10 Writing Techniques from Bram Stoker’s Dracula

9781599631431_5inch_300dpiOctober conjures up images of crackling fires, shivering leaves, the grinning teeth of a jack-o-lantern … and, if you’re a fan of classic horror, that iconic, fanged master of the night, Count Dracula. We feel there’s no better time than October—National Dracula Month—to share some writing tips and techniques that authors can learn from Dracula and apply to their own horror stories.

As you read this excerpt from chapter one of Dracula, try reading Bram Stoker’s text first, and then go back and read it again, this time pausing to digest the annotations from Mort Castle, in red.

Thirsty for more? Writer’s Digest Annotated Classics: Dracula, by Bram Stoker with annotations by Mort Castle, is available now! More than just an annotated version of the novel, this edition presents sharply focused, valuable techniques for writers who want to learn more about the techniques Bram Stoker used—and why he applied them.


(Kept in shorthand) [1]

[1] That Harker’s diary is kept in “shorthand” immediately reveals something of the man’s personality: With shorthand, he can record his impressions rapidly. Even a modern, ultra-fast-paced, totally plot-driven thriller has to have some characterization by finding small ways to provide “a bit of character” such as this.

3 May. Bistritz.Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; [2] should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule. [3]  

[2] Stoker, had he been writing in our era, might well have launched Dracula far later into the story at a much more dramatic moment, giving us, perhaps, Harker’s escape from Castle Dracula.

Television and films frequently use a technique called in medias res, starting “in the middle of things” (from the Latin) in order to hook the audience. Then, with the hook set, the writer fills in, usually via flashback, what readers need to know to get back to “the middle of things.” (More about flashbacks later.) Modern fiction writers have latched onto this technique. Beginning writers often begin way before the true beginning of the action. It is a typical flaw. What Stoker gives us here is almost in medias res; while there is no great dramatic action, Harker is placed in a physical location at a specific time. We know he is a traveling man, and we sense that he is a man on a mission. After all, he is concerned about the trains running on time. He has, we sense, places to go, people to see, things to do.

The narrative arc of the story has just about commenced.

[3] Observe, writer, an absolutely masterful transition. Transitions get characters (and readers) from “there” to “here,” from “then” to “now.” It is easy to mess up transitions by thinking it necessary to detail every moment/movement between “there” and “here” and “then” and “now.” That is simply not so.

It will keep the story moving to simply write the equivalent of: He took the bus across town. This is Stoker transitioning a la “took the bus across town,” and it offers something more than a movement between locales: It shows Harker’s journey from the familiar Western European locales to the exotic East.

We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem. get recipe for Mina.) [4] I asked the waiter, and he said it was called “paprika hendl,” and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians. I found my smattering of German very useful here, indeed, I don’t know how I should be able to get on without it.

[4] It is with Harker’s little note to self that he begins to really come alive. This little note of domesticity reveals much of just who Husbandly Harker is. We start to like him because we are getting to know him.

A well-developed fictional character is someone who is every bit as alive and just as unique an individual as anyone we know—really well—out here in RealityLand. When a character is well done, we get to know the character so well that we like or dislike, love or hate him.

Having had some time at my disposal when in London, I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania; [5] it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a nobleman of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey Maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place. I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory when I talk over my travels with Mina.

[5] Time to bring it out, this Ancient Commandment for All Writers: Write what you know.

You might be thinking: But Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania.

And if a writer doesn’t know it, he or she must conduct research. We must therefore assume Stoker, like Harker, did serious research—research on a deeper level than might be provided even by that respected canon of our time, Wikipedia. It’s credibility that is at stake. (At stake … sorry. Can’t help it!) You never want your reader to think that you, the author, do not know what you are writing about.

In the population of Transylvania there are four distinct nationalities: Saxons in the South, and mixed with them the Wallachs, who are the descendants of the Dacians; Magyars in the West, and Szekelys in the East and North. I am going among the latter, who claim to be descended from Attila and the Huns. This may be so, for when the Magyars conquered the country in the eleventh century they found the Huns settled in it. I read that every known superstition [6] in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting. (Mem., I must ask the Count all about them.)

