Elements 

Using any of the following elements as a key part of your story could allow it to fall under the dark fiction category:

  • Murder
  • Drugs
  • Trafficking
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Crime
  • Abuse
  • Bullying
  • Illness

Including dark elements is what gives the genre its name, but it is also important to ground the story somewhat in reality, otherwise, it would simply be considered fantasy or horror. Try to use real-world, relatable issues, but don't be afraid to let things get twisted. Plot twists are also a big part of the genre, so if your goal is to surprise your reader and keep them guessing, plan out your twists ahead of time and include purposeful hints to throw them off the scent.

Discussion Comments

anon263218

I wrote two novels that do deal with the darker side of human nature. The story is driven by the use of abilities such as telekinesis, etc. rather than demons and such. There is a wolf who communicates with certain characters, but he is a positive influence. The protagonist is not murdered or violently abused.

I have trouble finding the category in which to place them. I like to call it paranormal suspense, but Amazon, among others, doesn't really address the paranormal unless talking about ghosts, vampires, etc. A couple who have read it have described it as dark fiction. What would you suggest for categorizing it?

pleonasm

@umbra21 - There's nothing wrong with that though. I mean, even if a genre term only describes one book, what's the harm of having it?

I think in reviews people like using terms like Wizardpunk so that they can put across the feel of the book, rather than because they are trying to invent something new.

And calling something dark fiction is always going to be open to interpretation because the word "dark" can be used in so many ways.

Just like you could call something humorous and apply that term to many different kinds of books.

But, if you call something humorous fiction, you expect that to be mostly a comedy book and I think if you call something dark fiction you expect it to be mostly dark writing, rather than simply to have a few dark themes in it.

I would call Fight Club dark fiction as it is almost entirely a dark book. The Bell Jar on the other hand, is sad and has some dark places in it, but the whole thing isn't dark and in fact it ends on a lighter note (unfortunately, unlike the author herself.)

umbra21

@Iluviaporos - I think there is a difference between fiction that has dark themes and fiction that can be classified as "dark fiction".

The problem is that there is no one to really make the decision as to what should be called what.

That's why you get so many terms like "wizardpunk fiction" popping up all over the place. I mean, something like "steampunk" sort of makes sense, but it can be taken too far in my opinion.

And you also get terms like "dark fiction" which have the opposite problem as seem very open to interpretation and could be applied to almost anything.

I think that horror writers should be able to keep "dark fiction" as part of their genre however, as it gives them a way of toning down the gore without losing the fact that it is still considered a horror.

lluviaporos

I think that dark fiction describes a way of writing that can fit into several genres and not just horror.

It will usually be put into horror, but I think Fight Club is an excellent example of dark fiction that few people would describe as a book in the horror genre. The Sandman series is another good example. I suppose it does contain some elements of horror in it but I've always thought of it as much more squarely placed in the fantasy/supernatural genres than being in the horror genre.

I would also argue that there are other books, like perhaps The Bell Jar, which could be described as "dark fiction" which aren't fantastical at all and couldn't be described as horror either. But I would still call it dark fiction because it deals with very dark themes, like suicide and depression.

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      By: Juulijs
      Elements of dark fiction appear in Homer's "The Odyssey".
    • Beowulf, one of the earliest epic poems, contains fantastical beasts and monsters.
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