Friday, November 18, 2016

Darkness in Fiction: 7 Tips for Writing Dark Stories

I enjoy dark stories. I like reading about characters that struggle, worlds on the brink of destruction and in need of saving, words that go into the deep, little-seen parts of the soul. I like writing them, too.

And that's why I'm so disturbed by what darkness in fiction has turned into. It seems like each year the books get darker and darker, and each year they become more and more abused by authors who don't seem to understand (or care about) the ramifications of their words.

As a writer and lover of stories with a dark side, I'd like to point out what makes a dark story good with the hopes that we can get away from the current "Darkness without meaning" trend that's running around like a rabid dog (*cough* or a certain DC director who thought it would be a good idea to turn a certain character into a murderer *cough* *cough*). So here it is: 7 tips for writing a dark story that's not just a black hole of death and depression and strangled puppies.
Darkness in Fiction: 7 Tips for Writing Dark Stories
1. The darkness must have meaning to it. This is the most important thing to remember about writing a dark piece of fiction. Do you know what it is that makes dark stories so good? The light in them. That may seem a bit counterintuitive, but it's not. Just stop and think about it for a second. Why do we like dark characters like Loki and Snape? Because we see broken people struggling against the world (and themselves). We see them fighting (or having the potential to fight) to make themselves better. Why do we like dystopian novels? Because we get to see a world or a people rebel and work hard to get out of the darkness. We like reading about characters combating tough situations because it inspires us and shows us that we can work through our problems, too. That's what makes darkness in fiction so alluring. Not the darkness, but what people can glimpse on the other side. The meaning, the purpose, the light. So if you're only going to listen to one thing said in this post, listen to this: Make sure there is a reason and a purpose behind the darkness in your story. Ask yourself: What are you trying to say? What do you want your readers to learn? Make it your goal to show the world something through the darkness.

2. Dark does not mean twisted, brutal, or gory. Keep that locked up in your mind. It's important. You don't have to have a guy cut people up with a chainsaw to make a story dark. Or a story told from the POV of a schizophrenic sadist. You do not have to stoop to gallons of blood and gore and general disturbedness (Don't start with me. My blog, my words) to make a story dark. So before you decide to stuff a fridge with dead people to set the mood for your story, think again. Try for some cleverness or subtlety and, well...

3. Try using a light mood. That's right. Dark stories can have a lightness to them. Your characters are allowed to joke. Your writing style is allowed to be funny. Your world can have rainbows and flowers and candy in it. You don't have to go overboard with it if it doesn't fit the story, but you also shouldn't be going full-on Dementor, either. Take The Book Thief, for example. It's told from Death's POV, which you'd think would make it extremely morbid. But it doesn't because Zusak gave Death a certain sense of humor and put in several funny scenes featuring Rudy's antics, while also weaving a dark, touching, and profound story. It's possible, it works, and it saves your readers from feeling like they're being drowned in dead dreams, children's tears, and a world void of chocolate.

4. Dark settings are not an excuse for lack of morals. You know of what I speak. The apocalyptic books where the teens decide it's okay to run off and have sex because hey, they'll all be dead soon, so it doesn't really matter. Or the fantasy worlds where the "heroes" kill people without a thought because this is war and those are just faceless characters. Seriously? No. Tough situations do not allow bad behavior. Which character do you want to read about: The one who's trying hard to do what's right even when everything is wrong? Or the one that's just going with the flow because everything's gone to hell already, so why bother? Which of these characters do you think is helpful and inspiring? And which is extremely damaging? Think about what it is you are writing. Words have impact and meaning. Do not abuse that.

5. "And they all died" is not a necessary ending. Some stories can end this way if that is their natural course, but don't just do it in an attempt to devastate your readers or the one living character. Death and unnecessary darkness does not make a good book.

6. Go deep and complex with your characters. This is something you should be doing with all kinds of stories, but it is especially important when it comes to dark stories. People don't make sense under normal circumstances. We are walking paradoxes, natural hypocrites, and a mixture of everything that is both right and wrong with the world we live in. This becomes more and more apparent when we're put under stress. Reflect this in your story. Your heroes do not have to be 100% good, nor your villains 100% evil. They each should have goals, contradictions, character flaws, deep, dark secrets, and admirable traits. This adds a realism that is an important component to dark stories.

7. Everything does not need to be wrapped up nicely at the end. The world is messy. It often doesn't make sense. There are questions we cannot answer and problems we cannot solve (or even fathom). Don't feel like you need to have an answer and solution to all of the darkness in your story. You need to have a point and something your readers can take away from it, yes. But you don't need to answer the question to life, the universe, and everything. All that really matters is that the characters find a way out of the darkness...or at least find a way to live within it.

If you're looking for good examples of good dark stories, I have a list.
In no particular order: A Monster Calls, Frankenstein, Dracula UntoldThe Knife of Never Letting GoThe Book Thief, The Patriot, 1984Crime and Punishment, PandoraHearts, The Dark Knight, Maus I and II, Wool, The Pearl, Gladiator, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Dark Knight Returns, I Am LegendHarry Potter, Lord of the Flies, The Grey, The Children of HurinLord of the Rings (both the books and movies had some dark elements to them)Okay, so maybe Harry Potter isn't particularly dark, but it has some semi-dark characters that I think were expertly handled (Snape, Draco Malfoy).

Also, shameless plug: Skies of Dripping Gold is a good dark story, too. And no, I didn't just write this entire post so I could say that. I promise.

If you want more, let me know. If you disagree with any of them, let me know. If you want to add some to the list, let me know. Basically, if you have anything at all to say about this post, let me know. I love receiving comments!

Related articles:
The Importance of Asking Why: 4 Questions You Should Ask Yourself as a Writer
Why There's No Such Thing As "Just A Story" 
Keeping it Classy: When is it OK to Use Profanity in Your Fiction Writing

Enjoy this post? Take a look around. If you like what you see, please don't forget to subscribe by email for a new post every Friday!

Some links are Amazon Affiliate. Thank you for your support! 

25 comments:

  1. Great post, Hannah! I remember one time I was in a discussion about movies at my church and someone commented how they hated all the darkness in movies, mentioning The Dark Knight as an example of this. I just wanted to scream, "Don't you get it? That's the point! Bruce didn't succumb to the darkness all around him. That's the point of the whole movie!"

    Obviously darkness can be a great element in fiction. Because, as they say, light shines brighter in the dark. But I agree with you that it's been misused in a lot of ways lately. It's always good to have a reminder that darkness should be used as a tool in fiction, not to be praised or just to make things edgy and cool.

    I must admit, I'm at a loss for what DC film your talking about. Are you referring to Man of Steel?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol! I've been in an very similar situation. And I always think, "No. Wait! Did you not pay attention? That was the point. Plus, it's Batman. So it's awesome. What part of that do you not understand?" =D

      I was referring to Zack Snyder's portrayal of a murderous Batman in Batman V Superman. Though in that movie Superman also flat-out killed a guy when it wasn't necessary. Snyder has the unfortunate tendency to mistake darkness and masses of half-baked symbolism for depth and meaning. =]

      Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Long live Batman!

      Delete
    2. I'm so glad someone agrees. Most people I've talked to didn't seem to care, but I hated how cruel he was portrayed in that move. As some who read the comics it was based on, it was cringe worthy. :(

      Yes. Long live Batman! (The real Batman) ;)

      Delete
  2. Yes yes yes on 2 and 4! On all of them, actually, but I notice those two, so specifically, a lot.

    Something to add: your story doesn't have to be dark to be good and say something. I've seen authors try to make their books 'dark' when it didn't fit with the tone or characters *coughDivergentcough*

    More great dark stories: The Giver; The Underland Chronicles (by Suzanne Collins)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love the underland chronicles!!

      Delete
    2. YES! Great point, Justice. A story can be important and beautiful and meaningful without being dark. Making your book dark just because it's in right now is not a good idea.

      Also, The Giver is awesome! And I have not read this Underland Chronicles you two speak of. I'll have to check it out. Thank you!

      Delete
  3. Number 5 so much! Lately I've seen lots of aspiring authors boasting that nobody is exempt from being killed in their books, like this is something to be proud of. They say that possibility of anyone and everyone dying will keep the reader on the edge of their seat. And I say that a handful of meaningless deaths in the very beginning has made me put down the book of one famous author.

    It feels like killing characters right and left in dozens has come into fashion. For some reason some authors think it's a sign of a good story, even when it is uncalled for.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've noticed this too. Many great writers are able to weave good stories without killing off droves of characters. When a book has tons of characters die meaningless, uncalled for deaths, I always just assume that the writer is trying to raise interest or engage emotion, but isn't quite sure how.

      Good point! Thank you for sharing!

      Delete
  4. Another great post, Hannah! Reading a bunch of dark stories with a lack of light is one reason I got burned out on sci-fi and dystopian novels recently (no pun intended). Saving these tips for later reference. I'll have to be sure to check out the stories you listed that I'm not familiar with.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had to take a break from sci-fi and dystopian for the exact same reason. I hope you enjoyed the list of stories! I know I did.