[6] With the derisive word superstition, Harker reveals himself again as a sober and reasonable man. He’s preparing us for his becoming royally unhinged not so long from now. This is foreshadowing, albeit done in a subtle manner.

Effective foreshadowing can give readers the feeling of “uh-oh” long before a character has any such feeling. It can therefore contribute to the mood of a scene and build suspense.

I did not sleep well, though my bed was comfortable enough, for I had all sorts of queer dreams. [7] There was a dog howling all night under my window, which may have had something to do with it; or it may have been the paprika, for I had to drink up all the water in my carafe, and was still thirsty. Towards morning I slept and was wakened by the continuous knocking at my door, so I guess I must have been sleeping soundly then. I had for breakfast more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was “mamaliga”, and egg-plant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call “impletata”. (Mem., get recipe for this also.) [8] I had to hurry breakfast, for the train started a little before eight, or rather it ought to have done so, for after rushing to the station at 7:30 I had to sit in the carriage for more than an hour before we began to move. It seems to me that the further east you go the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they to be in China?

[7] Queer dreams = Foreshadowing again. These are unusual dreams, somewhat disconcerting dreams, strange dreams … they are not horrible dreams that bring on sweats and shrieks. Were Harker to be in such an elevated emotional state at this early point in the narrative, it would be nearly impossible to build to the sustained claustrophobically smothering terror that falls upon him when he becomes the Count’s guest/prisoner.

[8] A fundamental writing rule: Show, don’t tell. If your words put a picture on the reader’s mental movie screen, you are following the rule. If you evoke a sensory response in the reader, you engage the reader.

Author David Morrell advises in any significant scene—that is, one meant to be memorable and not just “something happens”—that it’s a good idea to come up with three sensory triggers.

All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country which was full of beauty of every kind. Sometimes we saw little towns or castles on the top of steep hills such as we see in old missals; sometimes we ran by rivers and streams which seemed from the wide stony margin on each side of them to be subject to great floods. It takes a lot of water, and running strong, to sweep the outside edge of a river clear. At every station there were groups of people, sometimes crowds, and in all sorts of attire. Some of them were just like the peasants at home or those I saw coming through France and Germany, with short jackets, and round hats, and home-made trousers; but others were very picturesque. The women looked pretty, except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them. The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who were more barbarian than the rest, with their big cow-boy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. They wore high boots, with their trousers tucked into them, and had long black hair and heavy black moustaches. They are very picturesque, but do not look prepossessing. On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands. They are, however, I am told, very harmless and rather wanting in natural self-assertion.

It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz, which is a very interesting old place. Being practically on the frontier—for the Borgo Pass leads from it into Bukovina—it has had a very stormy existence, and it certainly shows marks of it. Fifty years ago a series of great fires took place, which made terrible havoc on five separate occasions. At the very beginning of the seventeenth century it underwent a siege of three weeks and lost 13,000 people, the casualties of war proper being assisted by famine and disease. [9]

[9] One more splendid transition. There is not a wasted word here, yet Harker and readers travel from 8:30 in the morning until past twilight, from Klausenberg to Bistritz.

Count Dracula had directed me to go to the Golden Krone Hotel, which I found, to my great delight, to be thoroughly old-fashioned, for of course I wanted to see all I could of the ways of the country. I was evidently expected, for when I got near the door I faced a cheery-looking elderly woman in the usual peasant dress—white undergarment with a long double apron, front, and back, of coloured stuff fitting almost too tight for modesty. When I came close she bowed and said, “The Herr Englishman?” “Yes,” I said, “Jonathan Harker.”

She smiled, and gave some message to an elderly man in white shirtsleeves, who had followed her to the door. He went, but immediately returned with a letter—

“My friend.—Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well tonight. At three tomorrow the diligence will start for Bukovina; a place on it is kept for you. At the Borgo Pass my carriage will await you and will bring you to me. I trust that your journey from London has been a happy one, and that you will enjoy your stay in my beautiful land.

“Your friend,

“Dracula.” [10]  

[10] Here Stoker chooses to use subtle irony. Whatever Dracula is, he is no friend to Harker. As a writer, you can do a lot with irony. For example, how many patients likely heard Hannibal Lecter say he wanted to help them?

Rachel Randall is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest Books. Her favorite holiday is Halloween.

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