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How do I avoid grimdark in my writing?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Kasper Hviid, Aug 24, 2020.

  1. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

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    I'm not sure exactly what kind of advice I'm searching for here. But I feel that whatever I write just becomes too dark and edgy. It's not that I think grimdark is bad, but more that I feel a bit trapped in that style, and want to expand a bit. So I'm looking for ways to nudge my creative mind towards less edgeloridish regions.
     
  2. ChaoticanWriter

    ChaoticanWriter Scribe

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    I just finished The First Law trilogy recently. (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, The Last Argument of Kings)

    This series is considered to be on the edge of "grimdark", and I think I know why. While it has dark themes, bloody battles, murderous intrigue, torture, deep complex characters who suffer from their past, dark supernatural beings, and the like, its not just those elements that make it grimdark. Those things can be found in quite a lot of fantasy and fiction.

    What makes the series "grimdark" is a sense of nihilism. When I finished the series, I was satisfied with having read it, but I was not satisfied with the story arc itself, because the closure was one of "these things shall continue", nobody gets what they want, everyones greater aspirations are decimated, and the world is really worse off from the characters having done what they did. Characters you wished would find their stars are left in terrible condition.The brutality that occurs starts necessary enough, but eventually becomes for its own sake. Everything is for nothing; simply for the petty power of few individuals. And the book promises that the hope, "epicness", and yearning for redemption you gained from the beginning was a lie.

    (Plus, the torture scenes, while provided in a "dark comedy" sort of light at times, are graphic. Some battles are too "heavy metal / moments of Gary Stu". Women are NOT represented in the book, say for one or two characters, and usually in some subservient way. It's a male-brutality playground at times.)

    What I learned:

    Dark fantasy gives you a light at the end of the tunnel, despite the dark things around the characters, and the things they do.
    Grimdark gives you a light at the end of the tunnel, just to take it away and laugh. Hope is a lie.


    The difference is,... how do you leave the reader by the end of the book?
    Does hope have any place in the story? Is there a promise that something with get sorted in the end, even if its going to happen in a latter book?
     
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Exactly why I was putting down grimdark books without finishing them long before I'd even heard the term.

    To the OP: the Chaotician gives you the clue. Let there be hope. Even if there is not victory, even if the MC dies, let the battle be worthy, let the sacrifice have meaning. I want to watch a character grow, not wither. Finding a way to grow requires strength and vision and persistence--and is challenging to write. To me, it's comparatively trivial to throw one disaster after another then shrug and walk away. It's the the Perils of Pauline in reverse. There are thousands of stories set in a grim world but that find ways to sound a positive note. Write one of those.

    More practically, without deciding their ultimate fates, look at your main characters. What are their strengths, their redeeming qualities? Which ones would save the cat? Now pit those qualities against the disasters you have in mind. Maybe your characters cannot triumph over every adversity, but can they rescue some one person? Can they offer shelter from the storm? Can they carve out a corner for themselves. Maybe they have to furl all sails in the typhoon, but they ride on a solid ship. As I said above, it's too easy to put them into the typhoon, put them on a solid ship, then ram the thing into rocks and everyone drowns. Surviving is the interesting story.

    IOW, I don't think it's really about how few or how many Truly Awful Things happen in your story. It's about tying your characters' traits to the events and their consequences.
     
  4. ChaoticanWriter

    ChaoticanWriter Scribe

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    Exaaaactly! ...

    One of my current struggles is that I discovered that there is a follow-up trilogy to this series "First Law World", that explores other parts of the map, with other prominent characters, while the overall story of the world continues forward. While I've moved on from the previous characters, and these other characters seem interesting to me, I did a quick readup on reviews, and it sounds like... while new and interesting things happen, the arc is much of the same. ... Nihilism. Hope is a lie. Etc.

    Making me doubt that I want to start the next few books.



    (EDIT: With that said, I'd highly recommend "The First Law" trilogy! ... It's a perfect example of the kind of things to expect in that genre, while seeing precisely how... if the book went a different way, it would leave the genre.)
     
    Dark Lord Thomas Pie likes this.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Abercrombie is one of my DNF. Tried several times; just not for me.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    ChaoticanWriterChaoticanWriter — the standalone novel Best Served Cold, set in the same world and with some overlap of characters, is my favorite. Not a happy book, though.
     
  7. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I don’t think nihilism or hopelessness makes something grimdark. In fact, I think attaching a philosophy to it prevents it from being grimdark.
    Grimdark is shallow and meaningless. It’s misery for the sake of misery. That’s why it’s often used as a pejorative. The critique of the term isn’t that it’s grim or dark. It’s that it’s nothing but.
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >Grimdark is shallow and meaningless.
    I'm reluctant to say this categorically, as I know some writers are very sincere about this as a literary format. Just because it strikes me as monotone and shallow doesn't mean it resonates that way for others.

