Search This Blog

The Gothic Skeleton

I grew up reading Gothic novels by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Daphne du Maurier, Henry James, Elizabeth Gaskill, Diane Setterfield, Anne Radcliff, Shirley Jackson, and many others. If you know of more contemporary authors writing Gothic novels, please recommend them in the comments. I am always looking for more.

I recently watched an excellent Gothic film: Voice from the Stone. A nurse is summoned to an Italian mansion to help a grieving child.

In the Gothic story, the overall story problem is a deep, dark secret threatening to break free.

The reader asks: Will they realize the danger in time and will they escape?

The protagonist unravels a mystery or reveals a hideous secret and often realizes the man of her dreams is not who she thought he was. The Gothic structure is set apart from the Mystery and Thriller by setting and specific structure, so I give it its own category. 

Atmosphere is critical in setting the creepy tone of the story. It is usually features a castle, manor house, or plantation where the remoteness of the location adds to the claustrophobia. The era can be Victorian or Elizabethan England, turn of the century American south, or any time and place when secrets could easily remain buried if not for the unwitting protagonist. 

It doesn’t work well if the protagonist can easily walk outside and be among civilization. Large, populated cities don’t fit the bill as well. Remote islands and the middle of deserts do. These stories tended to examine the role of women and the restrictions placed on their behavior and freedoms.

In Gothic stories, the protagonist is the woman or man who uncovers the secret or unravels the mystery of the creepy mansion. Sometimes the love interest frees the woman from her psychological or physical restraints.

In a Gothic story, t
he antagonist is usually a powerful, alpha-male character. Sometimes there are antagonistic forces rather than an actual “bad guy.” It can be the situation, the insane wife, the servants, or the dark brooding castle owner. However, the dark brooding castle owner often ends up being the love interest, poor misunderstood thing that he/she is. It is whoever or whatever element presents the greatest threat to the hapless protagonist’s success.

External Conflict scenes slowly reveal the secret and the danger. The unwitting protagonist realizes what she has gotten herself into and works to get out.  The governess walks down the dark hallway with a candle to investigate a noise. The hero guides her away from a window where his crazy wife is peering out. She has a near miss with a runaway carriage. These are the house parties, the afternoon teas, the double-entendre conversations. A doctor is summoned. A footman is strangled.

Antagonist Conflict scenes follow the antagonist or reveal more subtle antagonistic forces. The antagonist is not necessarily the lord of the manor; he often turns out to be the love interest. It could be the crazy wife locked upstairs. It could be the Countess who is determined to marry the man herself. These are the scenes where the opposing characters face off, whoever they might be. It could be the overprotective nurse or housekeeper. The antagonist could be the governess bent on destroying the peace of the household because the lord of the manor fired her mother.

These scenes can follow the protagonist or the antagonist depending on the POV. But the Gothic story typically follows the protagonist, keeping the reader equally in the dark. The antagonist’s POV is rarely explored in these stories. We never learn what the crazy woman in the attic thinks, unless she tells the protagonist. Instead, these are scenes where the governess is in the room with the bad guy or girl, matching wits, or defending against an attack from the crazy woman in the attic. 

These scenes are often subtle where the protagonist feels something is wrong but can’t quite confirm it. The antagonism is subtle but present. We get a sense of the threat rather than a blatant view.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes show the protagonist interacting with the staff and noble neighbors. These scenes can involve either protagonist or antagonist or even follow the nurse into the room with the crazy wife, but the story normally follows the protagonist to keep the reader in step with the protagonist. People hint that something is very, very wrong, but does she want to see it? Others attempt to convince her things are perfectly normal. Some give her important clues. Some point her in the wrong direction. Others lead her deeper into the heart of the mystery. Some weave webs and traps that keep her imprisoned and threaten her sanity or her life.

Internal Conflict scenes involve the main character wrestling with her desire to stay or run, confront or hide. She struggles with her past wound or the dilemma that drove her to the creepy manor house in the first place. She confronts her fears, her desire for freedom or her desire for connection. She remembers the loved one who died and whom she is avenging.

Next week, we explore Historical subgenres.

If you are plotting a Gothic novel, check out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Gothic Build A World Workbook available in print and e-book.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

No comments:

Post a Comment