A staircase that is covered in shadows to illustrate writing that's too dark

The Problem With Writing That’s Too Dark

Have you ever been told your projects contain writing that’s too dark? Or maybe too light? Worse, have you known this was the case, and yet, not known what to do about it?

In high school, a cool kid in an alligator shirt said, “Why do you always write stuff that’s so disturbing?”

“It’s my superpower,” I replied.

In a way, it was.

Writing about dark topics helped me process the pain and fear I lived with, which made me a happier person. Finding happiness as a trauma survivor was pretty freaking magical.

But continuing to receive feedback on writing that’s too dark from respected writers felt less so, especially after my transition to creative nonfiction.

When writing instructors or fellow students said things like, “Don’t you think that’s a little too dark and depressing?” I had the urge to scream, try living through it! But the one I REALLY hated was, “What about the good stuff? Can’t you balance it out?”

It felt like they wanted me to manufacture some good for their benefit.

I didn’t yet know that describing tough moments so vividly readers lived through them wasn’t enough. Sure, it made me an effective scene writer, but great stories require a balance of light and dark, hope and failure, victory and defeat, contraction and release.

Managing this balance is an essential skill we must learn, regardless of what we’ve been through. Fortunately, Donald Maas has some suggestions, which I’ll expand upon during session two of my webinar series The Psychology of Memoir.

So far, our exploration of Donald’s book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, has touched on how to launch and what to do at your midpoint. Next, let’s examine the two situations that can help you balance the dark and light: Failure and Defeat and Catalyst and Catharsis.

At points of Failure and Defeat, “the past is erased, and the future is a void.” Trapped in an abysmal now, your character “feels not only insecurity, loss, or grief, but like their identity is gone.” Most books have a major Failure and Defeat that takes place during Blake Snyder’s All Hope Is Lost beat. The power in these moments doesn’t come from “the tangible things that are lost, but rather the intangibles.”

In this chapter, Donald tells us about the day he took his son to see his first NHL game. They’d left for Manhattan with plenty of time to spare. All had gone well until they reached the subway station. While trying to buy a ticket, Donald discovers he’s lost his wallet. As his son looks at him and says, Dad, he thinks not of the missed game or how their only way home is a long winter walk back to Brooklyn, but of the one thing he cares about: his kid’s faith in him.

Donald has a great list of questions to help you develop your Failures and Defeats without creating writing that’s too dark. Here’s a snippet:

  • Go to the middle of your manuscript. Pick a moment when your protagonist is reckoning with a betrayal, setback, or coming up short.
  • What’s the worst part of this situation?
  • What makes it a personal failure?
  • What does your protagonist wish she could do instead? What does your protagonist wish she could say but can’t?

The counter of Failure and Defeat is your Catalyst and Catharsis moment. These reckonings appear in your story’s Dark Night of the Soul and the levity they provide can balance any writing that might be too dark. 

In psychology, catharsis is defined as a moment of emotional release. In storytelling, moments of catharsis are made up of two parts—the catalyst and the consequence. But instead of leading to despair, the catalyst serves as a “powder keg that doesn’t just explode, it shifts your narrator in a positive direction,” by clearing space for new insights. In the wreckage, your narrator finds their strength and ability to move on.

Most stories have one big Failure and Defeat followed by one big Catalyst and Catharsis, but mini moments will appear throughout your book. They’ll not only propel your story forward, but reveal the places where you decided to survive, which you did, even if you don’t consciously remember doing it.

How do I know?

You’re reading this post.

That’s why you’re so incredible. You survived whatever you’ve been through, and you’re here to tell the tale. The goal is to figure out how to do it in a way that honors your experience and your reader’s needs. 

Sure, it’s a challenge, but after years of hard work, I know you can do it without creating something that feels fake, like a lie, or like you’re creating things just for the reader’s benefit. Learning how to do this will not only help you write a better story. It will put you in touch with the many superpowers you have. My greatest wish is that you use them to always write on.

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