Some stories have an overall mood that’s light or even cartoonish, yet feature gratuitous slaughter and suffering. I’ve previously described stories with this type of tonal dissonance as “slathered in grimdark sauce.” While grimdark sauce makes a story feel immature, this isn’t a problem that belongs to young writers; it’s common for storytellers of all ages. Let’s go over why this problem happens and how to approach adding tragic and bleak aspects to your work.
What “Grimdark Sauce” Looks Like
Let’s go over two works with this tonal issue.
This novel by Christopher Paolini puts the plot of Star Wars: A New Hope in the world of Middle-earth. Following the template of Star Wars, the book is not particularly dark. While a couple characters die, it isn’t tragic. I’ve never heard of anyone mourning Luke’s aunt and uncle, and readers are even less likely to care about Eragon’s uncle, Garrow. Paolini depicts Garrow as looking “partly mummified” and “ravenous,” but he still gets mad at Eragon for accepting food in charity. But while viewers of Star Wars only see a brief shot of the desiccated corpses of Luke’s aunt and uncle, Eragon finds Garrow alive, burnt, and “oozing.” It takes him several days to die. Nothing else in the story has this level of grim realism.
Eragon’s dragon, Saphira, hunts to feed herself. Other books wouldn’t say much about that, but Paolini has Saphira proudly describe the animals she kills as though they’re intelligent beings. Apparently the buck she caught tried to fight back until it realized it had no chance against her, and then it gave up. Readers definitely needed to know that.
In Chapter 18, Eragon and his mentor enter a town that’s strangely silent to find what Paolini refers to as “a mountain of bodies.” A paragraph is spent describing how horrific these bodies look, including the impaled corpse of a baby. Of course, these dead people are all nameless, but readers are told that they were killed specifically by Urgals, the goblins of the setting. Urgals are given every negative trait imaginable so that they can be killed without remorse, but they never manage to harm the protagonists. In the prologue, the love interest even skewers several at once like a kebab.
While Eragon’s mentor dies during the book (surprise, surprise), no other character of significance does, not even in the big battle sequence at the end. Instead, there’s lots of summary of how the heroes kill Urgals by pouring boiling pitch on them, stabbing them, and lopping their heads off. In the first chapter of the sequel, Eragon goes out to the battlefield three days later just because he wants to morbidly peek at all the bodies.*
This bestselling book by Tomi Adeyemi is about the brutal oppression, enslavement, and genocide of the kingdom’s mage population.* This is an extremely dark topic, but the majority of the book isn’t particularly dark.
The story starts when one of the viewpoint characters, Amari, watches her father, the king, kill her best friend. That sounds terrible, but the murdered character doesn’t appear in a scene before her death. That means the readers aren’t emotionally invested in her, and they won’t feel much when she dies. Not long after this, Amari runs away and meets up with the other viewpoint character, Zélie. They end up completely surrounded by guards, but none of those guards manage to hit them while they get on their giant cat mount and leap away.
After they get back to Zélie’s home, the antagonist burns her village down. Adeyemi describes the corpses of several nameless villagers, but all the named characters make it through. When Zélie leaves her father and mentor to go on a quest, Adeyemi even reassures the reader that they’ll be just fine.
The book continues on like this. Minor or background characters are slaughtered right and left when the heroes aren’t present, but for most of the novel, Amari and Zélie soar through their quest to bring magic back practically unhindered. Later in the story, Zélie does get captured and tortured, but even then, freeing her is remarkably easy.
In the few instances where the protagonists are positioned to stop nameless people from getting murdered, they do not try. In fact, a major event in the story involves a water arena where countless mage slaves are forced to battle each other to the death. The man running the arena claims that if a boat team lives through it, then he’ll give them an important artifact. So Amari and Zélie actually enter the tournament and participate in the killing of their enslaved fellows. Adeyemi treats it like they have no choice, though that’s not remotely believable. Again, the people dying are largely unknown and nameless, not anyone readers will cry over.
