KATIE WRITES: Jeremiah is an old friend, and a strong Christian, and the most common victim of my tendency to turn blog post titles into puns. Last year he wrote a piece I called “After World’s End” about post-apocolyptic fiction, so his current topic actually makes a very good follow-up.
Writing about darkness is something I think every writer struggles with, regardless of their faith. So writing about writing about darkness is something every blogger comes around to sooner or later, depending on how much they wish to admit of their own doubts to their readership. I am saved having to give you my own take on it by pinning that responsibility on Jeremiah. He probably does a better job than I would anyway.
That said, I am going to introduce you to some basic thoughts on it.
When I say Darkness is essential to good storytelling, I do not mean that you must have rabid house-eating squirrels in the children’s book you’re writing. Nor does it mean it needs to be set at night. When I say “Darkness”, I mean something that is not right. Or, better, something that is very very wrong. In a book for young children, it could be a character who is mean (and doesn’t reform instantly when corrected, because that isn’t often how it works). Or it could be a house fire, or other disaster. Even a death in the family.
The other term I’d like to clarify—when I say “Story”, capital S, I am referring to that stuff we put in every story we write. The more of that substance that ends up in the story, the better it will be. As long as it is processed properly. I’m referring to that part of reality that is fluid. It can be taken from its natural context and thrown into a new one, without falsehood. It can be applied in Otherworlds which share the most basic structures of reality with our own.
It is, in essence, the part of the story that most closely mimics God in His own storytelling.
When you write a good story, you are portraying ultimately the same reality that God created (to the best of your limited ability, of course). To put it another way—when you’re writing a good story, you’re writing honestly.
And that is when we finally get the point of this article.
Many Christian writers (and readers) seem to have this idea that we should write fiction where…everything is great. Where things are as they should be. As a Christian, I can see that temptation. The world is a messed up place, and we want refuge. We want to give our readers refuge. Give them some time in a perfect world, a world like what God intended.
God did in fact, intend for us to live in a world without hardship, right? Without any real struggle, gray areas, or wrong?
But wait just a second. Even in the beginning, in paradise, there was a tree the fruit of which would do unimaginable, irreparable damage, and all it took was one bite.
Remember, God called this Creation He had made “very good” in its entirety, even with such a deadly threat in its very center.
Apparently by “very good” He didn’t mean “foolproof”, “easy”, or even “safe”. You know how the story goes, and truly, that is the beginning of our story. That is the beginning of the chapter we currently live in. More on this later.
Good storytelling demands honesty. It requires an accurate portrayal of this thing called life we all experience daily, for every nanosecond of our existence.
And life has darkness in it now. Life has death and disaster, abuse, misery, rape, hopelessness, self-hatred, blood, addiction, mutilation, and much much more. We must write about these things, they must be in the gardens of our stories, represented alongside the honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable—because they are true. They are inseparable from the great truths we want to communicate, and we cannot ignore them.
By not ignoring them, I don’t mean we should just dip our readers’ toes into the deadly-freezing water of Dark Things: “Yeah, this stuff exists—hey, let’s go get some ice cream.”
No, we need to dunk them into it so they know what it is, not just that it is uncomfortable, and they don’t like it. Violate the false sense of security they’ve lulled themselves into. Remind them what life is really like—if not for them, then for many, many others. Shock their pathetic, untrained senses if you must, but wake them up.
Now, before anyone freaks out, I’m not saying here that we must violate any scrap of innocence left to our readers, without mercy. There is a delicate balance here that I don’t believe we’ll ever hit perfectly—but the dark side of life must be presented with the good. And it must be done so vividly enough to touch the reader’s heart, as well as our own.
Your job as a writer is to seek to educate your readers while not blowing things out of proportion, or portraying them as necessarily “normal”, or “right”. That would be going against the principle of writing honestly. The idea is not to go from one extreme (writing sappy painless stories where everything always turns out perfectly even when things were looking bad), to the other. Write honestly, portray life accurately. That is the highest calling of any writer.
This is done well in many stories, even for children. C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is one excellent example of a story that really grows with you, as you learn to see more and more deeply the reality embedded in the fabric of the story, and the characters.
While this chapter of God’s great Story does include the element of evil, and we must portray that, we know that the next chapter is full of hope, and reparation. At that point, everything will be perfect (without being fake, no less!), and every tear will be wiped away. So yes, write dark stories! But take care that you also show that there is a hope, there is a Light that is far greater than any Darkness. Whether you end the story in the darkness, or at the dawn, show that the dawn is coming.
Case in point—write stories that push your readers to grow, no matter their age. Include the darkness with the light—in reality it’ll be there whether you say it is or not. Be a good writer, and write honestly.
Jeremiah Stiles is an obsessively inconsistent writer who focuses primarily on fantasy and sci-fi in his reading and writing, likes to play in the rain, and has a strong tendency to throw round plastic things. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog.