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.
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.
A Monster Calls, Frankenstein, Dracula Untold, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Book Thief, The Patriot, 1984, Crime and Punishment, PandoraHearts, The Dark Knight, Maus I and II, Wool, The Pearl, Gladiator, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Dark Knight Returns, I Am Legend, Harry Potter, Lord of the Flies, The Grey, The Children of Hurin, Lord 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!
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