Updated: Feb 21, 2021
By Wendiann Alfieri
We all know sometimes writing can get dark, all writing can even if your intending something else, something not dark ( especially poetry it’s open to so many interpretations). But what “ crosses the line” or is “ too dark”? What qualifies as “ dark” anyway? To me, darkness comes down to a couple of major story game changers and that is four things: Death, Fear,Sadness, and Denial. They all have similar correlation to each other, especially death and sadness. And fear of death and denial is a stage of grief etc etc. But I’ll explore those themes now.
Death is a scary thing but what I mean by death is not the fear of it but rather the consequence of it. When a loved one dies, or maybe even someone we didn’t like, we have a mixed feeling of anger and guilt. When it’s someone we love, it’s guilt that we couldn’t do anything more and anger of why that person left us. When it’s someone we didn’t like it’s anger at maybe their past mistakes and our way of handling it. There is guilt that we could not seek a solution and now we never could. When in writing, though, Death makes things dark not just cause of sadness but because of reality and seeing characters change and shift under the weight of this new life they have to deal with. And in writing, their isn’t always a conclusion and I’m not just talking about a book series. Sometimes, we don’t even get to see the changes that death causes, sometimes death is the end of the story. ( For example, Of Mice And Men) And in these cases, we are left to feel for ourselves knowing who the characters were, and left, well, just feeling numb. But this shock and not knowing at the end of writing creates the dark tone. Because we think a book is supposed to have some sort of conclusion. And in dark books, that’s not always the case.
Fear establishes suspense and not knowing. Your journey with the character shapes how this element of fear plays into the story. But the bone chilling thing about this element is you know the character. The trick to establishing true fear is to make a relate-able character. It doesn't have to be the most sympathetic character, all characters have flaws and that makes them interesting. Seeing internal conflict and then having the character face a real situation that challenges that internal conflict? That gets the blood flowing, and making sure the character doesn't just win the battle completely, leaving them with not fully resolved issues that makes things dark. Because the character has to struggle in those cases, from beginning to end. And when they change (example from likable to unlikable, brave to fearful, easy going to strict) it changes how you feel. But remember,true fear is definitely built over time. Darkness with fear is complicated because fear is complicated itself. There's no clear way to solve fear, fear causes people to do things that maybe they wouldn't normally do.
Sadness leaves us feeling lost, tearful, and maybe even lonely. It is hard to cope sometimes when situations make us feel like we're drowning. But sadness isn't always associated with death. To me, its associated with hopelessness. In dark stories, sadness is sometimes used to convey that sometimes no matter how hard you try, you may still lose. We all lose sometimes though, right? Sure it can be sad, but life goes on right? Well, what makes the tides turn in this one is the characters don't always win. To see the sadness, to see the world, the setting, the plot, the characters at the bottom of the barrel is dark. It really gets to the nitty gritty when you yourself don't have hope for the character,or the situation that's around them, when you even feel like just putting the book down and tearing up. But is this crossing the line, what line is there for dark book? We'll get to that later!
Denial is dark because, well, you yourself know reality, but the character doesn't, they have their own perception and as much as you strain and want to yell at the characters shake them and say, "You're going the wrong way!" what makes denial a dark element is that can't help. And while with sadness you feel bad cause the character can't do anything, with denial you feel bad because YOU can't do anything. As with any dark book though, the feeling of not being able to help while your invested is intense. With Death, you wish you could have changed the past. With fear you wish you can change the future. With sadness you wish you wish the character could do something because the only one that can get them out of the pit is themselves. With denial, you wish you could do something because the character won't ever realize what they have to do for themselves. All these elements have one thing in common. Let's explore that now.
What They Have In Common:
A dark book usually has a theme in it. Whether it be a cautionary tale or a moral lesson, there's one thing that I think really makes a dark book. That is this: The Characters. Don't. Win. It's not always that they've lost something, so much as what the story is refusing to let them gain. They don't always know what they've lost if they never had it. They know something's out there, but they can't quite reach it, and this can very much stem from the element that primarily deals with loss: Death. Because even though you know you've lost something, and you miss it or them very much, memories fade. Feelings don't but memories do and what I mean by that is because life changes so much, looking back on different time ( good or bad) can almost feel just so distant.And again, the characters don't win, losing something, trying to reach something you can't, or trying to change something you can't, either way you can't win. And dark stories can still have happy endings, but the changes in the stories can often leave you feeling different at the end. Each dark story is unique, and every book has conflict or dark elements in it. But what crosses the line, is there such a thing as a book that's too dark?
Crossing The "Line"
So now I've explained what makes a book dark, is there a line? Is there something that makes a book or story too unbearable? Well, it depends on the person. Lets face it, unless you google the entire synopsis of a book, you never know what your going to get. And you never, ever know for sure what emotions will stem from it even if you do read the entire synopsis. I personally, don't think there's a line in whats too dark. I think there is a line between whats good writing and bad writing, and even that is subjective. Writing is open up to interpretation. A book can definitely leave a dark impact, and maybe really change how a person views something. For example, when I read " Old Yeller" in school ( in elementary school) I was not expecting to deal with those emotions. I read "The Diary Of Anne Frank" when I was nine, but to be fair I didn't understand a lot of it. So when I read "Old Yeller" when I was ten, I understood that book a little more. It was an ending I was not expecting, and as usual, I had read the end of the book a couple of days before we were supposed to, and I just remember sitting in agony as the class was discussing what the ending might be while I already knew. I ended up crying so badly in class about it they had to send me to the nurse. But was it bad for me though? Was it too dark? I don't think so. I think it prepared me for something that happens a lot when your a kid, losing a pet. It prepared me to feel loss in a way I wasn't expecting. My parents' way of explaining death maybe didn't register right away, and even hearing about past family member's and who they were, it was still hard to understand. But reading that book, it really opened my eyes. And I think that's what dark books and stories do, they open your eyes, no matter how much you'd want to close them