352 – Making Your Story Dark
It’s often very tempting to make your story darker, but should you? If you guessed that the answer is “it depends,” then congratulations, you’ve been paying attention! This week we talk about why so many authors crank up the darkness, even if it’s not what the story needs, and what the consequences of that are. We also talk about when being darker is actually good for your story and why The Vertebrae Remover is probably not a good supervillain.
Generously transcribed by SpacePineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast, I’m Oren. And with me today is…
Chris: And Chris.
Oren: Buckle up, everyone, because this podcast is going to get dark: gruesome wounds, murders of old towns, constant angst. Because this is the grown-up world, and you need to accept how real this podcast is.
Chris: And we’re serious podcasters, and you should take us very seriously.
Oren: You should. Our ideas are important, and we are very mature people. (laughs) So today, I wanted to talk about making your story dark, because I have read a number of stories recently, both published and manuscript, where the story will just suddenly take a left turn into Dark Town. Sometimes I would even qualify it as Grimdark Town and it doesn’t seem like a good idea. So I wanted to talk about that, because it’s the thing that I think writers sometimes have a bit of a problem with. So the first question is, should your story be dark? And the answer is: it depends, because that’s always the answer. Why do you even bother asking storytelling questions?
Chris: If you’re asking the question, how do I make my story dark? That suggests you’re already going in the wrong direction. It has to come from you. You already have goals for your story that just make it dark, as opposed to, you specifically want your story to be “dark”. And now, you’re trying to figure out how to change your story to make it dark. If it wasn’t dark in the first place, that’s fine. That’s probably how it should stay. Whereas it feels like, okay, this story needs to be serious now, so… Torture Town.
Oren: The one that’s the most obvious problem, that sticks out the most, is what Chris has termed, “Grimdark Sauce”. Now that I have that term, I just see it everywhere—which is the idea that there is super dark content in your story, but it doesn’t really matter. It only affects other people. It either doesn’t happen to the protagonist (the protagonists have character shields), or if it does happen to them, it just doesn’t feel like it matters.
Chris: And it also never matters to the plot, is the other thing, because it’s always a background thing that the protagonists are never trying to actually stop. People just get murdered left or right. The protagonists are never actually put in the position to save them, or try to save them and fail, even. And so, we just have this weird scenery of everybody getting disembowled, but the story’s not actually dark in tone. It feels a little bit hypocritical. We’re trying to be like, “oh, I’m so dark.” Well, actually, the story is not that dark. And that’s why I call it “Grimdark Sauce”, ‘cuz you have a light story, and you’re just trying to pour Grimdark Sauce all over it to make it dark, but it’s not really dark at its core.
Wes: When all that’s happening, everything you just described, it doesn’t make anything more tense. If the main characters aren’t interacting with it at all, it might as well just not exist. It’s just a distraction, or it’s just gross. More often, it’s just gross.
Oren: People sometimes assume that making something darker makes it more important, like it raises tension or it makes it matter more, but that’s not really the case. So if the bad guys wipe out a village, that’s a bad thing that the bad guys did. That’s a bad thing, and your heroes would either want to stop it, or if they couldn’t stop it, want to stop it from happening again. And it shows the bad guys are bad. Describing all of the brutal ways in which everyone dies doesn’t make it worse, actually. It doesn’t make it a worse thing that they did. It does make it less pleasant to read. And so the question is, what are you gaining from doing that? And often the answer is, nothing. Sometimes there are reasons to do that. Sometimes you are trying to tell a story about a specific trauma that a character went through. And in that situation, it can be useful to go into more detail than you otherwise would. Although, consider content warnings.
Chris: Showing how violent your villain is doesn’t actually send the message that your villain isn’t somebody to admire or emulate, as much as I wish it was. Villains look cool. They have to be competent to be threatening. If you really wanna show that your villain is somebody that is not somebody real people should model themselves after, that actually is somewhat incompatible, because you’d have to make your villain kind of incompetent and bumbling. Even if the villain is doing really bad things, including disemboweling people, if the villain is actually competent and threatening, people would admire that, to some degree. So just making things violent and gross is not the way to show audiences that something is not something that they should copy, in any way.