What Actual Grimdark Looks Like
Let’s look at how two popular stories incorporate grimdark elements in a more meaningful way. I probably don’t have to introduce you to the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, adapted to the Game of Thrones (GoT) series on HBO. Like Eragon, GoT is an epic fantasy series that takes place in a bleak world where lots of nameless inhabitants die. It opens when several people die at the hands of the main monster of the series, the White Walkers. The one person who manages to get away from these White Walkers is then executed by a protagonist, Eddard Stark, for deserting. Throughout the series, countless people die from monsters, warfare, starvation, and cruel politics.
Another well-known story that is successfully grimdark is N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series. Like Children of Blood and Bone, The Broken Earth covers brutal oppression by using mages as analogy. In the world of The Broken Earth, mages are targeted for deadly mob violence, forced to serve non-mages through brutal and abusive training programs, and put into eugenics programs to produce ever more powerful mage-servants. We see the cruelty toward mages both in and outside of the training system, and eventually even learn that some mages are given permanent brain damage so they’ll make better slaves. The protagonist, a mage named Essun, faces all of this violence herself, and she also fears the effect it will have on her magically talented children.
The audience mourns many of the deaths
Unlike Eragon and Children of Blood and Bone, the suffering in GoT and The Broken Earth extends to important characters. Early in the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, an antagonist attempts to kill a viewpoint character, who is only a boy, by pushing him from a high window. The boy lives, but he can’t walk anymore. The first book also famously contains the death of Eddard, the most important protagonist up to that point. The series is notorious for the Red Wedding, a shocking event in which several important protagonists are killed at once.
Meanwhile, The Broken Earth opens with Essun finding out that her young son has been murdered by her husband after the boy accidentally revealed his magical abilities. This is a death that actually affects the main character in a meaningful way. Even though we haven’t met the son before, he was killed because of his magic, the same kind of bigotry that Essun faces. Jemisin also puts more work into establishing the relationship between mother and son, even though the son is dead. Not only is Essun’s grief palpable in the moment, but the scars it inflicts stay with her for the rest of the story.
Even better, Jemisin also makes it clear that the son’s death is a tragedy in its own right, not just because of how it affects other characters. The protagonist often thinks about her lost son and how his future was brutally taken from him, denying him the chance at what he could have been. It’s painful to read, but it’s also deeply meaningful.
In both GoT and The Broken Earth, the audience cares about those who die or suffer. This doesn’t happen by default; Martin and Jemisin had to build attachment to their characters. Once the audience cares about them, they will mourn those characters when they die and feel the impact of character suffering. This is worlds away from the slaughter of nameless people. In Eragon, imagine for a moment if instead of finding the body of a random baby from the village, the main character found the body of his baby sister. Ouch! Now the story is truly dark, and so much so that it would be unsuitable for its target audience.
The heroes are tasked with preventing suffering
Another factor that distinguishes GoT and Broken Earth from stories with superficial darkness is whether protagonists spend the story working to save the innocents who are dying or suffering. In both Eragon and Children of Blood and Bone, the deaths of nameless people are treated as inevitable occurrences that the protagonists are powerless to stop. They don’t arrive in time to save anyone, or the antagonists kill people after they leave, or the evil forces at work are simply too large and overwhelming for the protagonists to influence until the story’s end. Because of this, the suffering that’s described in these stories is mostly superfluous.
While Game of Thrones also features a world of overwhelming suffering caused by powerful forces, heroes are still given the responsibility of preventing the suffering of the people around them. One protagonist is up north working to stop the White Walkers from killing people, another protagonist is freeing slaves, while others are trying to gather enough supplies to prevent mass starvation. The death of innocents isn’t an inevitable event that happens when the protagonists look away; it is part of the story’s stakes and a consequence when the protagonists fail. The suffering depicted by George R. R. Martin matters to the plot of his series.
