Dark Fiction Mood: Going Beyond the Stormy Night
The first thing to understand about dark fiction is what it is and what it isn’t. Dark fiction encompasses much more than just horror. It can be fantasy, science fiction, dystopian, and everything beyond and in between. What it isn’t is in-your-face, trying-to-shock-you fiction. Even when it skews to horror, dark fiction tends to fall on the subtler side of the road. The way you hook your reader is through mood.
It was a dark and stormy night
I don’t recommend this cliched opening, but sometimes, the initial setting you choose automatically sets the mood of your piece. Maybe it’s sneaking into an abandoned mill, taking a late night shortcut through the woods, setting foot on a dark moon, or waking up inside the trunk of a car. All of these settings immediately set a dark tone for your story.
Other times, a secondary setting completes the mood. A walk through the woods during the daytime takes a much darker turn when the hiker takes the wrong path and gets lost as the sun is setting.
But, the best stories don’t rely on setting alone.
Finding your tension point
“I quite agree – in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was – that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children -?” — Turn of the Screw, Henry James
If the setting of your dark fiction piece is totally innocuous, like a romantic picnic or Thanksgiving on the family farm, you need to create tension through your character and their actions. This allows you to build tension more slowly, each page giving another turn of the screw.
A character’s mood or actions can help the reader feel that tension. For example, someone who knows their spouse is cheating on them, and they wait in a darkened room. Are they just angry, or do they have murder on their mind? Maybe your character is taking a walk across campus and repeatedly looks over their shoulder. They could think someone is following them, or they are up to no good.
And, there’s one more thing you can do to set a dark mood.
Creating mood through keywords
We tend to think of keywords as being related to SEO and marketing, but readers unconsciously pick up on them in stories too. Story-level keywords can set a light or dark tone.
Common Keywords for Mood Setting:
Less Common Keywords for Mood Setting
A thesaurus can help you with others I haven’t suggested. Just don’t go crazy.
Putting your mood together
A well-balanced dark fiction story will take a little bit from each column: setting (even if not the initial one), characters/actions, and keywords. Take for example a story I recently sent for consideration to Crystal Lake.
Setting: a walk in the park, it’s after dark
Characters/actions: looking over her shoulder repeatedly, concerned with wild animals, telling her boyfriend they shouldn’t leave the path
Keywords in the opening paragraphs: dark trail, dead leaves, smothering (smells), threatening
The effects are subtle, and as the reader moves further into the story, the tension mounts more and more. When the climax of the story hits, the reader has already been twisted into a nice tight knot by the dark mood.
A well-balanced set of mood layers help you hook the reader and then have them begging for more when the story ends.
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