Storytelling

Why Storytellers Fail at Grimdark and How to Fix It

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.

Eragon

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.*

Children of Blood and Bone

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.

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I have two manuscripts (not out yet) with protagonists who are necromancers, which means both stories have a darker tone by nature. Both Gabrielle and Isadora can and will use their powers in several ways, from raising the dead to manipulating dead matter (such as the flesh and bones of corpses). They’re also both capable of killing by drawing out the life energy of someone they touch (although Isadora has only killed four vampires that way – and they were doing their best to kill her at that time -, and Gabrielle has killed a man who tried to kill her).

    Yet, I’m not into the whole ‘grim’ part of the setting. I keep killings to a minimum and often do them off screen (in the first novella about Gabrielle, there’s two murders, but none is on-screen or described in detail, others who are killed usually ‘deserve’ it due to their own actions, with the protagonist killing in self-defence or the defence of others).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      There’s a trick here: necromancy isn’t inherently dark or grim the way we tend to assume it is. Killing someone to raise them as a skeleton is dark. Raising a skeleton that was already dead? No problem.

      • Cay Reet

        Yeah, my necromancers don’t create their own corpses – Gabrielle usually doesn’t need any and Isadora buys hers from shady acquaintances who, overall, steal them from morgues or graveyards. There’s some crime in that, but not murder. There’s some gore, when Gabrielle dissolves a body to get at the bones so she can break out of a cell and has a weapon in case she needs it. Isadora sometimes uses her power to draw the life energy out of people, but in most cases (save for four vampires who were all set on a rule of blood and horror) doesn’t do it long enough to kill them, only long enough to weaken them.

      • LeeEsq

        Plus any type of magical medical systems that isn’t based on religion is essentially necromancy because it is magic relating to the body, life, and death.

        • Cay Reet

          Well, technically, necromancy only relates to dead matter, so corpses and their parts. Medicine usually deals with living matter – unless your healer/doctor is very bad at their job.

          • LeeEsq

            Story idea, a fantasy setting where magical healing was about as effective as our medieval medicine. So yes, you have lots of doctors/healers but its still a matter of luck and lot of them are quacks.

          • Cay Reet

            Idea I saw in a screenshot somewhere:

            A necromancer is just a very late healer.

            Relative: “It’s too late, he’s dead!”

            Necromancer: “I didn’t get my medical licence revoked for nothing.” *rolls up sleeves*

  2. SunlessNick

    Last, be consistent with your tone.

    … or die. (It had to come up at least once in a post featuring Eragon so heavily).

  3. Cecilia

    I have a question – is there another possibility of mixing darkness with the light in terms of having a dark atmosphere and world, but characters who often cope with humour and try to find hope, agency, and connection amid the darkness?
    I’m creating a story that gets very dark in places (including dead infants, as in Eragon, which I also hated), however I wouldn’t call it grimdark; what I associate with grimdark is a grey-and-grey or black-and-black morality, antihero protagonists who are often mentally and/or physically broken, and a general air of bleakness and despair. However, I often find that gratuitous and unrealistic; even in extremely harsh contexts and historical periods, people commonly react to terrible circumstances with humour and attempts to find hope. So I’m wondering if a dark setting with rays of light can also be a valid approach, or does “going dark” necessitate an absolute tonal consistency in which everything is miserable?

    • Cecilia

      Also regarding The Fifth Season – I felt the story was at times weaker for skipping over better, less tragic periods of Essun’s life. For instance, (spoiler alert) while she, Alabaster, and Inon are living on the island, free from oppression, she rushes over it, relying extremely heavily on telling instead of showing (suddenly there’s this sexy pirate and everyone is in love in a single evening, yay), and then sprints over two years of story to get back to tragedy and dead children. I would be much more invested in the tragedy if we got more of the light and positive side, which would make me care more deeply for the loss of what could have been a wonderful life. Instead, I just felt emotionally drained and unaffected by all the terrible events and injustices

      • Cecilia

        Sorry for posting again, I just realised I made a confusing mess of pronouns; starting from “she rushes over it,” I’m referring to the author, N.K. Jemisin.

        Also, thank you for the great article. It really made me think

    • Jeppsson

      I personally don’t think it’s weird to have a bleak world with a good hero in it. It might come off weird if everyone but the hero is evil, but you can have a good hero and also show that there are many other good people in this bleak world.