Oren: And it’s also a case of, sometimes people do this because they think you won’t care about it, otherwise. And to go back to that village analog, if you want me to really care about the village, you have to invest me in the village. You have to invest me in the village being alive, not showing me how horrible its death is. I still don’t care. This is still just a village of strangers who I’ve never met and will never meet again now, because they’re all dead. And it won’t really matter going forward. If I knew the people in this village, and some attachment had been built to them, and you were willing to invest that time and then sacrifice those characters, I’m going to care, regardless of how gruesome their death is. I’m going to care that they’re dead.
Chris: Yeah. Similarly, I think it’s very tempting to, again, “oh my story’s not having impact. I know how to make it have impact.” As Oren said, make it really extreme. The phrase I use for this is, “make less mean more.” You don’t have to go to such extreme lengths if you make the smaller tragedies you have meaningful, by investing in attachments, Oren said, and otherwise talking about their implications. If one person dies, what effect does that have on the whole village? You don’t necessarily need to burn the whole village down. So if you focus on those smaller things, and making those meaningful and making them matter, then you don’t have to disembowel everybody in the village.
Oren: Everyone disemboweled.
Oren: And by the same token, this also comes up sometimes, when the author is struggling to find a way to make their villain threatening, and to increase tension. This is another one where it doesn’t work, having your villain be like, “I’m going to murder this random henchman.” Well, that’s not really very threatening. Why are you doing that? “Well, I’m going to do it by painstakingly removing every vertebra in their spine.” That’s not threatening. It’s gross. I don’t like that you’re doing that.
Chris: A villain that kills their minions is not threatening, because a competent person doesn’t do that.
Wes: (laughs) No.
Oren: Or if it’s a random civilian, then it’s still not threatening, ‘cuz that wasn’t hard, if they just killed a random civilian. And if it was a hard thing that they did, if they just defeated a major hero or whatever, that’s already threatening, and having it become a gruesome torture-fest doesn’t make it more threatening. We already established the threat.
Wes: Let your villains have meaningful wins, because that means your protagonists are suffering setbacks. Don’t have them just blow up a building, have them blow up a building for a reason. (laughs)
Chris: Just as a reminder, tension is created by the threat that something bad could happen. If you make something bad happen, it will often actually lower the tension. We’re now not worrying about whether or not it will happen. So it’s the uncertainty that creates the tension. Whereas, if we just watch a bunch of unpleasant things occur, we are now not worried about them occurring, because it already happened, and it was really unpleasant. (laughs) You don’t have to have your characters worrying about whether the villain will, one by one, pull every vertebrae out. They just worry about being killed. We don’t have to go into graphic detail with potential calamities that could happen.
Oren: There goes my plan for the vertebrae remover, my ultimate villain. (laughs) Making your story super dark, especially having your villains be super dark, can often take away certain things that the author actually wanted to have later, now that those things no longer fit. A common one I found is that authors will have their villains do something really heinous and then be like, okay, but have you considered this guy’s point of view? Maybe you’re not so different. I love villains who are not so different from the heroes, but you actually have to make them not so different. Mass Effect has this problem where the Reapers, by the end, are just the worst. Not only are they killing everyone, but they clearly revel in it. Make people die these horrible agonizing deaths, and then bring them back as tech zombies to kill their friends. And the Reapers clearly love doing it. And then, at the end, Mass Effect is like, have you considered that maybe the Reapers are just trying to have the best solution to a difficult problem? What are you talking about? Why did you have them enjoying the murder, if I’m supposed to think that they’re just trying to do the best they can in a hard situation? What is happening?
Wes: Chris, you’ve talked about this, the “moral event horizon.” There’s plenty of things that you just don’t come back from.
Chris: For anybody who is unfamiliar, ‘cuz I don’t think we’ve talked about it on the podcast, as much. It’s actually on TV Tropes. You can look it up there. I didn’t invent this term. I make up lots of terms, but I did not make up this one. But the moral event horizon is the idea when the character has done something that’s bad enough that you cannot redeem them and have it have widespread appeal. No matter how bad you make a character, there’s always going to be that one fan. We have seen the Neelix (Star Trek Voyager) fans in the wild. They really exist. But generally, what you’re going for is, when you’re redeeming a character, you want everybody to be on board, if you can do that. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t, of course, target a specific audience and decide that the story’s for them. But in general, after they crossed the moral event horizon, you’ll have a significant portion of the audience that is just, “Nope.” There’s no good that this character can do. There’s nothing, no way for them to make up for their past deeds. I’m just going to hate them forever. You know, a character that takes joy in murdering everybody in a town is probably past the moral—it depends on how it’s depicted, because it’s judged emotionally, not logically. That’s the thing. So if you have them slaughter random, nameless people in the background and you don’t ever see it, okay, technically, I intellectually understand that this character killed people, but I don’t feel anything about it. They’re less likely to have crossed the moral event horizon than if they did something that actually made people upset.
