Using Darkness as a Storytelling Device

Storytelling devices come in many shapes and sizes. First person narrative, framing devices, flashbacks, the list goes on and one. Also known as literary techniques, all of these are methods of conveying a story in a unique manner that is meant to enhance what is being told on the page or on the screen.

But in recent years, there has been one story element that has become as influential on modern stories as any of these classic literary devices: darkness.

Darkness is a tone, it’s a prevailing mood that sinks into the subconscious of the audience, and has typically been a byproduct of the story that an author/director/etc. is determined to tell. However, modern storytelling has found itself focused on making books, movies, television shows, and more dark in order to appeal to what is seemingly the taste of the masses, often moving into the realm of darkness for darkness’ sake.

As such, darkness has become so influential on stories that it has become its own storytelling device. But what effect is this having on modern entertainment?

While an emphasis on darkness has helped bring new shades of depth and meaning to stories that were once never thought of as potentially serious, it has also been placed in stories that should have never gone down this path. Like any element of storytelling, darkness can begin to have negative effects when used poorly, but these errors may be more noticeable than mistakes made with most other storytelling devices. It seems as though the more times that a story dives into darkness, the greater the chances are of making a serious mistake.

By analyzing the merits of a story that uses darkness as an essential part of its narrative, we can be aware of the benefits and dangers present in this storytelling device.

The Strengths of Darkness

By nature, dark tones in a story work to convince audience members that they should take characters and their struggles seriously. More seems to be at stake and the outcomes may be less predictable. When a story involves dark subject matter, the idea of a fairy tale ending seems out of the question.

Dark stories spark certain fears, expectations, and ideas in the minds of viewers and readers, even if they do not know it is happening. But darkness is more than just an atmosphere (although background, setting, and character types can definitely help). It is the sum of multiple parts.

Hallmarks of dark storytelling include:

  • Real World Grounding – It seems to be nearly impossible to balance dark stories with a heightened sense of reality, just look at the film version of Daredevil. On second thought, stay far away from that movie. Often, artists will firmly ground the story in the real world to more easily reach the human center of the story without outlandish action getting in the way.
  • Unflinching Violence – Bright, family friendly stories don’t have graphic violence. Nobody gets their head caved in during The Avengers, but they do in Drive. Repeatedly. If your narrative justifies the use of mature violence, like the unflinching nature of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, then your audience will be able to withstand the content because they are enraptured by the story.
  • Death of Important Characters – One of the fastest, easiest ways to make a story dark is to kill off an important character. But this must be handled more carefully than any other aspect. When done right, the audience is locked into the narrative, when botched, it violently turns them against you. Death isn’t the only option. Like Han Solo’s fate in The Empire Strikes Back, the loss of a character can solidify a story as bold and daring.
  • The Presence of Social Issues – Darkness for darkness’ sake can be one of the most shallow types of stories. Thankfully, most people who are earnestly trying to create a worthwhile narrative will have a purpose. Often, this takes the form of social issues weaved into the story, such as terrorism in The Dark Knight. These types of topics are much harder to tackle in a lighter story and give credence to using darkness.
  • Flawed Heroes – Protagonists that are squeaky clean don’t fit into dark stories, so the few that are used are either juxtaposed against their surroundings or are brought down into the darkness in some manner. Pre-existing characters who are dark and flawed, like Batman, lend themselves well to crafting dark stories around them, while brighter heroes like Superman may end up being altered for the sole purpose of pursuing a dark tale.
  • Lack of Comedic Relief – This doesn’t mean there will not be some laughs, but most of these come from incidental circumstances. Rather than having characters tell jokes and lighten the mood, most laughs in darkness come from the humanity of characters. This can lighten the tension for a moment, but it also often leads to darker developments.

Usually, the creator of a story that rests heavy on darkness will incorporate several of these elements in order to make his or her point clear. While not all of these need to be included, using several at once can be a potent mix, leading to dark character studies, gritty thrillers, real world superheroes, and many other types of stories that have made a major impact in recent years.

The Pitfalls of Darkness

There is no single aspect of dark storytelling that is always a wrong move. But storytellers that choose darkness must understand that this is a narrow path with steep cliffs on either side. One misstep and the damage to the narrative can be irreparable. Most often, this comes from the approach of darkness for darkness’ sake.

Compromising a story or altering characters just to make a story darker can change aspects that would typically resonate with audience members more. Pre-existing characters that are suddenly acting out of character can easily anger the audience. Just look at the reaction to the end of Man of Steel. Whether you liked the choice or not, it was obvious that the changes made to Superman shocked many.

Also, if you are choosing to incorporate social issues into a story, make sure to explore it properly. Simply touching on these issues can come off as cheap and ignorant, with even the best of intentions coming off as a cheap ploy to seem deep. Compare the comic book miniseries Watchmen to its movie adaptation by Zack Snyder. The book takes it time to explore several different issues, like violence, heroism, sexual dysfunction, and what it takes to create world peace. The movie also used these issues, but only touched the surface, making them into minor footnotes instead of the aspects that made this one of the greatest stories of all time.

Killing off a character can be bold when done for the right reasons. Too bad this is usually an insanely cheap tactic that is pretty easy to see through.

While death and loss have always been important aspects of story arcs, the idea of simply killing off a character to make the audience take you seriously can be highly damaging when done wrong. The likelihood of this going wrong is much higher in franchise properties where audiences are deeply invested in preexisting characters. For example, the death of Newt and Hicks at the beginning of Alien 3 was meant to isolate Ripley and let the audience know that this was a deeply dark story where nothing was guaranteed. Instead, it immediately caused audience members to rebel against the filmmakers and what they had decided to do with the story.

It doesn’t matter when your audience is repelled by the darkness, once they are out, they are typically out for good.

A Light That Shines Bright in the Dark

With so many dark tales everywhere you look, a story that embraces lightness can actually stand out much more than its gloomy brethren. Visual style, narrative direction, and characterization can be a deep breath of fresh air because they are contrasted so sharply with the rest.

Take, for example, the recent developments in the Marvel Comics story of Daredevil. In the 1980s, Frank Miller decided to entrench the character of blind lawyer/superhero Matt Murdock deeply within the darkness, first starting in the classic story Born Again. Afterward, Daredevil’s story grew darker and darker, causing him to suffer in seemingly every way imaginable. However, the story eventually took a turn that many fans found unacceptable, as Daredevil became a possessed, murderous leader of a ninja clan. At last, fans had reached a breaking point with the story being dark for darkness’ sake.

So with Daredevil’s story at its breaking point, where would Marvel turn? Enter Mark Waid, a writer with an amazing pedigree and a simple yet brilliant vision: make Daredevil’s story bright and fun once again. Murdock returns with a dedication to living life to the fullest and rejecting depression and the darkness. He’s living in denial, but along with his new bright demeanor comes a new lightness to the story. The action is fast, the art is bright and dynamic, and the character interactions are fun and snappy. But that doesn’t mean that character depth is thrown out the window. The mix of fun storytelling and strong characters has made Daredevil one of the most praised comics on the market today.

Beyond Daredevil, there are countless examples of success on both sides of the storytelling spectrum, showing that no one way is the end-all-be-all when it comes to tone. The success of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Trilogy means that millions of people still want to have fun in their movies while also embracing dark and serious storytelling.

When it comes down to it, storytellers need to be true to their narrative. If that calls for lightness, darkness, or some mix of the two, pursue it boldly and embrace the strengths present for what they are. The truth found in your storytelling will make all the difference.

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