Updated: Dec 1, 2021
Professional UK book editor & gothic fan explains the 6 crucial elements needed for a great gothic novel!
As fright night is here, I thought I'd make a post about how to write one of my favourite genres - gothic!
We have many horror stories, paranormal tales and slashers that are released every year on both page and screen, but what about a good old gothic tale that taps into the darkness of life, gloomy settings we'd never venture to, and the madness of ordinary people?
If you've always wanted to write a gothic novel to spook your readers, here are 6 elements you need!
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1. A Gloomy Setting that Evokes Unease
It may sound typical, but you don't often get a gothic story without a gloomy setting that evokes unease in both the character and reader. This could be an abandoned house like in The Woman in Black or a creepy castle like in Dracula. You could even set your novel in eerie places like caves, churches, monasteries and graveyards.
Usually, the setting in a gothic novel is out in the middle of nowhere, designed to make the character completely alone and helpless, so consider its surroundings as well.
Could the building be in the middle of a haunted forest? On a deserted island away from civilisation? On a high mountain out of sight?
The setting is often feared by the people in a nearby town or village, so it's also important to think about its history or rumours. For example, is your castle inhabited by an evil spirit? Is your abandoned mansion cursed by a witch?
2. Characters Travelling at Night
My second point is a subtle one, but I've noticed in many gothic novels and movies that the protagonist often travels to a specific destination at night, which allows the author or director to show other aspects of the creepy area.
For example, if you're writing a gothic novel about a character who sets out to investigate a cursed estate, you could show the protagonist riding through the area in a carriage after dark. During the ride, they could catch a glimpse of a strange figure staring at the carriage as they pass, only to vanish upon closer inspection. It could be revealed later in the story that the figure was the witch who haunts the grounds of the estate.
You could also use a late night journey as an opportunity to display how the eerie area makes your character feel, and how the people in the town react at night.
3. The Supernatural & Paranormal
Most gothic novels focus on the supernatural or paranormal, so it's up to you to decide which type of antagonist you want in your story, and why.
If you find it difficult to choose, consider something you find interesting and go from there.
It's also important to think about your why - WHY have you chosen to write about an evil spirit and not a vampire? How does your choice affect the story? It's no good writing about ghosts just for the sake of adding ghosts to the story, and adding a pointless vampire that has nothing to do with the main plot will only make your readers close the book.
For example, The Haunting of Bly Manor wouldn't have made sense if the woman who haunted the house was a werewolf or a witch, and Frankenstein wouldn't have made sense if Victor tried to bring someone back from the dead, only to wake their spirit.
With that in mind, you need to think about how your supernatural/paranormal elements makes your story make sense.
4. Powerful Romances
Not all, but some gothic novels include romances that are often more powerful than those in standard romance novels. Not that the relationships in romance stories aren't powerful, but the ones in gothic novels are usually much more emotional because a lot of them end in sorrow and tragedy.
If you're up for writing a tragic relationship breakdown, consider how your gothic romance could end.
For example, could a curse kill one of the lovers? Could the evil spirit possess one of them gradually over time? Could one of them become a vampire or undead? Could one leave the other to protect themselves and their family?
5. Madness, Insanity, and Emotional Distress
You may not initially associate madness and insanity with gothic stories, but mental illness is quite common in the gothic genre. Consider Victor in Frankenstein, Edward Newgate in Stonehearst Asylum, and the famous Jekyll & Hyde.
By no means should mental illness be glorified in literature, but it can be a fascinating theme to focus on in the pages of a gothic story.
How does the protagonist's mental illness affect their life and the events of the plot? What do they do as a result of their mental illness? How far will their mental illness push them? Are they a tragic hero because of their insanity & emotional distress or have they become a villain who wishes to spread fear and pain? Perhaps they're more of an anti-hero who's neither good or bad?
Most of the time, you don't often get a gothic story without some form of death, whether that's the death of a main character, the villain being a spirit or undead, or the minor characters spreading rumours and folktales of death, murders and hauntings.
However, the difference between death in a gothic novel and death in most other genres is that