Likewise, as horrible as The Broken Earth’s setting is, the protagonist sets out to do something about it. At first, this is a personal quest to find her murderous husband and rescue their still-living daughter. Later, the mission changes when she is forced to make an extended stop at an isolated town. Here, she discovers that the same bigotry that motivated her son’s murder is rampant, but Jemisin doesn’t simply let this bigotry run its course like a video game cut scene. Instead, our hero recognizes that she has a responsibility to act and uses her power to make things better. It’s messy and difficult, but the town still ends up better than how she found it.
How We Should Depict Suffering
In stories slathered with grimdark sauce, cruelty to humans and other sapient beings isn’t a tragedy or a failure; it’s a meaningless part of the scenery. It’s as though storytellers are inviting guests to a cheery party where everyone oohs and aahs over videos of torture. Even if we really wanted to cultivate that experience, there’s something wrong with it on a moral level. Shouldn’t mass murder be treated like a tragedy? If we don’t want to feel bad about it, perhaps we shouldn’t depict it in the first place.
Ironically, the absence of emotional meaning is probably why these depictions are so over the top. When storytellers don’t know how to give their work emotional impact, they often resort to making their depictions more extreme. Paolini probably thought that he needed that mountain of bodies to make either the story’s stakes feel serious or the Urgals feel threatening. Adeyemi was covering the important real-world issue of oppression, so she might have felt that making her story dark was the best way to treat this issue seriously.
Unfortunately, piling bodies in the background doesn’t accomplish these goals. In fact, it does just the opposite. A storyteller who goes to extremes so quickly shows that they take extreme events lightly. In contrast, when traumatic events are covered by people with high levels of experience and expertise in that type of trauma, the depictions are often mild. Sometimes the traumatic event takes place offscreen or is only alluded to. That’s because these writers are more likely to be impacted by what they’re depicting, and they’re more likely to prioritize the welfare of audiences who are similarly sensitive to the issue.
Regardless of how dark you’d like your story to be, the best way to approach suffering is to make less mean more. That means:
- Putting greater emphasis on the people who are lost or hurt
- Showing how milder violence or hardship impacts people
- Giving heroes the power and responsibility to help others
As an example, let’s replace that gratuitous scene from Eragon with something more tone appropriate. The hero and his mentor are about to enter a village along their travel route to get supplies they need. Instead of finding a mountain of bodies, they find everyone gathered for a funeral in the center of town. It turns out that Urgals raided the village and took the food the townsfolk needed to last through the winter. The strongest warrior in town tried to fight back, but the Urgals killed her, leaving the town feeling even more helpless. Eragon takes it upon himself to find the Urgal raiders and get the provisions back so that no one starves. Once he succeeds, he is rewarded with the supplies he needs to continue traveling. This alternate scenario humanizes the person who died and still shows readers that Urgals can threaten whole towns.
Once you make tragedies matter emotionally, you’ll find that even mild ones will create a dark story in short order. Getting all the way to Broken Earth’s or Game of Thrones’ level of darkness is something few stories should aspire to. In most stories, it’s better to avoid upsetting deaths unless there is a war or large battle. In those cases, a likable side character can be sacrificed so the conflict feels real and appropriately tragic. Wars are inherently harmful on a massive scale, so they shouldn’t feel like a picnic.
Last, be consistent with your tone. Later in Children of Blood and Bone, Adeyemi takes the gloves off and starts punishing her characters, but it’s too late. After an opening where characters escape from life-threatening events with barely a scratch, veering into grimdark territory feels bizarre.
In contrast, The Broken Earth starts dark and stays that way. The main character faces many hardships due to her marginalized status, and there’s never a moment where she can suddenly bypass those problems because they are inconvenient for the plot. She must constantly hide who she is and stay away from people who might otherwise help her because there’s always a danger of someone discovering her identity.
Stories can get a little darker as their tension climbs toward the climax, but a story that feels light and then slaps on self-harm or torture will alienate readers. If you’d like your story to be grimdark, it must start that way.
When Not to Write a Dark Story
When Oren or I see grimdark sauce in manuscripts we’re editing, we ask the writer to tell us how dark they’d like their story to be. Some writers who include blips of dark material in a light story weren’t intending to go in a grimdark direction. For subjects like abuse, the writer may not realize the magnitude of what they’ve depicted.
