Can a story be too dark?
I had one reader describe my novel Journey to Mithlimar, the second book in The Lore of Efrathah, as “intense.” For some reason, I translated that as “dark.” It’s not, of course, but that started me thinking about the parts of my story that are undeniably dark.
Last week I mentioned Sharon Hinck‘s third book in the Sword of Lyric series, The Restorer’s Journey. That book, too, could be considered “dark.” And Broken Angel, last month’s CSFF feature, giving a dystopian view of the world, was certainly dark as well.
But none of these is hopeless. I’d like to think that’s the single factor that needs to be present to keep a story from being too dark. But to be honest, I’ve read dark books where hope shows up in the end, and I didn’t find the story any less dark. Mostly the ending felt tacked on or forced—an author’s manipulation that didn’t seem justified.
I know that God works to bring light out of darkness, and often that miraculous change comes apparently with no warning—a thief-in-the-night surprise. But in fiction? That kind of story comes across as artificial, unless proper groundwork has been carefully laid.
So my guess is, that “proper groundwork” is what keeps a novel from feeling “too dark.” Not that there are lines full of sunshine and flowers or any dramatic visions or prophecies that all will work out well in the end. Rather, there’s enough foreshadowing, enough character development, enough open-ended possibility that the reader doesn’t feel the situation is hopeless.
On the other hand, the reader should not sense a “sure thing.” If victory is a foregone conclusion, the dark forces can be as dark as they want, but the reader won’t view them as a real threat. There won’t be any tension and little suspense—the driving forces that make a reader want to continue turning pages.
I suppose some visitors may be wondering if “darkness” is a necessary component, and some might even think that any darkness is too much darkness. In that regard, I refer you to Spec Faith contributor Stephen Burrnett’s most recent post.
Scripture clearly acknowledges that we have an enemy—that he prowls like a lion seeking whom he may devour; that we are to resist him or flee from him; that we are to know his schemes without being party to them (wise as serpents, innocent as doves).
If fiction is to show truth, as I believe, it seems clear that darkness must come into our stories. But to be most effective, authors need to balance the dueling forces of too much darkness with predictable victory.