Katherine has been teaching English since 2003 and currently holds an MA in Liberal Arts and an MA in English Literature.
Weird Al Yankovich’s “UHF” had the wheel of fish. The Animaniacs had the wheel of morality. And now you can have the wheel of Gothic fiction short story ideas!
Seriously, though, while studying for my MA in Liberal Arts, I was lucky enough to take a great class in Gothic fiction and learn about its roots and its basic elements. You may be surprised to find that while it’s easy to come up with ideas, it’s hard to find enough time to write them all down.
A History of Gothic Fiction
The Castle of Otranto is what started it all. Published in 1764, it was a novel by Horace Walpole who was, at the time, a Whig Member of Parliament for Cornwall. The novel had many of the elements of Shakespeare’s writings—humorous servants, ghosts, usurpation to power, imprisonment, and tyranny. But Walpole took those things and changed them, starting a new genre, the Gothic genre.
While Walpole started it, he had many followers, including Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and H.P. Lovecraft, among others. It isn’t just fiction writers who enjoyed the Gothic genre. At the height of its popularity, poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Christina Rossetti wrote famous Gothic poems.
Other types of gothic stories can include gothic horror, gothic poetry, and gothic romance. Each have the same basic elements, but there are changes that help them fit into their genre.
Elements of Gothic Fiction
There are at least six basic elements to keep in mind when writing Gothic short stories. Any of them can be a great starting point.
1. The Setting
Generally, Gothic fiction is set in a house or castle that’s more than what it seems. It is its own character altogether. Its history is tragic. In some cases, like “Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, the house is a character, one that seems to breathe, trick its inhabitants, and even kill them when it needs to. Need to find a creepy setting? Check out some of the truly excellent images on Urban Exploration Resources or any other urban exploration sites. You’ll find abandoned hospitals, psych wards, even schools that can inspire you to write the creepiest of “living” houses.
The house will often choose to “live alone,” not near any other houses. It’s in a damp and gloomy location. It has secrets, such as hidden passages, hidden rooms, and locked doors. It relates to people. There may have been a plague that destroyed the local town, such as in Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
2. A Maiden (or Maidens) in Distress
It doesn’t just have to be a maiden. It can be children, like in Stephen King’s “’Salem’s Lot” or Jane Goldman’s “Woman in Black.” In other cases, it can even be a man, like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Victor is undoubted a “maiden in distress,” found as he is at the beginning of the book, “…limbs nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition.”
The maiden is generally in danger from one or more sources: town or local people, the antagonist and/or their family, the unknown, the environment, and the house. The danger must be high stakes: the maiden may be trapped forever, forced into a position, or even killed. Whatever you choose, make sure that the danger is something that will alter the maiden’s life forever or even end her life.
It’s not hard to create your own maiden (or child or man) and put them into danger. Remember to write what you know—anyone who has annoyed you lately can be great fodder for putting in danger.
3. Fear of the Unknown
This may be a ghost or some other type of mystical creature or even a darkened room. What’s there? And what isn’t there is just as valid a question. What was that noise that woke you up in the middle of the night? What can’t you see lurking around the corner in the alleyway? Stretch your imagination and pretend it wasn’t the cat jumping on you to wake you up or just a guy revving his motorcycle in the alley. What else could it be? Don’t let reality limit you.
4. The Question of Insanity and/or an Unreliable Narrator
In “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it’s clear by the end that the narrator is not sane. But when did she cease to be sane? Or was she never sane to begin with? That questionable sanity, the fact that we can’t trust what she’s saying, helps to build the unknown in Gothic fiction. It’s also good to have a character who is sane but fears for his or her sanity.
In Walpole’s “Castle of Ontranto” and Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” the main characters appear to be sane, but they fear they are insane because of what they’ve experienced. Work with that insanity. Love the insanity. Learn about the insanity. If you’ve never taken a class in abnormal psychology, now’s your chance. Or just go pick up a textbook from the local used book store. Something in there will inspire you.
5. References to Myths and Legends
In some cases, Gothic fiction uses real and made up myths and legends. The important thing is to treat them if they’re real. H.P. Lovecraft uses biblical lore in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” but then turns to the “elder gods” in “The Dunwich Horror.” Check out your library or book store (or even just a simple Google search!) for mythology and fairy and folk tales. But don’t go with just the traditional Greek and Roman myths. Get more creative—check out Japanese or Irish folklore. What can you do with some of those myths?
