Dark Fiction Mood: Going Beyond the Stormy Night

Dark Fiction Mood: Going Beyond the Stormy Night
February 8, 2017 2 Comments For Authors, Writing, Writing Advice A.M. Rycroft

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

dark path

kirahoffmann / Pixabay

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:

  • Abandon
  • Cryptic
  • Dismal
  • Dread
  • Eerie
  • Evil
  • Ghostly
  • Icy
  • Monstrous
  • Rage
  • Shadow
  • Twisted

Less Common Keywords for Mood Setting

  • Abyssal
  • Abysmal
  • Ancient
  • Bloat
  • Crepuscule
  • Eldritch
  • Gloam
  • Sepulchral

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.


[bctt tweet=”A well-balanced set of mood layers help you hook the #reader. @amrycroft #writingtips #dark #fiction #ourwriteside” username=”OurWriteSide”]

A.M. Rycroft A.M. Rycroft is a dark fantasy and horror writer, and blogger. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and holds a B.A. in English from the University of Pittsburgh. She has been writing since a young age, and though she attended art school for a time, she found her way back to writing again after art school. Her first dark fantasy/horror novel Into the Darkness was written while she attended the University of Pittsburgh. Her writing has been compared to the works of David Eddings and Stephen King. When she is not writing, Rycroft is a writing coach and a periodic cartoonist. She enjoys keeping fit with weight training and walks through her local parks. During the summer, A.M. is frequently seen riding the roller coasters at the Kennywood amusement park.
Leave Comment
  1. 2 Comments

    Stephanie Ayers

    What a fantastic definitive post! Thank you for clearing up what dark fantasy/fiction is!

    1. 2 Comments

      A.M. Rycroft

      Thanks! Glad you found it helpful.


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