      Delete
  5. Thank you for the great post.

    I'm not a great reader of dark stories so I hadn't noticed the trend you mention of darkness without meaning, but I believe you that it's there. More broadly, I get frustrated by stories without meaning. I don't think "anything can happen to anyone" is a useful concept to base a story around when it manifests as no more than a series of random bad events. Life throws random bad events at innocent people. I expect more from my fiction. Perhaps anyone can die, but fictional deaths should serve the story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. YES! It goes far wider than just dark stories without meaning. Shelves are populated by pointless books. It seems that people are just throwing out stories that they think might possibly be entertaining without stopping to recognize that the most entertaining stories are the ones that mean something...both to the writer and the reader.

      Great comment! Thank you for sharing!

      Delete
    2. Mmm. Agree, agree. These are the reason I hate most YA dystopias these days: they profess to be "dark", yet when you look at it, it all comes apart very easily or drowns in it's own glooming. There are, though, a few examples of "dark" stuff that I like, mostly of the "darkness combined with a story that'd usually be light" variety. Take "Magical Girl Site", for example. It could be summed up as "girls are granted magical powers and they use them to fight forces of evil trying to bring about end of the world". Pretty standard, yes? Well, no. The magic shortens the girls' lifespans (so much that one of them has the internal organs of a 70-years old), death is an actual threat, most of the girls are far from sound mental health, and the main character's sadistic brother has mind control magic. All of this does sound pointlessly dark, and yet, I find the story likable, because as scared and as unwell as the girls are, they stick together. They're strong together. They fight together, they have each others backs. Many of the struggles they face are because they keep secrets from each other. This is the story's strength: even when death and the end of the world loom above their heads, they stick together. Darkness without light does not work. It just doesn't. Shadows can't be seen unless there's a light. Get what I mean?

      Other "dark" stories I like are Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines quartet, and Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku (what's with me and magical girls?), which can be found translated on Tumblr. Both series combine dark and heavy themes with people who stick together, people who refuse to abandon hope no matter how futile it is. That's the kind of dark stories I like.

      Delete
  6. I live this article so much!!!!!
    Posted it to my author Facebook page.
    This is exactly what I'm aiming for with my stories. You totally hit the nail on the head.
    Excellent!!! 💜

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. *ugh. Autocorrect. LOVE not live.

      Delete
    2. Lol! No problems. Happens to me all the time. =)

      So glad you enjoyed this post! Thank you for sharing it!

      Delete
  7. Thanks for this list. I tend to lean toward the dark side for my own stories, but my characters always recognize the light bit inside them that remains and they strive through the story to hang on to it. Sometimes for dear life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love stories that use the "light within" concept. It sounds like your stories are awesome. Happy writing!

      Delete
  8. Yes! This! You hit the nail right on the head.
    My own work in progress involves rape, brutality, and psychological abuse. Dark, neh? BUT! It is redeemed by the sheer determination of my protagonist to STOP her adversary and end his reign of terror over the innocents of his House and his City. The light comes from her, and also from her realization of how this experience is healing her from the trauma of her past. The story is not about darkness, but empowerment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment, Varina! I like that your story seems to be focusing on overcoming the darkness. Keep up the amazing work!

      Delete
  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks so much for spending time making this blog. It helps me so much. However, i'm one of the occasional weird people who are better and enjoy writing in www.howtly.com/write-a-check/ the tearful/death scene more than the happy/love scene, which brings me to asking you: Any tips on writing the happy scenes where everything is good and there is no heartbreak?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great question! In a world where there's so much darkness (and so many stories that reflect this), I think there's always room for a happy book. So good for you! My main tip is this one:

      Make sure that there are character arcs. In a book where everything is more uplifting, it's important to make sure that there are still obstacles for the character to learn from and grow from. It deepens the characters (and the plot). The obstacles don't need to be something horrible like a murdered loved one. They can be as simple as struggling with moving away from friends and family, trying to find a balance in this crazy whirlwind called life, etc. The conflict should be present and real. Character arcs and conflict are often overlooked in happier novels because authors forget that problems don't always have to be big, scary, dark ones. =)

      I hope this helps!

      Delete
  11. The first and the most important thing are to choose a topic that must be of your interest and you have some knowledge regarding writeforcheck.blogspot.com/ it. A good essay is something that attracts the readers towards itself and readers are encouraged to read the full content.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks for a great post. I write dark stories, but there always has to be hope. I particularly like No. 3. Even in the midst of something dark, there's always room for a few funny moments.

    ReplyDelete

Google Analytics Alternative