6. Family History
While it’s not a necessary part of Gothic fiction, it can add to it. In Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Wall,” a man returns to his ancestral home only to find out exactly who his ancestors are. You may think you have a weird family, but what if it was even weirder? Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the sentence, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Not Gothic fiction by a long shot, but a good bit of advice. Weird families need to be weird in their own way. Cannibals? Vampires? Ghosts? What spawned them, and what is still sticking around?
Where to Sell Your Gothic Fiction
So you know all about writing Gothic fiction, but you still can’t get inspired. Sometimes checking out a market is more than just knowing where to sell what you’ve written; sometimes it’s about getting ideas for writing.
Two excellent places to find markets (and get ideas from their listings) are Ralan.com and Duotrope.com. You may find an anthology or contest that inspires you, or, even better, you may find some new magazine or book to read. To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader, so make sure to get reading!
Questions & Answers
Question: What should happen in a gothic short story?
Answer: What do you want to happen? You have a lot of options. I suggest brainstorming on one of the major plot points - what kind of house is it? It has to have a "personality." Think of "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson. She does an amazing job of making a house alive. Do you want it to be character-driven? Is there a woman being haunted by a ghost? Is her past haunting her? Do you want to write it from the other side - is it a male who is attempting to gaslight the woman, and the house is working for her or against her? There are many, many options. As I said, I'd pick one of the major plot points and then just start writing. Don't worry about character names; that's what a rewrite is for. Don't worry about doing research on any actual houses; that's a job for the re-write too! Right now, work on what you love about gothic stories. You'll find the story coming together if you focus on what really interests you.
Question: Can I write a gothic story from my head?
Answer: Definitely! Your imagination is the best place to start. When writing a gothic story, you need to keep in mind the general guidelines (family secrets, houses as characters, etc.), but take it wherever you want it to go.
Question: How would you describe an abandoned building in gothic literature?
Answer: In Gothic fiction, the buildings are given human characteristics, such as traits, intentions, and emotions. This is called anthropomorphism. The characteristics you want to imbue the building with are negative or frightening. For example, you may describe a building as hulking or malicious.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 23, 2020:
An olde mansion in Magdalen Street Glastonbury has an authentic pillory in the front garden. In the week leading up to Halloween a life size human skeleton was placed in the pillory for public spectacle.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 20, 2020:
Such phenomena occurring in Glastonbury surroundings it shows the power of Mother Nature at work.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 15, 2020:
Greetings my little Darklings.
Since my re - locating to the towne of Glastonbury in England's west country, I've made contact with many in the Gothique genre.
More to follow.
AilishTwist12years on January 14, 2020:
This actually helped with my home work a lot, I did so well in my test because of this!!
zoe12yrold on October 17, 2019:
love this great with my homework
Nice kid on January 17, 2019:
Very good website reccommend it for all and the creators have done a really good job
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on December 18, 2018:
I just thought about the 'Hitchcockian' flair for bizarre irony in his career as movie maker. Though the material was not his, he was able to convey his productions in a formulae for expect the unexpected. No wonder Alfred Hitchcock was the Master of suspense.
LegendofBlack from Hearklion,Crete on November 05, 2018:
Thank you so much I myself am a goth, and I like to write gothic stories ,but now I know how to structure the story properly, thanks to you.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on October 01, 2018:
By the 1960's some of the families began contracting short term work, employment for 'au pair' girls from the continent to work as 'nannies' caring for young children. One such, Elizabetta in her spare time was attracted to the Camden locks market and with her gift of clairvoyance related some of her experiences to friends she made. Elizabetta claimed she could sense there had been weird 'goings on' for centuries, involving battles between neighbouring tribes, witchcraft, ghosts (particularly in the underground stables) and the emergence of secret societies between the world wars.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on September 29, 2018:
Continuing from previous comments. On our journey through this part of 'Olde London towne' when Dick Whittington passed by it was countryside. Those that could afford had their mansions built here for the views. They retained hordes of domestic servants for domestic purposes
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on September 24, 2018:
Living in 'Olde London Towne' one does not have to look far to experience 'Goth' type activities. There is a thriving 'Bohemian' under current both north and south of the river. Many famous land marks in this city feature Gothic architecture from the Kings Cross/ St Pancras rail terminal to the University College hospital in Gower Street. By far the spooky est area has got to be Highgate with it's extensive woodland, an historic cemetary and swarming bat colony. Prominet buildings from Archway onward are in the Gothic style dating back at least a century. The suffragette movement had a 'safe house' there. During the cold war a hot bed of espionage was rumoured and later a famous witch practiced her craft in the vicinity.