      In the novel I’m working on now, I have a heroine who’s very sweet and compassionate, with a nice family and several nice friends, even though the setting is fairly dystopian, and lots of shit (including serious injury to the heroine and death of a number of her friends) goes down as the story progresses.

      If you want an example that’s published and really successful, Fitz in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy lives in a bleak world, there are some pretty evil villains, horrible things happen, but although he’s no perfect saint, he’s a pretty good guy, and have some friends who are also good and decent people. (Caveat that I’m only some distance into book two by now.)

      What the article mainly focuses on, and which I agree is weird, is having the heroes and everyone we see them care about (like, we’re not just told, but shown, that they care about these people) have super-thick plot armour, even as narrative nobodies suffer horrible fates. Having thick plot armour is a completely different issue from being decent and kind.

      • Cecilia

        Sure, unconvincing plot armour sucks in any genre, not just grimdark. But one of the main points of the article is also that you need to maintain tonal consistency – if you decide to include grimdark elements, you need to start dark and stay dark to the end. I think it’s fine (in some cases, when done with care and reflexivity) to sprinkle “grimdark sauce” onto stories that aren’t consistently dark.

        Like the Farseer Trilogy example, which isn’t categorised as grimdark.

    • Kim

      I actually think having a relentlessly miserable tone with no lighter parts will get boring. It’s contrast that makes the dark dark and the light light. And as you said, I find it unrealistic. People will always seek out the good things, especially in bad times.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yes, you can have “a dark atmosphere and world, but characters who often cope with humour and try to find hope, agency, and connection amid the darkness.” And that’s not tonally inconsistent when implemented well.

      The thing that distinguishes grimdark sauce is that the supposedly dark elements are as superfluous and meaningless as they are gratuitous. They don’t feel like finding hope in darkness. As Ace of Hearts mentioned, they feel like explicit violence is being added for shock value (and maybe it is.)

  4. Ace of Hearts

    I feel like there’s one more reason why authors may add grimdark sauce, and it’s the cheapest of them all: pure shock value.

    This is the kind of thing that happens when the story wants to be dark and creepy, but has no idea how to create threat. And so a sexual assault scene is slapped onto the first episode for literally no reason other than shock. (Looking at you, Bates Motel. I’ll never watch another episode.)

    In contrast, the darkest book I have ever read is also one of my favorites, because a huge amount of time is spent humanizing the victims of the horrible things that happen. It deals with the horrific crimes of a serial killer and the consequences to the families of the victims. The book is genuinely hard to stomach at parts, but you never feel like anything was added just to shock you.

    (The book is Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter, for those wondering.)

