Can Dark Stories Be Uplifting? Part 113 Mar 2020
What began as a relatively simple response post has turned into a mini-series. This is going to be at least a two-parter, and there’s a sequel in the works too. Just a fair warning that I’m going to spend the next few months on this topic.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with some old LegendFire friends over Discord, and I asked for their feedback on a brand new character and story idea. If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know that all of my characters start out fairly vague and extreme. The initial concept I gave them was quite dark. I believe it was the extreme harshness of the concept that sparked this question from HD: “Why do a lot of great stories show the harshness of life?” Later in the conversation, he added,
“We need uplifting stories. Like so many we consume are about grit and dark. Where is the fun? Stories can be both, you know… Stories using tough circumstances is realistic, yet storytelling is meant to be fun! So have it be uplifting at narrative beats, be sad in others. The end point is a positive ending carrying meaning.”
I want to make one thing clear. I’m not trying to disprove what HD said. I agree with all of it. However, as I pondered these words and the title question more, I uncovered some nuance that deserves discussion.
But first, let’s cover the surface level counter-arguments I, my other friends on Discord, and perhaps you thought of while reading that block quote from HD.
The Current Zeitgest
Or to put it in layman’s terms “Have you seen the news, my dude?” The upcoming 2020 election in America, the aftermath of Brexit, the pandemic that’s given the internet it’s new viral waifu Corona-chan – need I say more? Regardless of what you think about these issues, I think all creatives can agree that it’s hard to keep our emotions about them out of our work. I would not be surprised if 20, 30 years from now, there’ll be a slew of academic papers analyzing the dark and edgy reboots and original works of the early 21st century in an effort to understand what compelled us to create these things.
Let’s face it. Different people have different preferences – always have, always will. That’s why so many genres, categories, and styles exist. Do you love roller coasters or water rides? For the gamers in the audience, do you mostly play multi-player or single-player games? Personally, I’ll never understand why people like being scared, but apparently, it’s a real thing for a lot of them – real enough to make horror one of the most popular genres of all time.
Long time readers of my flash and Friday fiction have likely noticed that I have dark artistic sensibilities. Not straight-up Goth and horror, but close? I know many of the prompts and Ideas You Can Steal sprung from the dark corners of my imagination. There’s little use in me hiding the fact that I like exploring humanity’s dark potential, the warts most refuse to acknowledge, and the harsh circumstances that awaken this potential and are left in its wake. It’s a kind of fun that’s hard to describe, though hopefully as I continue this series, I can give clues about what it’s like.
Devolvement via poor execution
Etrius, another Discord friend, countered HD’s original statement by claiming “most writers do uplifting stories wrong.” He explained,
“It ends up becoming a story of indulgence and power fantasy… They remove the pain and suffering, the frustration and sadness. Therefore a lack of satisfaction.”
Etrius makes a valid point. People mock Hallmark and B-movies all the time for stuff like this. They’re fine as mindless entertainment, and it’s fun to laugh at them. But it’s hard to take these stories seriously.
Also, authors fumbling the execution to the point where the story devolves into a power fantasy isn’t a unique problem. Nearly any story outside of the horror genre could fall into this trap, whether the author is trying to create something uplifting or not. Power fantasies deserve their own post (or series).
Besides, as I prepared this mini-series, I realized that the deeper nuance I want to talk about rests less on exeuction and more on plot structure.
Unfortunately, that will have to wait till next time. For now, I’d like to hear your answer to the title question. What are your favorite genres? How do you define fun when it comes to writing and reading?