If you’ve ever heard or read stories written for a creative writing workshop, or judged a writing contest, you’ll likely have seen a similarity amongst almost all of them – They all tend to be dark, gloomy, and depressing. This is because many people who are just starting out as writers have an idea that for writing to be good, it has to be serious and at least give the illusion of being deep. Or at least, they think that this is the only type of writing which will get them recognition from writing teachers and contest judges. And considering the amount of MFA teachers and literary contest judges which support this way of thinking, they’re not wrong.
Even professionals seem to be believing this to some extent, given the huge increase in the amount of ‘dark and gritty’ tv shows, movies, and books which have come out ever since Game of Thrones became the most popular show on television.
I believed the same thing for a long time during my early writing days. My first novel was a YA fantasy story, yet it was still about as angst-ridden as they come. A lot of it was a reaction to a bad period of my life, and expressing it creatively did help me a lot at the time. Yet once I ditched the angsty novel and started writing one with a more light-hearted and comedic bent, I started to enjoy writing much more. It’s also been surprisingly beneficial to my mental health as well.
When should stories be dark?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not immedietly turned off by a story just because it’s dark or has a sad ending. I just finished binge-watching You which is insanely creepy and has a sad ending, yet it has still made me want to read the book it was adapted from. The essence of drama does come from characters suffering, after all. Authors who have been through bad situations, or have relatives or ancestors who have, often need to record their experiences in the form of fiction as a form of both personal therapy and preservation.
What I’m trying to get at is that while these stories may be good, they may be popular, and they may win awards, it doesn’t mean that every single story needs to be the same, as so many Hollywood producers seem to assume. Just because a story can be dark, that doesn’t mean it has to be.
Game of Thrones works as a dark story because intended it as a subversion of the noble-bright nature of classic fantasy stories such as Lord of the Rings. You works as a dark story because it is a reflection of the far too prevalent real world phenomenon of women being stalked and harassed by ‘nice guys’.
There are certain types of stories which should deal with serious issues, and other types which should exist simply to cheer up audiences. When you come home from a tough day at work, you are much more likely to turn on a light-hearted comedy than a gritty realistic drama, because in that situation, you need the comedy. In many ways, this makes a story more memorable and more likely that the viewer will want to watch more, or re-watch the show.
Fiction is primarily a form of escapism, both for audiences and authors. So, they absolutely should read about characters struggling through and overcoming difficult situations. But if all readers see is characters constantly dying or giving into despair with no hope, they aren’t going to be caught up in the escapism.
Light and dark
Light does not necessarily have to mean the complete absence of dark. Even stories which are classed as comedies or are made for children can still delve into serious issues, often using humour to soften the blow. In many ways, these are my favourite types of stories, and I admire authors who can deal with these more sensitive issues while still retaining a comedic bend. A Series of Unfortunate Events is intentionally dark and outright points out in the narration that nothing is ever going to go right for the child protagonists. Yet audiences stay hooked because both the show and books make such good use of dark humour. You can see the same thing in many other works. My Little Pony had an episode about cults. Recess had an episode about psychological torture. Do I even need to mention the number of deaths in Disney movies?
Writing such stories is a positive experience, but that definitely doesn’t make it an easy one. Comedy isn’t nearly as easy to write as people assume it to be. I still have days when I’m so frustrated with my story that I need to take a step back from it to de-stress myself.
Remember what your story is
If you do like writing dark stories or want to impress a contest judge or your MFA teacher with a serious story, there’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t think it’s the only thing which makes you a writer. Stories are intended to be entertaining and entertainment is supposed to be fun, not depressing. Whether it’s a concert, a television show, or a sports game, entertainment is designed to give people a good time. There is no reason why your stories shouldn’t be the same way.