What Makes A Story Dark?

Gangster, Tough, Per, Gang, Attitude, Toughness

‘Dark’ is an oft-seen descriptor for books, comics, movies, games and television shows these days. These media are usually packed with violence, swearing, sex scenes and the like. But does that really make a story dark?

As I made my way through old runs of the Punisher — specifically the MAX runs, the runs filled to the max with violence and gore and obscenities and random sex — I must say that the answer is no.

Violence does not make a story dark. It only makes it bloody.

Swearing does not make a story dark. It only makes it obscene.

Sex does not make a story dark. It only makes it steamy.

Violence, swearing and sex do not make a story dark. The story may be very obscene and very violent, but it does not mean that the story is dark.

Violence, swearing and sex are merely actions. What makes a story dark is not mere actions, but what it says about humanity. To me, a dark story explores humanity at its basest. It plumbs the shadows of the human heart to reveal the demons within. It peels off the gilded mask to expose the squirming maggots beneath. It shines a light on the underbelly of society to warn the audience of the existence of monsters in men’s clothing.

It’s not enough to emphasise violence, swearing and sex. These actions come from the darkest impulses of human nature, but if these depictions are divorced from characters and the setting, then they merely become superficial indulgence. They reveal themselves as the workings of a mind that feasts on spectacle, not a mind that penetrates the shadows of the heart. Once these depictions cross the line and become gratuitous, they become over-the-top.

This doesn’t necessarily make the story bad, only that it is not dark.

The movie Last Action Hero is filled with violence, criminal behaviour and mass murder. But it doesn’t make the story dark, because it is, at heart, a satire of the buddy cop action genre. The humorous tone makes it light-hearted.

Likewise The Raid: Redemption, while action-packed, isn’t dark. It’s a martial arts film, characterized by many fight scenes. The plot is simply an excuse for the characters to engage in many, many, many hand-to-hand combat scenes in rapid succession. However, its sequel, The Raid 2, grapples with police corruption, gang politics, and the stresses of working undercover, giving it a darker tone.

Action is an expression of character. Everything a character says and does reveals something about him. His state of mind, his skills, his background, his influences, and more. In a dark story, the character’s actions reveal the reality of human evil, expressed through the lens of that character. They show why a person does what he does, how he does it, how he justifies it to himself, and the consequences of that action.

These actions don’t have to be graphic. But they do have to tell you something about that character and the setting, they must be set in context, and they must have consequences.

Without these elements, the graphic depictions of vice and violence becomes over the top. They hold only shock value, and once the audience is inured to that, there is nothing left but more violence, more shock, more spectacle. And in chasing the spectacle, in reinforcing the superficial instead of using it as a vehicle for deeper exploration, these actions further divorce themselves from the reality of the heart.

We know darkness exists in the world. But the main failing of many lesser writers who try to write dark fiction is that they do not have an accurate conception of what darkness really is like.

It dwells in a small man in a no-name bar in Texas, drinking a beer, minding his own business. When a huge stranger enters the bar, he offers the man a casual insult. The man smiles and ignores it. The stranger orders a drink and sits at the counter. He finishes his drink, walks up to the stranger, punches him once in the chest, and walks out. The stranger doesn’t react. At closing time, the stranger is still at his seat. When the staff check in on him, they find him dead, stabbed once in the heart.

Darkness dwells also in the heart of a smooth, articulate, young man from a rich family — who is also a serial rapist. Ah, but he was forced to rape the women, he argues, because they didn’t consent to his advances. If they had consented, he wouldn’t need to rape them. It was their fault, not his.

Darkness dwells in the flashy gangster who dresses in custom suits and expensive jewelry, indulging in fine food and drink. He’s no criminal, he says, only a businessman who gives the people what they want. That what they want happens to be illegal is the fault of the lawmakers, not him. As for rumors of his rivals dying in gunfire and explosions, well, there’s no proof he ordered it, is there?

These are real people. You can see why they do what they do, how they justify it to themselves and others, and the consequences of their deeds. I don’t have to give a blow-by-blow account of what they did to show you what kind of men they are. And neither do creators.

In the 1931 movie M, a child murderer stalks the streets of Berlin. The police launches a city-wide manhunt. This manhunt disrupts the activities of the criminal underworld, prompting the crime lords of Berlin to band together to find the murderer themselves, lest the police destroy their way of life.

In one scene, a gang of criminals torture a night watchman for information. As the torturer does his grim work, his accomplices huddle together outside the room, covering up the windows with their bodies. The man’s screaming makes it clear what’s going on, but no actual torture is portrayed.

Indeed, throughout the movie, there are no explicit portrayals of violence or the deaths of children. Everything is implied, with the gruesome details left to the viewer’s imagination.

This does not make the story any less dark. It is still a story of two parallel manhunts for the worst criminal Berlin has seen, one by the police and the other by the city’s criminals, and the chaos that follows. It explores the motivations of the criminals and brings them to light, it portrays the police as well-meaning but ineffective until the last minute, and it brings out the worst fears of parents. It is an unflinching look at the darkness within society and the heart — but it is neither obscene nor violent.

The most spine-chilling prose I’ve read comes from a novel by Andrew Vachss. Burke, the protagonist, is a thief who preys on other criminals. In that book (its name escapes me at the moment), Burke interviews a target to set up a con job. The target is a rich, well-spoken older gentleman. In smooth, self-assured tones, the gentleman praises the beauty of the love between a young boy and an older man, of the gifts he had bestowed on many a young boy, of how society simply misunderstands his love for boys.

There is nothing graphic in it. Just a monologue by a pedophile justifying what he does. But it is so effective because it reveals to the world how pedophiles think and rationalize their behaviors — more so since that character’s arguments are based on those by pro-pedophilia advocacy groups. It is not the shock of a monster jumping out of a closet, but the slowly-creeping dread as you realize that there are monsters in human skin, and the sudden fury when you recognize them.

Very obscene, very violent media is not necessarily dark. It just means it is jam-packed with graphic content. Dark fiction explores and exposes the darkness of the human heart. It doesn’t have to be graphic to do it, but without this exploration, this connection the potentiality and reality of human evil, there is no true darkness.

What is it like to uphold the law in a city of darkness? Check out my novel BABYLON BLUES here!

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What Makes A Story Dark?

One thought on “What Makes A Story Dark?

  1. Now I must find M and more works like it when I’m inclined to consume horror. Babylon Blues had the best blend of darkness and the other elements I’ve ever read. I don’t know how STS officers ever sleep.

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