Other times, the writer thought they needed a dark story to accomplish a different goal of theirs. Unfortunately, this can mean the writer added dark elements even though they didn’t want to write a dark story. That’s one possible reason for depicting dark events in a way that gives them no impact. Ironically, most of these goals don’t require making a story grimdark in the first place. Let’s go over some.
- You want the story to be exciting. Making an exciting story means building tension, but that’s not the same thing as violence or tragedy. While you’ll want high stakes for conflicts – such as putting lives on the line – your hero can still succeed in saving those lives. Death and suffering that the hero has no ability to change does not add excitement.
- You want to comment on injustice. Some stories about injustice incorporate dark elements in moving ways. The Broken Earth is one example. However, not only is a grimdark tone rarely a requirement for this type of commentary, but it often leads storytellers to create exploitative stories that are actively harmful. The level of expertise required to send a meaningful message about injustice is much higher for darker and more explicit stories.
- You want to develop characters. Some storytellers think that character suffering is a shortcut to character growth. Not only is this untrue, but it results in bizarre character arcs where terrible things happen to the hero and then they’re suddenly doing great. Instead, characters grow when they are given learning experiences.
- You want to be taken seriously. I have to be honest: some people will take your story more seriously if it is dark. But this is an unfortunate and troubling bias, not something that writers should be catering to. For those who are concerned with this, you should also keep in mind that the audience for dark stories is smaller. Plus, if you create a story slathered in grimdark sauce, your story will be taken less seriously, not more.
So if those are the wrong reasons to create a grimdark story, what’s the right one? You need to be personally invested in dark and intense storylines and dedicated to giving your audience that experience. This means you’re more than okay with crying while you are writing and you’re not flinching at hurting the characters you love. Even so, a storyteller interested in this type of story should understand that a dark tone comes with consequences, and that even a dark-loving audience has limits.
George R. R. Martin killed of so many protagonists because he was determined to keep his readers in suspense about which characters would come out on top at the series end. In doing so, he gave up the comfort and satisfaction many readers need, and this almost certainly led many readers to quit after a character they liked was killed. Believe or not, even George R. R. Martin killed fewer protagonists as the series continued. If you kill too many, audiences start keeping their emotional distance in case it happens again. Because they’re not invested anymore, the story actually becomes less suspenseful than if you had killed off fewer likable characters.
How to Make a Story “Dark but Light”
While light stories with grimdark sauce feel crude and immature, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to use aspects of dark stories in light ones. What we call “dark” is actually a collection of different tonal effects with different properties. Grimdark stories have tragedy and gloom as part of their defining tone, and that’s why it doesn’t work to protect the audience from feeling bad.
However, stories can have a dark atmosphere and a light mood if they are just creepy. A great example is the movie The Corpse Bride, an animated Tim Burton film. The Netflix show Chilling Adventures of Sabrina also has creepy atmosphere without being particularly dark. In the book world, many works by Neil Gaiman fall into this category, as does the recent novel Gideon the Ninth.
These stories have a setting with lots of skeletons, ghosts, monsters, and other things that go bump in the night, but they don’t make those things particularly tragic or scary. Neil Gaiman likes to use creep to create an air of mystery, whereas the author of Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir, loves the contrast between necromantic monsters and light, genre-savvy banter.
It’s still possible to write a story with superficial creepiness. For an example, look at my critique of City of Bones from The Mortal Instruments series. The chapter headings, opening quote, and constant repetition of the word “black” make it sound like the author’s shouting about how creepy her story is, but it’s just not creepy. When you’re building atmosphere, remember that the devil’s in the details. You have to continually describe creepy things or describe them in a creepy way. For some inspiration, we have an article on building an uncanny atmosphere.
Popular culture is currently so oversaturated with dark stories that some writers think making a story dark is how you make it great. But sad, scary, stressful, or violent depictions will alienate some audience members and raise the bar for others. If that’s not what you want, take the dark stuff out and let your story be lighter. It’s easier on everyone.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?