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