6

I'm a big fan of ongoing stories and longer series. But one thing I've noticed about my writing (and a lot of the works I read/watch) is that as a story goes on, the tone gets progressively darker.

The way this usually goes is that a story will start out light and happy, and then bad things will happen. And with each bad thing, the world gets a little darker. But the darkness doesn't really go away before the next bad thing comes, so it starts to pile up. And eventually, it gets so bleak and miserable that I want to abandon the story and move to something cheerier.

I can't just get rid of the dark events. Characters need to die, lines need to be crossed, and so on. But overall, I'd like the tone of the story to be positive.

How can I keep the darkness from taking over?

  • How do your stories end (assuming that you finish them)? Is there some kind of a happier ending? – Alexander Dec 13 '18 at 21:54
  • I have a dark tale - the life of an assassin. I leaven it with humour and have other characters that see the absurdity in some of these situations. – Rasdashan Dec 13 '18 at 22:15
  • @Alexander They're ongoing stories. There is no end. And story arcs overlap, so I can't use a break between arcs as a temporary "ending". – Mnemonic Dec 13 '18 at 22:41
  • There are thoroughly dark (but thrilling) stories, there is nothing wrong with that. But if you want to come to positive side, your arcs need a positive resolution, like in A Series of Unfortunate Events. – Alexander Dec 13 '18 at 22:51
6

I think what you're sensing is a desire to ramp up the conflict. Especially for a longer series, you need the stakes to increase with each book. First there's the enemy, then friends start turning against each other, and soon there's no one left the protagonist can trust. It's dramatic.

But there's a problem. This can fundamentally change the tone of the story. How many times have you heard someone say a movie started out great but then got weird/dumb/boring? Oftentimes this is a tonal shift that they didn't enjoy.

Authors writing books can fall into the trap of building a wonderful, pleasant world and then suddenly realizing they need to "get serious." It's hard to hold on to your original tone while upping the ante.

So how do you accomplish this?

1: Make it personal

We think that making the conflict bigger means adding more that could go wrong. Instead of a town, endanger a city. Instead of an empire collapsing, just threaten the whole world. But the problem is that people cannot empathize with the world at large. It's too general and too vague. Instead, the way to really hook people into the conflict is to make it more personal. What does the protagonist stand to lose? Increase that, and you've increased the stakes. This might mean simplifying and focusing your story. You don't have to snuff out all light everywhere; just give your main character a harder struggle, and let that complicate the possibility of victory.

2: Prepare the reader

The other thing you should do is prepare readers by subtly warning them what's to come. Don't surprise them too much with the nature of the opposition. If your protagonist has a weakness in chapter 1, that should be the exact pain point where the antagonist presses. This way, people are prepared when the conflict deep-dives. It won't be a frustrating, unexpected turn. Plus, we've already seen that the character is weak there. It's the best possible place to find conflict.


EDIT: I thought more about this and came up with a third point. It might be the most important.

3: Have an anchor

I can't tell you how many TV shows I've started, only to drop out when the last character I cared about was gone. But you know what? It's not usually a case of them dying. What happens is that they buckle; they lose track of what they've stood for, and I no longer respect them.

Fair warning: I'm an optimist with low tolerance for gritty stories. I don't read much dystopian because it's too bleak for me. BUT I can withstand an awful lot of darkness if there's at least 1 character I can always root for. I can't emphasize enough how important this is. What I need is someone with moral fiber who won't give in no matter the pressure. Some might call this unrealistic since there are no perfect people in real life, but stories have always been abstractions. We need someone representing what is good.

For me, as a reader and viewer, having that anchor character is vital. And you must preserve them. Put them through trials and tests, yes. Give them doubts, absolutely. But don't let them cave, or you've lost the last string of hope. Because the anchor represents not just their own personal goodness but the whole concept of what is right and true.

If it's helpful, here are 2 examples.

