How to Get Started with Dark Fantasy

Let’s talk about dark fantasy. What makes it its own subgenre? Why is it under fantasy over horror? How to publish one?

Sarah Yoo |
PublishDrive How To Get Started With Dark Fantasy

In the spirit of Halloween, we are spotlighting dark fantasy. Often lumped with horror, dark fantasy is actually housed under the fantasy genre while incorporating horror elements. There tend to be many descriptions for dark fantasy, like “another label for supernatural horror.” We clear things up so you know how to venture into this enticing subgenre, whether in the writing or publishing process.

Why dark fantasy?

Why dark fantasy (besides it being Halloween)? Because it’s crucial to understand your categories, especially when you launch and market your book. As a significant part of your book’s metadata, choosing accurately helps rank you higher in search results. Ultimately, it helps the right audience find you.

The mega genre fantasy is not only gigantic in how much money it makes (which is a TON) but how many subgenres it holds. Overall, there are around 4,000 categories that most stores use (called BISAC). It’s good to have pointers on how to differentiate your content.

About being a money-maker, fantasy saw 70% more sales from 2019 to 2020. It consistently achieved top numbers across tens of thousands of book stores in 180 countries recorded by PublishDrive. It’s a fruitful space for digital self-publishing where books sold 69% more in 2020. If you’re a YA writer, even better. Young people love fantasy AND horror; dark fantasy is a sweet spot.


(P.S. PublishDrive is a self-publishing platform that distributes digital books to numerous stores worldwide. Start a free 14-day trial and reach 30 million readers. 👇 )



Elements to know, how it differs from horror

Deciphering dark fantasy can get confusing. Let’s break down how it differs from horror (where it usually gets misconstrued). Plus, what makes it diverge from traditional fantasy?

Dark fantasy vs. Horror

Dark fantasy is primarily fantasy based. You may have your typical worldbuilding with elves and goblins or modern setting with magical frills. When sprinkled with horror and darker motifs of life, it becomes its own avenue. There are crossovers, however, such as horror stories with supernatural traits (think Stephen King’s The Shining).

To figure out if your story is dark fantasy or straight-up horror, try asking yourself the following. Does the ending exclusively evoke dread and apprehension? Then it’s likely horror. If there’s a glimmer of hope, then it’s more aligned with fantasy.

This subgenre is about the way it’s portrayed. Otherwise known as the writing style. Are there grotesque descriptions of fantastical creatures? Is there suspense and thrill, like horror?

More dark fantasy elements:

  • There’s an emphasis on the anti-hero, rather than your prince-saves-the-princess fantasy.
  • The main character tries to save the world and/or their own world. It’s an internal and external struggle.
  • Whereas fantasy has the hero fight in the name of good versus evil, dark fantasy blurs the line of morality.
  • Common conflicts happen between wars, plagues, race, religion, or cruel rulers.
  • As the hero struggles with morality or perhaps sanity, the reader may question his/her own sanity as well. (Is this all real or in the character’s mind?!)
  • There may not be a typical happy ending. It’s more dynamic and realistic.
  • Occasionally, the ending is left up for the reader to decide.

Liking the sound of gray morality so far?


Resources to help you write dark fantasy

As a writer in this space, think of your intent. The kind of intent that doesn’t promise a happy ending. The kind that makes people face the grim reality of the world. Speaking of grim, the Grimm Brothers is a perfect example of what dark fantasy is all about. It’s your princess who doesn’t wake up to a charming prince, but an unwanted pregnancy instead.

For creating an awesome story, look at the experts as your main resource. Delve into the works of various dark fantasy writers and learn how it’s done:

  • George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones - This is your modern-day dark fantasy icon. Fundamentally fantasy, with dragons and prophecies, the series deals with warped characters, terrible plagues, and harsh themes of life.
  • R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing - If you want dark, this trilogy is it. It’s got epic fantasy battles with sociopathic prophets. It debates religion and ethics. And it uses interchangeability among the characters: “who’s REALLY the bad guy here?”
  • Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories - The renowned writer dabbled in horror, mystery, and fantasy. You can read his entire collection of short stories and understand what dark writing should achieve. His stories set in fantasy realms include The Haunted Palace and The Conqueror Worm.
  • Glen Cook’s The Black Company - This gritty series is highly influential in today’s dark fantasy sphere, considered the father of other modern works of dark fantasy.
  • P.S. Malcolm’s Starfall: A Starlight Chronicles Novella - From one of PublishDrive’s own indie authors, this one is a YA dark fantasy drama with a hint of romance.
  • (Film example) Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands - Thought to add this in. If you haven’t seen it, it’s your 80s reenactment of Frankenstein.