Oren: That’s why you’re sadder when Obi-Wan one dies than when Alderaan is destroyed. It’s just the basics of storytelling.
Chris: It’s not because humans are terrible. Sometimes people talk about things like, “why don’t humans care about this when we’re so worried about this?” Well, sometimes there are unjust elements in there, like only caring about pretty white girls who go missing, for instance, and not all of the women of color who go missing. But in some cases, it’s just, people really don’t like it when animals get hurt, because there is more of an emotional component. It doesn’t mean that humans are cruel. It just means that we follow our emotions in some aspects. And in your story, you can use that to your advantage.
Oren: Or at the very least, understand it, so it doesn’t come back to bite you. It’s not even necessarily just the thing with redemption arcs. That’s the thing I want to make clear here, because we’ve talked about redemption arcs before. Those are all already tricky and difficult, but really, anything in which you want me to consider that maybe the villain has a point, or you want me to see things from the villain’s perspective, even if you’re not redeeming them—Wasteland 3 has this problem. Spoilers for Wasteland 3, a game that I really like, but it has this problem where it shows us these murder gang whos are standard video game antagonists. They’re hostile to everybody, and they do murder constantly. And the reason that they’re in the game is so that you have a morally uncomplicated group of people to fight. You don’t need to ask any questions for why you shoot the murder clowns or the people who send meat sacrifices to the gods on kites. You don’t have to worry about that. Just shoot them. But then towards the end, it’s like, “hey, have you considered things from the murder gang’s perspective? ‘Cuz they’re hungry. The farm land where they live isn’t great.” And I don’t—what are you doing? (laughs)
Chris: I had an article about this issue. It’s graywashing your morality, trying to present a black and white morality as gray morality. I think storytellers liked to do it because they don’t want to ever put the protagonist in a situation where anybody could consider them to be wrong. And it’s just easier to create a black and white situation, and then just pretend it’s gray. Isn’t it deep if I pretend these horrible mass murderers actually have a point, and maybe you should sympathize with them?
Oren: Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of reasons why that happens. Sometimes it’s for that reason, sometimes it’s—in the case of Wasteland 3, I’m pretty sure it’s just because of a clash between the need for the game to have a group of uncomplicated villains for you to fight and the writers wanting to do something more complicated. It happens for a lot of reasons.
Chris: A lot of times, in the case of the story, it’s easier to have a black and white conflict, so that they know that the audience will always be rooting for the protagonist against the antagonist. But then they decide that they want to make it more complex, or nuanced, or deeper, or whatever, so they just pretend that they did something different.
Oren: Plus, a lot of us go through edgy phases where we think, “oh, wow. What if I had a villain who punched puppies? But he had a reason for doing that. A puppy was mean to him when he was a kid. Wouldn’t that be surprising?” And it’s like, yeah. Okay. I know. I went through that phase, too. Let’s move on.
Wes: How about that, then, Oren? Making your story dark because of someone’s gritty, grimdark, traumatic upbringing that is revealed through backstory.
Oren: Usually, don’t. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There are ways you can do that. And it’s not like there’s no reason to, ever. But to be honest, most authors are not ready to deal with the actual implications of these horrible, grimdark backstories they write their characters, or just horrible, grimdark things that happen to the character in the story. Torture is easily the most common. I don’t know why authors love to have villains torture their heroes. They just seem to like it. Maybe it’s because, on TV, we have this idea that torture is a guy slapping you a little bit, ‘cuz that’s often all that TV is allowed to show you. Unless it’s 24, I guess. But this is a thing that I see in a lot of stories, where the protagonist will get horribly tortured, but then they’re fine, because we need them to be, for the story to work. It wouldn’t actually work if they were completely overrun with the trauma of what just happened to them, because we still need them to go and do exciting stuff.