    When I get to feeling cranky about this, I remind myself of this: when I was young, I loved apocalyptic literature. Earth Abides, Alas Babylon, Childhood's End. But I grew weary of it and now it doesn't interest me at all. It wasn't the literature that changed, it was the reader.
     
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    This kind of broad statement about an entire subgenre is invariably going to miss the mark. Some grimdark falls into the shallow category, I’m sure. Other grimdark works do not. To really have that discussion I suppose we would have to get into a debate about which works qualify as “grimdark.” You could always define it such that only shallow and meaningless works qualify, but I don’t see the point in that.

    I’ve seen Steven Erikson categorized as Grimdark. The Black Company. The Elric books. The Thomas Covenant books. KJ Parker. GRRM, and so on, in addition to the more obvious and recent authors. I don’t think works by those authors are shallow or meaningless.

    Maybe it depends on what grimdark you’ve read?
     
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Try some writing exercises where you actively try and write other things. Think of a few stories of different feels and genres that you've liked and try to write a few spontaneous scenes in those styles, maybe even as fanfiction or a short story. The best way to learn is to practice.
     
  11. Ned Marcus

    Ned Marcus Sage

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    Reading a lot of the types of books that you'd like to write may help.
     
  12. What kind of story lines do you write normally? Try telling a different tale. Not just in different feeling, but in different kind of story lines, character arcs, maybe even genre and so on. For instance, if you always write about big fantasy conflicts, with epic wars and so on then write a SF story with a smaller scale and different kind of conflict.
     
  13. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think this is where we would disagree. I don’t see grimdark as a subgenre. I see it as a critique on bad examples of dark fantasy.
     
  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don’t believe that represents the common usage in the industry, though. There are agents who rep grimdark fantasy. There are markets that want grimdark fantasy. Book publishers refer to parts of their own catalog as “grimdark.”

    I don’t think agents and publishers are saying they want bad books or that they’re saying “here are examples of bad books from our catalog.” You may have your own interpretation or feeling about the term, of course, but it’s useful for writers to understand that in the industry it is a term for a legitimate subgenre of fantasy.
     
  15. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    My mistake. I was thinking of when the term first started being used as an in-joke among Warhammer fans. After doing some quick research, it seems that this in-joke has become a full fledged genre and I just hadn’t noticed.

    Turns-out, I’m not as on-the-ball with fantasy trends as I thought.
     
    Steerpike likes this.
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Oh, yeah--when it first happened I immediately thought of Warhammer because of the prologue/intro to the all of the 40K novels :ROFLMAO: It may have been coined for just that reason but has taken on a life of its own.
     
  17. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    As far as I can tell based on my limited research, the term being used as a genre started happening between 2016 and 2018 but the term goes back to around 2008. So I’m only 2-4 years out of the loop.
     
  18. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

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    But you can have good settings even without hope - or you can actually combine hope with helplessness. Lord of the Rings is good example of the latter: evil will never be destroyed, and the world itself will gradually wither away. Notice how all wonder, all magic, all that is good and beautiful is gradually lost, to be replaced with modern technological world where even humanity gradually vanishes. In purely physical terms, there is no hope at the end of the tunnel there - but as Gandalf says, "It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.". You cannot win, not permanently, but that does not mean you shouldn't fight - and in the end, final victory cannot be material anyway, for the struggle itself is actually transcendental. So you have helplessness and hope both.
     
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I agree this can be done. I talked about that in one of the posts above--some corner of hope, some shelter, some small victory that is not snatched away by the end of the story. That's what Tolkien did. At the end, despite all the melancholy, we have a king in Gondor and, perhaps even more reassuring, we have Sam home with his family.

    The grimdark books I've read--I confess I've not been able to finish any of them--seem to lack that element. They are unreservedly cynical and brutal (in ways Tolkien never was). It's not that I try to avoid depressing stories. One of the best books I read in recent years is On the Beach. It's that the grimdark genre sounds only that one note: Things Suck. I kept finding my attention wander, feeling unconnected with characters, and I finally decided it was because the stories lacked nuance. Cleverly cynical, morosely cynical, epically cynical, doomed to be cynical, it all came out to more or less the same note.

    For me.

    I recognize this is meat-and-potatoes for many readers. I recognize that other readers find the characters fascinating. And that's great. I love to see writers succeed and to see readers enjoy stories. I'm just trying to say with some clarity how the genre strikes me and why it doesn't work for me.

    And perhaps some of what is being discussed in this thread will give the OP insight into "how to avoid grimdark" in his writing.
     
    Aldarion likes this.
  20. Silvahkir

    Silvahkir Dreamer

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    What stories, or movies do you like that are not either grim, nor dark? What attracts you to them? I wonder if just giving yourself a bit of time to ingest some of the kind of stories you like that have a different tone may inspire you in a different direction.
     
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