What Makes a Story Dark?

If you’re a horror writer or you love to write dark, psychological stories and thrillers, or moralistic tales, this is the one question that needs an answer. Wanting a dark story and writing one are two different things, so how do you actually make a story dark?
To answer that you first have to understand what is meant by ‘dark’. We usually define ‘dark’ as quantifiable elements that we know and are familiar with, but it’s more than that. Dark doesn’t necessarily mean scary or gory with a crazy psychopath going around chopping people into bits. Instead we have to think of ‘dark ‘as anything outside our accepted rose-tinted reality. Dark is the underbelly of our society; it’s the handling of ideas, themes, social issues and behaviours that would be seen as morally unacceptable.
It’s less about fictional monsters but more about the real monsters that lurk in the shadows, something that is underscored by our fears and anxieties. It’s the unknown, because the things we don’t know or cannot comprehend generally scare us.
A story is considered dark if it tackles the stuff that would make most people uncomfortable, and that, of course, could be anything, from the horror of war, drugs, people trafficking, child abuse, genocide, terrible crimes, terrorism, gritty or grim urban tales or horror...to good old fashioned blood and guts horror.
Dark stories force us to confront the kind of subjects we don't want to, sometimes taboo subjects. It makes the reader confront subjects they probably wouldn’t normally want to know about, but that’s what a dark story does – it makes the reader confront all those fears and unknowns and attempts to quantify them.
Human nature intrigues us and we, as writers, are always trying to find answers, and the best place to find darkness for any story can be found with human nature. Dark is the side of humanity we almost always fear. And that’s the key word here – fear. The things we fear most are what make any story dark. Fears and insecurities can take on any form – a fear the outside world, irrational fears that take over, fear of losing loved ones, a lack of hope, death, depression, illness...anything. Mix fears with the element of the unknown and you have a potent mix.
Dark stories also tend to be intense with emotions because of the subject matter and themes. With fears and anxieties pushed to the fore, emotions become magnified; they get in the reader’s face. There may not always be a happy ending in dark stories, either.
Different situations evoke different reactions, but if you want your dark story to be effective, then any underlying darkness within the story must have meaning. There needs to be a reason for it, just as there has to be a reason for your characters to do and act the way they do to get what they want, and they have to journey through to their goal. So, for instance, a story that deals with terrorism will have darker underlying themes. A story focused on child abuse will have some dark and uncomfortable themes and images. But they will have some meaning to the story.
Don’t inject blood and gore just for the sake of it, especially if it is entirely unrelated to the plot. This just confuses the story.
The other thing is that dark stories generally have very complex characters. Antagonists tend to be far more multifaceted because their personalities, dark secrets, traits and behaviours reflect the fact they are antagonists and they tend to act negatively throughout the story in comparison to the moral approach to the protagonist.
Elements that make a story dark:
  • Human nature
  • Uncomfortable subjects
  • Characterisation, especially deep, complex characters
  • Fears and insecurities and anxieties
  • Any underlying darkness must have meaning
  • Intense emotions
  • Dark themes
  • The real world - it isn't as pleasant as we think.
Dark stories tend to form from reality simply because reality is dark; what happens in our world is a source of darkness for any story. The real world is dark, even if we don’t like to admit it or face it.

Next week: What moves a story forward?


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