More resources for inspiration and guidance:

  • Read It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life by F. Paul Wilson, Clive Barker, and 40 more authors well-versed in dark writing.
  • Get general writing advice from Brandan Sanderson’s free video courses. Here’s one about writing fantasy.
  • Join online forums like Reddit’s fantasy writer group for support. This particular group is for receiving writing critiques (warning: they will sting your emotions, but make you a better writer).
  • Try out dark fantasy writing prompts.
  • Look into history to draw parallels from real life. George RR Martin used the 1400’s Wars of the Roses for Game of Thrones.

Lastly, sift for personal inspiration. Where does your mind wander? Pull horror out of that.


Tips to publish and promote successfully

Completing your manuscript is just the first step. Then there’s the entire book packaging (e.g. designing your cover design), distribution, and promotion efforts to get things moving. Good news: it’s easily accessible to self-publish your book today. Digital publishing is delivering success to indies across genres and markets.

Over 200,000 titles were published by PublishDrive and made 69% more sales in 2020. We know what works. Our best practices are integral to two things: 1) going digital and 2) going global. As traditional print books fail in a time that prioritizes online modes, the demand for digital books is at its highest.

Our top recommendations:

Tip #1: Consider publishing a series. It helps add more metadata and relevance to your name for online retailers like Amazon. On platforms like KDP, it helps to get more reads than one standalone. This tactic is used heavily in Romance (and those guys know how to sell).

Note: a series doesn’t mean your books have to be sequels. You can write five unrelated dark fantasy books, but packaged together with a series name like “Dark Fantasy to Read at Midnight”.

Tip #2: When packaging your book for commercial readiness, pay extra care to metadata. Metadata is all information about your book. Set up accurate categories, a compelling cover design, the strongest hooks in your blurb, and pricing that makes the most sense. Doing so will rank your book higher, match you with the right audience, and help you stand out. (See our list of self-publishing resources for more help.)

Tip #3: Publish ebook, audiobook, and print-on-demand. This is how you maximize your selling potential by reaching different readers. Once you have your first manuscript, the hardest part is over. All you need to do is convert and format your original file to other formats. On PublishDrive, it takes a simple upload to publish and manage all three formats. Our most successful authors are using this multi-format strategy.

Tip #4: Distribute across digital channels. Along with digital formats, digital book stores are soaring. Besides major retailers like Amazon, Google Play Books, and Apple Books, online libraries like Bibliotheca and subscription service platforms like Dreame more than doubled in 2020 –

PublishDrive Digital Stores Growth in 2020
CLICK HERE TO GRAB FREE WHITE PAPER ON GLOBAL BOOK TRENDS IN 2020

Tip #4: Sell outside of your home country. When you self-publish a book digitally, reaching global markets is easier to do. In 2020, 77% of digital book sales came from international markets. There is a growing demand for English-language content in countries like Chile, Norway, Thailand – in every continent.

Tip #5: Leverage online promotion tactics. Submit your book to get featured on digital stores’ front pages and newsletters. Send out your manuscript to influencers and friends to collect reviews and up your author credibility. Run regular price promotions. We analyzed 800 book promotions in online retail stores and found these results:

PublishDrive Online Retail Price Promotions in 2020

Oh yes, these work. Use online tools like PublishDrive to run your own discounted campaigns. We have a handful of more promotion tools to get you featured with thousands of our partners like Apple and Kobo, collect free reviews, and more. Watch our video about them here.

Tip #6: Find a co-author. Writing collaborations in the fantasy community is pretty popular. Authors are finding it beneficial to share the workload, combine audience reach, and market in rapid releases. From short stories to anthologies, see here for how indies are working together to publish more books.


Find your inner monster, share it with the world

Fantasy is a winning segment for self-publishers looking to run their gigs digitally. Narrowing your market to a more niche category like dark fantasy can turn out favorable. If you decide dark humor, bleak environments, and brutal consequences in a non-human world are the things for you, go for dark fantasy. To conclude, a lovely quote:

PublishDrive Dark Fantasy

Want to distribute your story in thousands of digital stores?

Start a free 14-day trial: