This is part 2 of an unexpected mini-series. If you want to see where this all began, you can read part 1 here.
As promised, I’ll be diving into the deeper nuance behind the title question that inspired me to write this series of blog posts. I hope not only to explain how dark stories can be uplifting, but show how they have more natural potential to be so than you would think.
Where the focus lies – light or dark?
“Uplifting” has a positive connotation to it, like a little cousin to happiness and joy. When most people hear a story described as “uplifting”, they’ll assume that it will lean toward the light and have just enough darkness to establish a place to lift the protagonist (and reader) from. But what about stories that lean toward and focus on the darkness?
Though we can’t engineer emotions in our readers, we can engineer a sequence of events and circumstances that are likely to prompt a particular emotional reaction. There is an underlying narrative mechanism behind the stories and scenes readers often describe as “uplifting”. But in order to explain the mechanism, I need to explain polarity and how it’s manifested in stories.
Long-time readers are very familiar with Christopher Vogler and his book The Writer’s Journey by this point. I own a third edition copy which includes an appendix dedicated to narrative polarity. While the whole chapter is worth reading, the crux of his argument is summed up in these two sentences:
“As soon as you choose a single thought or character to unite your story, you have automatically generated its polar opposite, a contrary concept or antagonistic character, and therefore a duality or polarized system that conducts energy between the two parties. Unity begets duality; the existence of one implies the possibility of two.”
Whether the poles are embodied in your protagonist and antagonist, in groups (good guys vs. bad guys), or as more abstract forces driving the narrative, this polarity will manifest somewhere in your story. Yet Vogler warns that “most polarized systems don’t stay balanced for very long” and that “the more polarized a system is, the more likely it is to reverse its polarity.” As conflict builds, your story’s narrative polarity will reverse, either slowly or suddenly.
This reversal is the narrative mechanism I was referring to earlier. What Vogler calls polarity reversals is what other analysts call reversals of fate, fortune, or situation. When narrative polarity switches from the negative pole to the positive pole, it triggers an uplifting feeling in the audience. Vogler claims that good stories have three or four polarity reversals. I believe that a story can’t be a story without at least one.
There’s nothing preventing a dark story from employing the polarity reversal mechanism to make it uplifting. What’s interesting is that, if the polarity in a dark story is ever to reverse, then it must steer toward the light. Let’s assume that darkness and light carry their traditional associations of negative and positive, as we’ve done so far in this series. That assumption, in turn, classifies the necessary reversal toward light as a reversal from negative polarity to positive polarity. In other words, the story must be inherently uplifting, even if it may not look or taste like it at first glance.
When I started charting out basic story structures centered on an uplifting reversal, I discovered something even more interesting.
Like I stated at the beginning of this post, a light-oriented story needs to dive into darkness before it can lift characters from it back into the light. If the goal is to be uplifting, then it needs two polarity reversals: one that’s from positive to negative and a second that’s from negative to positive.
Doesn’t this pattern feel familiar? It’s the classic three-act structure exemplified by Freytag’s Pyramid. (Though an inverted pyramid would be a better visualization for this set of polarity shifts.) It’s the trajectory that the Hero’s Journey follows – the plot mega-structure that Vogler spends his whole book explaining in detail. Even if your story’s plot doesn’t follow either model precisely, it will pass through similar (thus familiar) emotional milestones.
A dark-oriented story, however, establishes that darkness on page one. If you want the story to be uplifting, you don’t need to drive the characters and world even further down. You just need to focus on bringing them up. Unlike light-oriented stories, your plot only requires one polarity reversal – the one from negative to positive that will prompt that uplifting feeling in your reader. The reversal doesn’t have to be short, easy, or without consequences. The new normal established at the story’s end doesn’t need to be all sunshine and rainbows either. Candle- and starlight are still light. So long as the characters are noticeably better off than where they started, you’ve achieved that uplifting goal.
Since dark stories only need to worry about a single polarity shift, one can easily claim that these stories allow the writer more creative freedom in terms of length and plot structure. Two polarity reversals will inevitably require more time to demonstrate than a single reversal. Also, a single reversal only defines a starting point and an end point. How the plot goes from A to B isn’t that important. A writer doesn’t have to be constrained by a model like Freytag’s Pyramid. You can follow a lesser-known model or experiment with a unique structure. If the writer focuses on using the polarized narrative forces to lift the characters toward positivity and light, the reader is likely to find their journey out of the abyss just as fulfilling as watching the Champions of Light finally overcome the Ancient Darkness in a climactic battle.
There are two more nuances I want to discuss, but this post has gone on long enough. So what do you think? Have I changed how you look at dark stories? Or are you still not convinced? Leave your thoughts, questions, and objections in the comments, and look for part 3 in May.