  • I loved the first season of Downton Abbey, but I quit when I lost my anchor character Robert Crawley/Lord Grantham/the dad. In the midst of relational drama, he was the one character who was both significant to the story and untainted by his choices. But then he cheated on his wife by kissing another woman (even as simple as that action is), and I no longer had anyone I truly believed in.
  • On the flipside, Samwise Gamgee is a wonderful example of the good character. The Lord of the Rings is a dark story, but even in the far reaches of Mordor, Sam is still believing that they might succeed. His faithfulness is where our hope rests.
6

Introduce light.

Change course. Learn to love again. Have a child and see the world through hope and innocence. Come to terms with the decisions of the past. Take the time to dig graves and grieve, but out of the same soil grow crops and rebuild.

Defeat the badguy, or partially convert them. Allow the protagonist to be challenged by learning a new task or temperament – even if that task is learning to live without conflict. Make them teach what they know.

Humor, and selfless investment in the success of friends and relatives, can de-center the protagonist, allowing them to discover more to life than just their own grim-dark destiny.

5

Have a lighter "B" plot. Yes, your main character is getting deeper and deeper into a dark place because of the struggle with the evil overlord -- and in the midst of it all she also finds herself caring for her ex's rambunctious puppy.

Tell the story in a way that offsets the mood of the events. A snarky first-person narrator or a lighter third-person narration can make a big difference. (With the first-person narrator you have to be careful; the character needs to be able to rise enough above the gloom to still talk that way. An example where this doesn't happen and the narrator is deep in the gloom is the last book of the Hunger Games trilogy.)

One recent series that lightens "heavy" topics is Debra Dunbar's Imp series (A Demon Bound et al). The first-person narrator is a mischievous demon (an imp) who gets caught up in the struggles between heaven and hell. There's killing and casual violence and you definitely get the sense that many of the sympathetic characters are, well, rather different from us, but the author uses both ligter subplots and humorous writing to keep the mood mostly "up". (There's one book in the series where that's not true, be warned.)

3

Make the world bigger than the conflict

The real world is really dark. There are wars with millions of people dying. There's corruption and unfair imprisonment. And plenty of mostly-decent people misunderstand and hate each other for mostly petty reasons.

And there are happy children, and places where there isn't deadly violence or starvation.

icanfathom observed that it is an attempt to ramp up conflict which usually drives an ever-darkening tone in a story. This is absolutely correct. I would add that a bleak grittiness is often intended as a stand-in for realism. But Monica Cellio's puppy-sitting is not less realistic than murder or betrayal. (Bonus points because involuntarily tending a potentially cast-off puppy shows incidental, "petty" compassion, breaking the monotony of dark problems and motives.)

The real distinction between gritty, harrowing, increasingly dark stories and those which maintain balance is exactly that - balance.

Even in war, there are places that the war doesn't reach because it is far away. But also, even in war there are places near at hand where people eke out some semblance of life and hope, because hope is something humans MAKE.

If the bombs stop falling for even one day, children will come out to play in the rubble

1

All of the answers are good. I will add that safe and nurturing places also help. Positive traditions--traditions of light--these help. Minor characters who are only good also help.

So build that in. Have a place in your world that offers respite. It has fantastic food. It has a kind person or two. There s wisdom there, for the heroes' inner journeys, if not for their external journeys.

Add in a holiday in recognition of something that all comers value. On this day, there is no bloodshed by custom.

Add in moments of promise and peace. A sunrise, where your protagonist sees the world anew and all that it can offer that is hopeful.

FWIW I found my story full of issues like this in early drafts. But a story can be like a fabulous croissant--you keep folding it and rolling it, adding more butter, getting another layer, another delicious layer, fold again, add more butter, roll it out again, another layer--and it will melt in your reader's mouth. Each draft you add more of whatever it is that you are missing. You know you're missing light. Now you have the task of adding that in. You can do it through people, tradition, place, moment. You can even research death and find the peace that some feel at that final moment--perhaps you can add those moments to your deaths. And so on. Light is everywhere. Find it and add it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.