Thursday, May 19, 2016

Going Dark

Just how dark can we go in our stories?  I ponder this question after a text from a buddy of mine.  I gave him Salvation Day to read on a trip, and his first note back to me was “Started reading your book.  Pretty dark so far.”

For those who don’t know, Salvation Day indeed has some very dark parts.  The way I see it, it has to in order for the story to have an impact and make a splash at the end.  It’s full of rough stuff like the main character losing his wife and child, a rape and murder scene for someone sent to Hell, and a drug deal gone bad when we see the first battles between angels and demons.  But how much is too much?

Stephen King is notoriously dark sometimes.  So much so that it’s been called the “dead toddler formula.”  Think about it – in Pet Sematary, King kills a three year old to set the stage.  In It, he kills a five year old to get Bill Denbrough motivated to go after the titular character.  Other novels use ugly things like gang rape and mass shootings.

But is there a limit?  Are there things an audience won’t tolerate, especially in our increasingly PC culture?  As a parent myself, I cringe at anything bad happening to kids.  It affects me so much that in a TV show like The Walking Dead, I’ve vowed to stop watching if they ever kill baby Judith.  So why do these things appear in our stories?

I think because it arouses great passion in us.  When a child dies, a teenager is raped, or a dog shelter is burned down, we feel a sense of injustice, and we long to see such injustice resolved.  Maybe that’s the key – we can show dark things so long as we give off light and hope at the end.  You know, kind of a “the darker the shadow the brighter the light” kind of thing.  I’m not sure audiences readily tolerate darkness simply for the sake of darkness(although King often tries to disprove us on that).  It also depends on our target audience – a group of elderly church women are less likely to tolerate things that a group of late-teen/early-20s college kids might.

I wish I had answers to this, but it’s more an exploration than an explanation, and there’s likely no right answer.  It’s just something we have to figure out ourselves, guided by our inner character and our audience.  Trust me, if you go too far, they’ll let you know, sometimes loudly.


  1. I generally go for the light, humorous and/or fun myself, both in my writing and entertainment--although having said that, "The Walking Dead" is one of our favorite shows. But I think a story needs to go exactly as dark as the story requires--it sounds like yours isn't by nature rainbows and puppies. One could argue that you couldn't lighten up any of King's stories without them vanishing completely.

    1. I guess it's my nature to create darkness to draw in the reader. Look for a later post about heavy storylines being required to justify brighter endings.