In the Community episode Remedial Chaos Theory, a die is thrown, over and over. Each time, the episode restarts, creating a new timeline. One of these is the Darkest Timeline. In this particular case, all versions start out with the same setting and characters, and with each throw the writers simply play a game of ‘what if?’ In our own writing, these variables are not fixed. We create new ones for each tale we tell. So, out of all the possible variables, what is it that makes a story dark?
I lead a writing group for teens at my local library. At one of our recent meetings, the discussion centered around stories that take a walk on the dark side. We tried to look at this from all angles: genre, aesthetic, mood, plot, themes… After all, ‘dark’ can have many meanings. A horror tale is, by definition, dark. But realistic fiction can be, too, especially when it deals with thematic threads such as death or trauma.
(One thing my teen group brought up is that theme does not necessarily equal dark. You can bring up trauma with a gentle touch, allowing space for joy and hope. Hope — throughout or at the end of a story — is great for tempering dark themes!)
Genre, of course, plays a big part in whether a story is dark or not. Each genre has its conventions, so while a cozy mystery will never be dark, a crime procedural will definitely tread in the shadows. Know your genre and know its conventions! Yes, they can be bent, and mixed, and played around with, but if your aim is to go dark, it helps to know your audience.
Mood and aesthetic are also key, helping set the scene for your story. Even the most mundane setting can turn dark: how many gut-curdling fictional scenes have played out in everyday places like supermarkets, high schools, and playgrounds? The teens in my group had some great suggestions to get in the right mood, including Pinterest boards, music, watching movies, and keeping a dream journal — we’ve all had those deeply disquieting dreams that haunt us for days, and even if you don’t use the dream itself, you can tap into the remembered emotions to fuel your writing.
Dark stories can start off in your face and obvious from the very first page. But I prefer those that open with the barest promise, and then build up the shadows, layer by layer, until we can no longer see the light. The most successful stories bring it all together in this transition from metaphorical day to deepest night: characters, genre, setting, themes, mood, all working towards one single goal — to immerse the reader in the darkest timeline.