Chris: I think a lot of writers add torture because they believe that either shocking or affecting your audience in any way is automatically good. They’re so busy asking if they could do it, they didn’t stop to ask if they should. “This affected me, so that’s a good thing.” It’s not necessarily a good thing. Did it actually affect your audience in the right way? Did it match the experience that you want to create for your story? And did it work with other story elements?
Oren: It reminds me of the “Victorian Medicine” special that we watched on BBC, where we found out that the reason Victorians loved diuretics so much was that they had a measurable effect. Not that it was doing anything useful, but you take this, you get diarrhea. Something is clearly happening.
Chris: As opposed to taking it and being like, well, nothing happened, so I guess the medicine didn’t work.
Oren: Or something that happened was too small, or you might not have been able to tell, or whatever. That’s kind of what this reminds me of. A funny example is in The Name of the Wind, where Kvothe supposedly spends three years as a starving street urchin. And fortunately, this is all glossed over. It’s not super heavily described, but Kvothe really doesn’t seem like someone who spent three years as a starving street urchin as a child. Nothing about him suggests that to me. He’s not paranoid about food. He isn’t thinking ahead to where he’s going to get his next meal. He doesn’t seem to have any trouble trusting anyone, or have any fear of authority figures … there’s nothing. Why is that even in there?
Chris: So, should we talk about what an actually dark story looks like in comparison to Grimdark Sauce?
Oren: Some concepts are inherently dark. And if you aren’t willing to make them at least somewhat dark, it’s just gonna feel unsatisfying or pat. I think war is a good example there. If your characters are going to war and it’s anything like a real war … I mean, this is spec fic. Sometimes your fantasy war could be dream fights, who knows? But if it’s anything like a real war, those suck. Those are real bad. Most people are at least a little bit aware of that. If your characters go to war and everything is fun and happy, and nothing bad ever happens, it’s like, okay, well, now this just doesn’t feel real.
Chris: If you have an overly happy ending on something that feels like that’s unrealistic, it starts to feel cheap. We didn’t earn that, because in some cases it’s not possible to earn that. If you have two armies clashing against each other, somebody’s gonna die. And again, when we’re talking about Grimdark Sauce, where it’s just all happening in the background and all the particulars are fine, there’s a reason why writers will often sacrifice some minor characters in situations like that, because war is bad. If you want your story to be dark, that means that bad things have to happen in meaningful ways. Bad things happen to the protagonist. Maybe a protagonist dies or knows a significant character that dies. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the most central characters, but people we know well enough to care that they died. If they have bad things happen to them, we can’t just hit the reset button as soon as they’re done with Torture Town. That’s a level of realism that has to have a lasting effect. We expect a higher level of realism, I think, in a lot of dark stories, so that if somebody gets stabbed, they don’t just walk it off.
Wes: If it’s a good dark story, where you’re signing up to sit in it for a bit, if the bad thing happens, we’re going to go through more of an experience. Which, hopefully, is important to the story, right? Opportunities and all that. But I feel like there’s a certain type of understanding that, based on a trailer, or content notice, or whatever, that this story is going to make me have to watch or read about the feelings that come from the aftermath, or the consequences of the aftermath, because it matters more.
Oren: I have also seen, in an attempt to try to make it stick, because if a character gets injured, that can have lasting consequences. And I’ve seen authors trying to portray that also then get into some very ableist territory. So, be aware of that. If your character gets stabbed and loses some functionality, and then you have them spend the rest of the book angsting about how their life is over because of that lost functionality, that could be ableist. I’m not saying that it’s unrealistic for a character to be upset when they have a disability. That’s a whole complicated field. I just want people to know it’s a thing.
Chris: We have an article on the site about how to portray characters that acquire disabilities, but I also would definitely recommend hiring a paid disability consultant, if you’re gonna do that, to make sure that your portrayal is balanced, and not just a character constantly bemoaning how they’re disabled and how terrible that is. ‘Cuz that is super ableist. It doesn’t mean that they’re can’t be an adjustment period, but it’s very different how you frame it.
