Jul 2, 2013

Writing the Dark Side

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?


  1. No, I don’t think I’ve ever been put off by a book shifting in tone, but then the authors I’ve read seem to handle the escalation to darker themes quite well. I did notice as Brian Jacques got older his Redwall series got some darker elements, but they were so minimal it wasn’t really out of place. You just noted it and read on.

    The lack of darker themes can have the same effect as shocking readers with darker elements, in my opinion. Several times I have said in a book or movie, “I thought this was a bad guy,” when an evildoer doesn’t live up to the picture painted of him.

    Personally I like the dark stuff. I am known for it in my pen and paper RPGs. I like reading about it and I like writing it. From a writing perspective it is through darkness where the characters often grow the most and allows the writer to show the hero in their hero. And from a readers perspective we are allowed to experience the full gambit of emotions during and after a brutal contest of violence or morals through the safety of our imaginations.

    1. I think you're on to something there. The threat posed by the villain needs to escalate.

      I think JK Rowling handled this very well. As her characters got older, she knew her readers would too, and gradually the stakes increased and the tone grew darker to reflect the ever-rising threat of Voldemort.

  2. Very good questions here. My philosophy is to just write it the way I think it should be, give a good edit and then trust my beta readers to tell me where its not working. If you're thinking about it this carefully I know it's gonna be good!

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)

    1. Thanks, Sarah. I certainly hope so. I'm probably putting a lot of extra pressure on myself because I've so often been left feeling a little disappointed after a series ends. I want the final book to be a completely satisfying end.