Ss on September 20, 2018:
Waste of time
Something on March 13, 2018:
This did not give me a idea about how to write a Gothic horror story xx
Limpet on November 03, 2017:
Error; For macarbre, read macabre.
Limpet on November 01, 2017:
With the state that our world has become nowadays there is little means of escapism for us. I'm kinda attracted to the macarbre for it's sense of tension however i always hope for happy endings.
Thomas Costelow on October 10, 2017:
Didn't give me a single idea on any stories to re-write! Seriously, who MADE this site?
el negro on May 02, 2017:
Joanne on October 02, 2016:
The Woman in Black was written by Susan Hill.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on September 30, 2016:
'oops' run out of tyme
Idk on May 24, 2016:
This is a pretty good help for my school essay on gothic horror. My first time ever writing one.
Lorraine from Montreal on May 04, 2016:
I found this great because I love gothic fiction and you pointed me to a writer I can possibly read. I started a kind of gothic story but got stuck on some details. I'm going to try some of your suggestions to inspire me to continue my story. Thx.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on December 04, 2015:
We are now in an era where women have been coming to the fore in society without presenting a 'Damsel in distress' image. We have just had the release of 'Suffragette' depicting a formidable and organised women's movement campaining for the right to vote circa earlier 20th century. In company with the Suffragettes were a secret bodygaurd describes as Amazons trained in jiu-jitsu to defend themselves. In the late 19th century east end of London there emerged an 'all female' criminal syndicate specialising on shop lifting even travelling to posh areas to ply their capers on. So in the Gothic genre i would never cast a woman as vulnerable, she may however ask a man to assist her.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on November 06, 2015:
The 'Gothique' is a term i use (if there is such a word) to describe 'Gothic ness'. There is so much that we can use this word as an adjective to describe for example - Architecture, fashions, furniture,literature, music, sub culture and the just plain weird. Firstly in writing Gothic prose, is the writer using American English or British English (or even Australia for that matter, they have Goths too.) This is important as the reader may not be aware of terminology.Secondly, be creative and introduce strong and colourful character and develop 'plotline' ending in an ironic conclusion.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on August 19, 2015:
Principality of Victoriana has now developed characters. Firstly a nobility has been created where by those with a higher education assumed the natural leadership role. They had a retinue of servants mainly butlers and liveried footman. Some activities included playing croquette and the wild hunt. They also participated in all kinds of hi jinx. The maiden / maidens here are not helpless or ever getting in distress. They are accomplished horse women who are headstrong and capable of making their own decisions. Then of course there is the cad. The charlatan and the quack as well. There in no room for gruesome torture devices in this genre as people have become more civilised which doesn't mean to say that there isn't ever a random 'tar and feathering' once in a while!
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on June 23, 2015:
I have been thinking of an ideal plotline in the Gothic genre. Just letting my imagination run wild i have created the 'Principality of Victoriana' set in modern times but stuck in a time warp of the mid 1800's. Victoriana is a closed community somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere where life has simply been a pre industrial society on an agrarian economy. The populace are the descendants of free settlers aboard the immigrant boat Gothica which ran aground on reefs at the mouth of the fog bound Mystic river. An abandoned military fortification stood castle like on the highest hill and became the first refuge of the colonists until this society was fully established. However things were not quite what they seemed with all and sundry having a dark secret and a series of catastrophes were about to occur.
Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on June 22, 2015:
Hi Katherine, I love gothic fiction but haven't really tried to write in that style yet. So, if I take a castle, a maiden and a creepy legend, that ought to do it, eh? Great Hub and somewhat inspirational.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on April 25, 2014:
i am too old to be Goth however i do revel in finding mysterious places around not only where i live (Shoreditch exactly one mile north of London) but also the haunted wooded dells of the Chiltern hills the Cotswolds and the Mendips. There is a myriad of secret passages, underground chambers and ghostly mansions that i have discovered and a grim past from Shakespeare to Dickens but 'hey!' i'm getting off the topic - more to follow! Darklings.
mjkearn on September 06, 2012:
Great hub and very well presented. While goth isn't my thing I did learn quite a lot. Good job and I look forward to more,
Mklow1 on September 05, 2012:
Very informative. I look forward to reading more of your Hubs.