Writing Dark Stories

Terrible Writing Advice has a video about writing grimdark stories. As the name implies, it is a sarcastic lampooning of bad trends in fiction, especially written fiction. I link to it because it’s a pretty good summary of the problems that exist with how people talk about dark stories. It’s short on solutions, though, aside from the occasional “multiply this advice by negative one” bits.

I think perhaps the most important thing about writing a dark story, though, is to have some kind of actually dark theme that you’re building to, and that lacking this theme is why most of these “then the puppy died” stories don’t work. The substance of a dark story is to explore a depressing aspect of the human condition. Dead puppies is just style – copy the style without the substance and people will notice the writer’s a poseur.

It’s not hard to think of dark themes that could support a dark story. Here’s a freebie: Most people adhere to a set of morals because society punishes deviation from them, and would abandon those morals in the heartbeat it takes to come up with a dumb excuse if doing so ever became the easy path. Here’s another: Powerful societies concentrate resources in one place, which leads both to scientific and philosophical progress and to terrible abuse of those in the outgroup of that society, and thus human progress is eternally locked to human suffering not because one is a product of the other, but because they’re both side effects of the same process. Here’s a third: Nepotistic favoritism is a natural result of the principles of loyalty and friendship that we consider praiseworthy in every other context, and the lack of which most people would consider a warning flag for an untrustworthy leader – despite also considering the inevitable results of their presence to be corrupt.

These are depressing themes. If you write a book about how nepotism is the inevitable result of giving power to someone who believes in sticking with their friends, you will write a dark book that makes people feel the way early seasons of House of Cards did. Probably not as much unless you’re really good at writing, but same basic concept and being unfavorably compared to the first few seasons of House of Cards is praising with faint damnation. If you write a book full of dead puppies, then your writing is just dull. Happy Halloween.

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