  5. C Dark

    I think Grimdark is mistaken as a monolith in terms of its tone: dark, horrifying, cruel, misanthropic, violent, rape-tacular, vulgar, lascivious, etc and that is where the Grimdark sauce comes from. They think adding the secret sauce will make their threats SEEM serious whereas in real Grimdark, the threats ARE serious because they’re actually being experienced.
    I have a novel where a character has been kidnapped and is being threatened with rape and castration and it’s hard to read, as it should be. The reader is promised, just as the character is, that this is going to happen to him, and there is no reason for the reader to doubt that. There is no rescue coming.
    What made the chapters readable for my Betas was the FIGHT in the character himself. THAT is what makes for effective Grimdark, the personal fight in the characters even when they’re not going to win. That is where your tonal shifts happen, the push back of hope, and that’s why people keep reading. It’s something G RR Martin does well. There’s always a push back of hope. It can come from another character or story arc, but it’s still there. Tyrion is married to Sansa when the Red Wedding happens, and though she is willing to “submit” to her Lord’s carnal needs in its consummation, he just doesn’t. He can’t, and part of it is knowing what’s happened to her family and that his family is behind it. It won’t help the slaughtered Starks, but it gives the reader a moment to breathe. Hope. Decency. Compassion. All displayed in an easy advantage a character DOESN’T exploit.
    At least four times in the two chapters I wrote, this “helpless” young man takes every advantage that his captors’ (justifiable) over-confidence offers, and at no point does he hold back. He: manages to bite off a torturer’s little finger, nearly chokes himself to death in the collar they’re using to restrain him (they need him alive so he would have scuttled their plans completely through suicide), puts out his molester’s eye AND almost breaks the relic (a bowl) they need for the summoning. That is what readers stayed for, not the blood and guts and sex and violence. They stayed for the fight, even a losing one (see Guts from Berserk). The kidnappers finally have to drug him because he just won’t quit fighting. It was a heartbreaking moment to write AND to read. I didn’t need to write the actual rape or the castration (perhaps a fail to the sauce users), just bookend them with the groping and the stitching. Promise kept and much more compelling because I spent my words on the grief he was causing the people hurting him, not the explicit details of his abuse and violation.
    The currency of Grimdark, how a reader is taught to judge the intensity and peril of a moment, is in the reactive fight of the characters (not always by punching. Sansa agreeing her father was a traitor is that same level of desperate fight. You KNOW how dire it is, how terrified she is and how thin is the thread by which she hangs if she’s denouncing her father and family).
    Grimdark is not about characters that are punching bags (not the same thing as victims, see the Jodi Foster movie, The Accused) or set dressing (like said nameless mounds of the dead in Eragon) its about the fire and fierce determination to survive that is born in people who endure in horrible circumstances, systems or environments and I mean surviving beyond the physical.
    They can still laugh and crack jokes, play music, enjoy conversations, express affection, have dignity or silliness or times of stillness and reflection where they are more than pain and angst or plot-convenient PTSD. Those displays and moments are so precious and so special and so important in connecting with the reader. Grimdark is not inhuman, it is in many ways superhuman, our worst impulses and their expressions versus our best fight (even if it can be for all the wrong reasons).
    There HAS to be soft grey in Grimdark or your reader is just swimming through a puddle of sh*t, and no one wants to do that for long.
    Just my two cents. Really enjoyed the article.

  6. Silverware

    Yikes! This is a great reminder to tone down that violence i had in mind in my story. People are still gonna die in a horrific manner, but there won’t be blood and suffering.

  7. Petar

    I see YA isn’t very popular over here, given how often Eragon, Children of Blood and Bone and The Mortal Instruments (along with various others) are used as negative examples.
    Not being judgmental, just a notation.
    Does anyone have suggestions of good dark (fantasy) YA (apart from the obvious, like the Hunger Games or the late HP books)? Just curious because Adeyemi maybe thought that her approach was the only way to write a dark story that’s still suitable for YA.

    • Cay Reet

      From what I’ve read on the site, it’s not about YA. It’s about authors who think they don’t have to be at their best (or editors not being more strict with the author’s work), because it’s YA. The lessons about bad writing (which are not reviews, but lessons for writers) come from popular books which could be better with better writing or editing. They’re not meant to say ‘YA is bad.’ A book with no redeeming qualities can’t be made better.
      That’s, unfortunately, also something you see with children’s books – it’s ‘just for children’ and doesn’t need to be good. Which is insulting to the children, because they, too, deserve good books. It’s also insulting to authors who do their best to write good books for children, by essentially saying ‘lol, why all that work?’

      I can’t give you a list of YA titles, since I’m well outside of the age group, sorry. I hope others can help there, I know quite some regular commenters have read a lot of YA.

      • Petar

        (Super late response, been busy)

        Fair enough. I was considering discussing some of these points, but a lengthy discussion would be too off-topic for my tastes, so let’s just bury it.

    • Silverware

      Try The Folk of the Air series. It starts with a murder and continues with more murder, plus court intrigue.

      • Petar

        Thanks for the suggestion!
        Already read The Darkest Part of the Forest by the same author, so I have a rough idea what to expect.
        In TDPOTF, the darkness was primarily accomplished through creepiness with little tragedy or gloom (while there was gore, it was primary there for the creep factor). Although in a book series, I’m expecting that there will be some tragedy, too.

  8. V

    “this almost certainly led many readers to quit after a character they liked was killed.”
    Yup. Finished the book with the Red Wedding and couldn’t bother with the rest of the series. Just going to keep killing characters and getting even more grim, why bother?

    I much prefer Malazan book of the fallen when I’m in the mood and capable of handling that darkness in a story. Every story makes me cry a bit but I never feel like I wasted my time and spoons reading it.
    Malazan makes me cry, SoI&F makes me mad at being jerked around.

Leave a Comment Cancel Reply

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.