The Best 4 Tips for Writing Dark Fiction – By JJ Reichenbach
J.J. Reichenbach is a professional editor by day and a horror writer by night. She has two BA degrees from the University of Calgary, one in sociology and one in psychology, and works as Vice-President of a local Albertan charity organization in her spare time.
J.J. lives in Okotoks, just outside of Calgary, with two affectionate hellhounds and bookcases full of nightmares. She is an avid traveler and likes to spend half of the year in Thailand as often as possible, where she writes and edits on the beach. She specializes in gothic and supernatural horror, thrillers, suspense, science fiction, and detective fiction.
She has just completed a follow-up to her debut novel “NIX” (April 2014), titled “Notorious Nix” (July 2016), which will be part of the “Nix Series.”
For those not yet familiar with me, I’m what many would consider a walking contradiction. I’m young and female, generally sweet and nice. I love kids, puppies, and cute old people. Pictures of baby animals leave me in a happy little floor-puddle. But when I put my fingers on my keyboard, horrific things tend to happen. I don’t know why. I’ve tried not writing horror, but everything just ends up there. Romantic picnic plot? Slasher time! Fluffy bunny story? Bunny goes rabid and rips someone’s throat out.
I’ve self-published two books of a horror series so far, and all of my writing reflects this innate compulsion toward horror. I’m talking about making characters guzzle drain cleaner, shooting them point blank in the skull, dropping trucks on top of them, strangling them nearly to death during intimate moments, and the occasional hanging to round it all out. I like to mix it up, and of course, I love gory detail, so I don’t tend to hold back in that regard. Which leads me to my first tip about writing dark fiction:
#1 – Stay true to your story and your characters no matter what.
The first and most important rule for me is to always stay true to the story and the characters. If your character is a pretty awful person, they need to do pretty awful things. They need to stay in character even if it makes you uncomfortable, even if it makes the story seem “too dark” or disturbing, and even if you don’t like what the character wants to do. For example, my series NIX is about demonic possession from the demon’s point of view (so, horror comedy, if you have a twisted sense of humor like I do).
While writing the first book, I realized something important. I had to get Nix from one town to another, but she had no transportation. My first instinct, as the law-abiding citizen that I am, was to put her on a bus. Easy-peasy. But then I realized that my first instinct is nowhere near Nix’s first instinct—she would never subject herself to public transport and had no qualms whatsoever about breaking what she would consider “arbitrary” human laws. So I had her steal a car, and we were on our way.
It’s up to you as the author to ensure your character is always consistently and fully represented. No pulled punches. Even if you would never do something the character does, if it’s in character, they still need to do it.
#2 Don’t hold yourself back (but don’t take that as a challenge or a carte blanche, either).
There is such a thing as too much gore. For a long time, I didn’t believe this. Then I watched the Season Seven opener of Walking Dead, and it became starkly apparent to me that yes, there is indeed a line, and that line should not be crossed. Now, the problem here is that how much is too much is a very subjective metric. Think of it like a scale. On one end are your happy, carefree, mostly normal horror fans.
On the other end are your hardcore horror fans. If you lean too far toward the hardcore end of the spectrum, you’ll please those fans a lot, but you’ll lose many on the other end and vice versa. That’s why I would recommend a moderate to light quantity of gore to capture the largest sector of the horror audience—leaving some things to the reader’s imagination is often in good taste, but certainly shouldn’t limit you.
But, that said, you need to know who your audience is and work to keep them happy—because there’s no way you’re going to keep everybody happy. So don’t pull punches when they are necessary for the story or the character, but don’t get self-indulgent, either. Which leads us to the third tip.
#3 – Be self-aware
You need to be aware, constantly, of the difference between what is necessary to do justice to the story and characters, and what is a self-indulgent gorefest that’s going to make readers uncomfortable because you’ve just whipped your Freudian id out like a trench-coat creeper on the train.
You should enjoy writing the story, absolutely. But not to the point where it gets weirdly obvious that you’re working out some deeply rooted psychological issues through your characters.
When that happens, as a reader, it feels like you’ve been invited into someone’s lovely home and you’re taking a leisurely tour of the place, enjoying yourself, and you reach the end of the last hallway, and there’s a door. The door isn’t locked—in fact, it’s slightly ajar—so you push it open…only to see a half-naked man wearing a diaper and a gas mask while ripping the heads off dolls with his teeth. You both stop and stare at each other for a moment. It’s awkward. You regret opening the door into this clearly private moment. You walk away slowly, pull the door shut behind you, and then sprint out of the house.
The rest of your day is one of dazed discontent and embarrassment. And so your reader has put down the book and will never pick it up again. Sure, there’s going to be the occasional few readers who are into the diaper-gasmask scene, and that’s cool, but there probably aren’t going to be too many. So try to keep your id from leaking through into the story too heavily. Remember: the story has to come first.
#4 – Never sacrifice emotional impact for action.
Action is great and necessary. Gore is like the yummy caramel sauce on top of your sundae—just me? But the real horror isn’t to be found in the external story that they characters are going through—it’s internal. It’s the building suspense, the tension, the gut-deep fear—fear of the unknown, the known, or even fear of oneself. The emotional impact of the horror is what carries a story beyond the gorefest into something so disturbing that it’ll keep your readers awake at night for years to come. And if that’s not the goal of good horror, I don’t know what is!
Ultimately, nothing is more important than staying true to your story, no matter how difficult that may prove as an author—or how much restraint that requires of you. Craft your horror wisely and thoughtfully, with your ideal audience in mind, and your story will always be better for it.
To keep up with future releases from J.J. Reichenbach, follow the author on Twitter @jjreichenbach
GoodReads Author Profile: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8152689.J_J_Reichenbach
Find the Books Here: