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On Writing Dark Fiction

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Anonymous asked: “I was looking through writing tips and saw something about writing dark stories. It says how “dark” does not mean twisted, brutal, or gory. Then I wondered, what is it exactly?”

Hmmm… That was probably not one of my writing tips, but whoever said it is kind of right. Dark when applied to fiction kind of has its own connotations and it’s not really synonymous with horror at all. 

We see this most obviously with the genre Dark Fantasy. If I’m describing dark fantasy as a genre, I think the major author that comes to mind is Neil Gaiman, think Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and The Graveyard Book for starters, among others – but Neil Gaiman also writes more straightforward fantasy as well as other genres. Dark fantasy is not horror, but it’s got a similar atmosphere – I think of gloom. It might have characteristics of horror, but never crosses really into that genre completely. When fiction is described as dark, it might be a bit morbid or might frighten someone – but it’s not necessarily horror at all. Some of the Harry Potter movies have been described as dark and I think that’s fitting. Especially the last few, it’s a very dark and ominous time for the characters. There is danger and it’s apparent – you are meant to fear for the characters. That kind of inspiring fear is horror-esque, but it might not fit the horror genre beyond that, hence the term dark. 

Dark doesn’t need to necessarily mean it’s serious or gloomy all the time. There is such a think as dark comedy (black comedy) – though some instances of dark comedy aren’t always the same kind of dark you might see in other types of fiction. Dark comedy often makes jokes about subjects people tend not to laugh about – like death, violent crime, or disease, in general, taboo topics. Some popular examples on television include South Park, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Shameless. None of which are anything like horror. There are books that fall into this category too but most popular examples are definitely in television and film.

I think when something is considered dark, it’s partially topical, topics like death, violent crime, disease – real horrors that exist in everyday life – are what fall into this category. It’s about the one freak masked-serial killer running amok and more about the inner demons we see all the time. I mean, this might only be partially right, or part of it.  

Writing a book about a serial killer can be dark, but it might also just be horror. Writing a serious novel about mental illness might also be dark and it’s not horror at all. Dark is a term for categorizing media (film, TV, books, etc.). It’s more about the mood. Horror is usually just assumed to be dark and while often it is, sometimes I feel like it’s a category to itself. I love horror and I think it takes really loving horror to see a difference. I probably wouldn’t call Friday the Thirteenth dark, but I would call The Babadook that. It’s about the tone I think. 

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