Oren: Something else to consider, and this is a pretty legitimate reason that stories get darker—although in this case, it gets darker as a consequence of you choosing to do something, rather than you set out to make it dark—is that darker storylines can have higher stakes, and therefore, higher tension. Now, this plateaus, like we were just talking about, because once death is on the line, generally speaking, making the death horribly gruesome isn’t going to increase tension much. But up to death, that has a lot of tension increase. Stories where death is never really on the line just have lower tension than stories where death is on the line. And that’s not to say that you can’t write stories where death isn’t on the line. There are lots of great stories, both with physical violence and without it, where death isn’t on the line. But if you want higher tension, then you can make death on the line, as long as that’s actually something you’re willing to deal with in the story.
Chris: There’s definitely a difference in feel between a story where the audience actually thinks the character could die, and a story where death is at stake, but we’re pretty sure the characters have plot shields. If you give the characters plot shields, raising the stakes to life or death does actually matter. It does raise attention. They also have kind of a safety blanket. We’re going to buy into this idea that maybe they’ll die, even though we know they probably won’t. We also know it’s going to be alright.If you take away the safety blanket, it is tenser. There are going to be people who don’t like that, who actually would like to be reassured that, okay, even if we’re in a life or death situation, everything’s going to be okay in the end. And it’s a person who likes a dark and intense experience who enjoys actually wondering if the protagonist is going to die.
Oren: There’s a sweet spot, though, where most people are still gonna be into it, but you still have increased tension. And then if you go past that, you are making your story for a more specific audience. Which, again, is not a bad thing. Just be aware that’s what you’re doing.
Chris: If you actually get to the point where you’ve, for instance, killed enough characters that people believe that important people are going to die. If you have a story that has a bittersweet ending or a bad ending, even, that just definitely calls for a darker tone throughout, then you might do. If everything ends perfectly happily, there’s actually a limit to how dark that story is going to feel.
Oren: You definitely want to consider what your general tone is in advance, because there are certain interactions that might be okay if the story was mostly one tone or mostly another, but once you start moving between them, it becomes an issue. If you have a fairly light story where your protagonists are a bunch of hyper-competent teenagers, that might bother some people, but mostly we’ll be able to accept it. But once you start making that story darker and more serious, if you still have hyper-competent teenagers, then by default, that’s gonna seem increasingly grating. ‘Cuz it’s just going to feel like, how are they not dead? Those hyper-competent teenagers in this increasingly dark and gritty setting you’ve created.
Chris: Whe you have lives on the line, then the teenagers are under intense pressure to actually bring in all the help that they can get. When you have kid heroes or teenage heroes, and you’re trying to kind of gloss over the fact that they’re not calling it in to an emergency center, or asking mentors or parents for help, or the authorities are not pulling out all the stops to stop whatever it is … once you put lives on the line, now everybody looks immoral if they don’t do everything in their power to stop it from happening, including turning themselves into authorities and being thrown in jail. If you have a protagonist who is like, okay, I can’t go to the police ‘cuz I’m a fugitive, but they know that some people are going to die and the police could save those people, now it’s like, they’re morally obligated.
Wes: The darker you go, the more you need to give back. We need a good reason to read your dark story. There are a few famous books that have been published that—A Clockwork Orange comes to mind—has a horrible, despicable protagonist, and the biggest content notice I could possibly slap on that book needs to be on it, but the reading experience is enjoyable, if the subject matter is atrocious. And so, there’s a very fine line there that not everybody can do, but it’s just a good note that, if you’re going to make us sit in that dark experience, you need to give us something for it. Otherwise, we’ll just throw the book away.
Oren: That applies to a lot of things. Ideally, every plot would be perfect and never have plot holes, but the darker your story, the more plot holes are going to be annoying, because if your story is dark, then you’re kind of making a contract with your audience that whatever you have to say is going to be worth this experience that they’re going through. And it’s harder for what they have to say to feel like it’s important if your protagonists are, for example, forgetting that last week, they got a really powerful magic item that they’re not using. That’s the thing, ideally, you don’t want in any story, but in a dark story, it’ll cost you more.
I think that’s a good moment to end this very dark and serious podcast on. So, before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons, which I wouldn’t do if we were too dark and grim, because who has time for beautiful, life-giving thanks? Anyway, first, I want to thank Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
Do you have a story that needs another pair of eyes? We offer consulting and editing services on Mythcreants.com. [closing theme song]
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