Thursday, May 19, 2011

Write Brain-Going Gothic: Writing Dark Fantasy W/ Mario Acevedo

I originally had something else planned for today, but since I was able to attend this workshop on Tuesday, I figured I would share it instead.

Before I start, I wanted to quickly mention that Tina and I will get a linky signup up for the continuing A to Z Challenge I mentioned in my last post. In brief, it will be to encourage people to get through the entire list of signups of the original A to Z Challenge to meet those people you didn't get around to during the body of the actual challenge. More on that soon.

The workshop I attended was Going Gothic: Writing Dark Fantasy. Mario Acevedo was the instructor. He's a funny guy, and informative, so if you ever have a chance to hear him (for example, at a conference), I recommend it.

Mario is the author of a series of books about Felix Gomez, a vampire PI. The titles include such gems as The Nymphos of Rocky Flats and Werewolf Smackdown. They are dark fantasy, but also involve humor.

He started the workshop with a quote by W. Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

He then addressed the question: "Why do we read Dark Fantasy?"

From his handout:
"Because we want to release our repressed animal nature and antisocial emotions through horror and embrace the sense of wonder evoked by fantasy."

He pointed out that "fiction is emotional manipulation," as much as people may not want to admit it. Authors make us cry, they horrify us, they make us laugh, but the hardest thing they can do is to scare us and engage the reptilian brain. I imagine we'll hear this many times, but we, as writers, are professional liars.

On the scare factor, he paraphrased something he heard Tom Monteleone say: "It's easy to make someone laugh or cry. Make them sad. But to make readers hold their breaths, check to see if the doors are locked, shiver in revulsion, feel the hairs rise on the backs of their necks...that's visceral. The reptilian brain fully engaged. You can't fake that."

Some may be wondering how we define Dark Fantasy. It's speculative fiction. The following is directly quoted from his handout:

"Dark Fantasy: combines the fantastic and horror through forces beyond human comprehension. Examples are H.P. Lovecraft The Call of Cthulhu, Clive Barker Weaveworld and Charlie Huston Already Dead.

Since most speculative fiction is considered cross-genre, Horror and Dark Fantasy often combine elements of these stories:

Epic Fantasy: sprawling fantasy saga set in an invented world. Examples are George R.R. Martin Game of Thrones, Diana Gabaldon Outlander and J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of he Rings.

Urban Fantasy: fantasy and supernatural creatures in a contemporary setting. Examples are Jeanne Stein The Becoming, Jim Butcher Dresden Files, Kat Richardson Greywalker and Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol.

Paranormal Romance: fantasy tale with an emphasis on romance driving the plot. Usually has a female protagonist. Examples are Richelle Mead Vampire Academy, Linnea Sinclair Finders Keepers and Nora Roberts Spellbound.

Horror: fiction that creates the necessary atmosphere to evoke emotional dread through repugnance and fear. Examples are Edgar Allen Poe The Pit and the Pendulum, Bram Stoker Dracula, Stephen King Carrie and Thomas Harris Silence of the Lambs."

Now we get to how to write Dark Fantasy...

"We create a setting and mood that builds empathy with the main character on stage by showing apprehension, fear and a sense of jeopardy." We can put ourselves in their place, feel these emotions. Thus, we empathize with them.

You should push your readers "off-balance by placing them in an unusual setting through time travel, alternative worlds, or in a dangerous place--where we juxtapose the commonplace with the weird. This setting can be a world of the bizarre, of magic, psychic powers, gloominess, aberrant mentality--where the usual rules don't apply." He used Silence of the Lambs as an example. The killer's house has a pit in a sort of sub-level of the house. This is creepy and takes you somewhere you wouldn't usually be. It certainly sets a mood and scene ("It puts the lotion on its skin"...shudder).

Introduce "vicious characters and supernatural creatures who operate outside the rules." This makes sense when you consider how frequently, say, Urban Fantasy characters have a less-than normal job. They're bounty hunters or assassins. Anita Blake is a necromancer and a vampire hunter. Rachel Morgan is a bounty hunter and witch. Notice they also have a certain magical ability (necromancer, witch). This is part of the characterization, as well. Mario Acevedo's favorite is aliens, but there can be shape-shifters, vampires, werewolves, angels, etc.

"Next we create tension and use suspense--the expectation that something exciting (preferably bad) is about to happen. We can use:
-Fear of the unknown, unexpected, unbelievable, unconscious, unseen, unstoppable (from Elizabeth Barrette) through:
-Creepiness through repugnance and disgust (examples are spiders, snakes, cockroaches)
-The control of time through pacing using:
*Urgency, race against the clock
*Slowing the action (measure time by a heartbeat, for instance)

Tips for writing Dark Fantasy:

-Write from your guts (Visceral. What makes you laugh? What creeps you out?)
-Be original. Make up your own rules (for your world).
-Reveal the story through:
-Show, don't tell. (use the point-of-view of the killer, for instance)
*Use details to ground the reader (Stephen King does this very well)
*Use emotion.
*Avoid info dumps. Don't bog down the narrative with irrelevant details.
-Don't reveal the surprise too soon (or so late that the reader has already figured it out and is frustrated with the story and the protagonist)."

He had us do some exercises. Feel free to share in comments if you choose to do the following exercise.

He instructed us to use two sentences to create tension. His two examples were:
1. I love you. Too bad you have to die.
2. I am an honest person. But I need this money.

To see great mood setting, he recommends Chosen by Jeanne Stein, Game of Thrones by George RR Martin and Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin.

One more quote: "Being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life." -Lawrence Kasdan.

You can find Mario Acevedo at and (with author Jeanne Stein).

How about you, what is your favorite type of supernatural creature? What creeps you out and engages your reptilian brain by making you check the locks and windows (or at least having the urge)?

Happy Writing!


  1. What an interesting class. I would have have considered Dickens as Urban Fantasy, but I love it.

  2. Thanks for the breakdown on the workshop. Mario is one of my favorite CO writers. He's so funny, charming, and just all around great. Plus how could you not love someone who titled his first book, Nymphos at Rocky Flats. Great list of what Dark Fantasy is too.

    As for what scares me, anything spiderish, add a pinch of clown and I'm hiding under the bed. You?

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  4. Donna, I think it's fun to look back at novels that existed before the various Fantasy classifications and figure out what they'd be now. Dickens qualified because there was a paranormal element in an other wise normal/modern setting.

    J.A., snakes and mannequins are my thing. Not the faceless mannequins that model clothes, but the ones at theme parks that look real. Plus, probably certain scarecrows. Anything that looks like it might suddenly lift its head and come eat my face off scares me. I love Mario's book titles, as well! If Werewolf Smackdown wasn't amusing in its own right, I might be disappointed it didn't sound x-rated!

    Manda, glad it is helpful!

  5. Great post! I wanted to let you know about the 1000 word contest

  6. Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I'm very easy to creep out. All it takes is the simple thought, "should I lock the door in case a psycho comes to my house w/ a knife?" and there. I'm creeped out. getting up to make sure the door is locked now.

  8. Sylvia, thank you for the information. I'll post about it on Thursday!

    Margo, thank you for visiting!

    Tamara, too funny! I hope the door was locked.