I've been working on the third book of the Locked Within Trilogy and getting close to the end. While writing some of the darker scenes, those moments where all hope is lost and we're exposed to the true extent of the villain's depravity, I got thinking about the dark side of writing. The twisted part of the writer's mind that desires to see the hero suffer because it knows that makes the eventual victory all the more satisfying.
How do you balance the desire to entertain with the desire to make the reader truly fear the villain? How far can you push before you cross the line and start to bore, or disgust, your readers?
The other concern is just how much do you break the hero? Every story needs the hero to have that "end of all hope" moment, the lowest point from which the hero must rise to claim victory. But if the hero is too hurt or too broken, how can they believably turn that around?
One of the things I've been conscious of in my writing is gratuity. I dislike gratuitous violence or gore. I like leaving a lot up to the reader's imagination and letting the reader own the experience, both in violent and non-violent scenes. It can be a challenge to really get across how dire a situation is, or how much a hero is suffering, and manage to hit that sweet spot between not enough detail, and so much graphic information that the reader is turned off.
The really twisted part of it, though, is that I love writing this stuff. I love putting the hero into situations where they're backed into a corner and made to suffer. The moment when the hero begins to turn the tide is often my favourite part of any story, and for that moment to have any meaning at all, the reader has to feel like they're suffering along with the hero.
Granted, there are some lines I don't want to cross, and for the time being I can't see myself including certain plot points in my work. Rape, for one. I imagine I would have a hard time writing a scene where a child was made to suffer, too. I don't want to say I'll never look into those darker areas, because at some point I may want to explore them. But I'll never use them as a quick and easy way to create tension.
That's actually a good rule of thumb for any dark scene. Is it just in there because you needed a quick way to create tension or make the reader feel a certain way about a character? If so, it's a good idea to reconsider it and see if you can't find a less disturbing way to achieve the same thing. Readers will never feel they're missing out if you hold back on the graphic content, but they may feel put off if you show them more than they're ready for.
And that's really what I've tried to keep to while working on Book 3. In Locked Within and Silent Oath, I establish a certain level of violence, profanity, and sexual content. I don't want to shock my readers by going too far outside of their expectations, so I keep what I've already written as a guideline for the tone and content of the final installment.
Have you guys got anything to add? Any preferences as regards darker material and subject matters? Has a series ever surprised you by unexpectedly shifting in tone? How did it make you feel?