Staring Into the Eyes of the Kraken: Can Writing Be Too Dark?


Recently I had an unsettling experience: A reader of one of my novel manuscripts told me that at one point, she found my story so depressing, she had to put it down for three days before continuing.

I was stunned. Although I try not to sugarcoat the difficulties of life, driving readers to psychiatrists is not my goal. Ideally I would like to make them feel better. That is why I never write stories in which everyone dies at the end, although that worked well for Shakespeare.

In fact, no matter how rough my stories get, I try to identify threads of genuine hope. By hope I not mean fake happy endings where villains turn good and heroes get everything they want. Fake happy endings are like scary clowns; they give me nightmares.

By hope I mean a place where something promising glimmers in the darkness of struggle or hardship. It might be big or small. But hope assumes the possibility of despair. It means acknowledging the unpleasant emotions.

In the offending passages of my novel I wanted to depict life as I saw it; in doing so, I had apparently called forth the terrifying visage of the kraken. I confided to someone my concerns about what my reader had said about having to escape my novel for three days.

My confidante responded, “Wow, what an awesome compliment.”

I blinked, wondering if I had understood correctly. “A compliment?”

“Of course. How is it not a compliment?”

“Not a…?”

“Look. If someone had to put your book down, it meant that you had the ability to move them. They felt so much for your character that they had to stop reading. That is power.”

I was silent a moment, absorbing the shift in perspective, and I had to agree. The criticism from my reader had created a knee-jerk feeling of shame, but how often have I blogged that creating fiction is not about pleasing anyone, that it is about writing what I like and being honest?

Besides, “dark” writing is among the most powerful. Two of my favorite books, A Separate Peace and Flowers for Algernon, are sad. I have read each of them over five times, not because I love sadness per se but because the books are so powerful and beautifully written; they made me feel. However, some people I know hate the books for the very same reasons I love them.

Fiction is all about making readers feel, yet emotional stop signs seem to be everywhere. They come from editors, agents, critics, readers, and writing “authorities.” They are confusing, and if you succumb to them, writing ceases to be a vehicle of expression and becomes a matter of not being rude, which taps into my good girl southern upbringing: “Be a lady. You may evoke this emotion, but not that. You may evoke anxiety but not fear. You may evoke joy but not grief; you may discuss life, but not death.”

I admire writers who ignore the stop signs from readers, critics, and editors, writers who are willing to explore the dark underbelly of life, who illuminate the sensitive places that others would rather not see. Someone once summed up this idea by telling me that the best art  “comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.”

I like that. Often, what comforts the disturbed is honesty. Disturbed people know that there are times when life holds no punches, when it reveals its starkest face. They are likely to become more depressed by forced cheer than negative imaginary events. They do not flinch when they see the face of the kraken because they have seen, and dealt with, worse. Fiction should not shy away from the fact that sometimes it is unbelievably hard to be human.

On the purely technical end, writers like Stephen King have advised: Be “mean” to your fictional characters. A character who suffers is usually a sympathetic character; besides, conflict is the engine of drama.

But is it possible to go too far? Is there an emotional intensity limit? I confess, I have read some great books that horrified me so much, I had trouble turning pages. An example is the novel All Quiet On the Western Front, a fictional account of German soldiers on the battlefront during World War I. The novel plunged me into a world far more grisly than any zombie movie, partly because the story was so believable. The book conjured images of belching corpses and gory, dehumanizing violence. The hopeless atmosphere formed a death-scented cloud that followed me around for days even after I had set the book aside.

When I complained to my brother about how the book was affecting me, he said, “Maybe that’s why it’s such a big classic. Think about it. All you see is tiny printed marks on a page, but the author used them to make you experience the horror of war. He made you feel something of what the soldiers in the trenches of World War I really felt. Pretty amazing.”

My brother was right. Although I have no urge to reread All Quiet On the Western Front, I have great respect for the author, Erich Maria Remarque, a World War I veteran. I admire the courage it must have taken to so intimately confront his personal nightmares in order to communicate them to others.

Like All Is Quiet On the Western Front, much “literary” fiction delves into depressing aspects of life. Another novel that was hard for me to read was The Idiot by the Russian author Dostoyevsky. In general I love Dostoevsky, but the book was just too much for me; it ends with the girlfriend of the main character being killed in a grisly way and the main character going insane. I hated the experience of reading the book, but it had every right to be written.

However, I prefer that my own stories not end in utter morbid despair, with everyone dying or going insane, but there are writers who have made it work. No emotion is wrong. Writing deals with life in every aspect, though not all readers will approve.

My reader was certainly not happy to see “the face of kraken” appear in my fiction, but some readers have told me that what they enjoy most about my writing is my willingness to delve into areas that other writers go out of their way to avoid.

That being said, I am not all about conjuring fictional misery. Hope is a reality and deserves as much acknowledgement as suffering. I write not just to evoke painful emotions, but to celebrate the promise for finding some good in the rare experience of existing, even if it is only an insight, a resolution, a kind gesture, or a transcendent taste of Rocky Road ice cream.

That being said, it makes no sense to celebrate hope without acknowledging despair, suffering, and fear. I once read that some parents had complained to J.K. Rowling that her Harry Potter stories were too scary, and that she should “tone them down” to prevent their children from having nightmares. Rowling responded by saying that she did not write fiction so that children could sleep more soundly at night. I heartily agree with Rowling.

Now I have a decision to make. Should I tone down the more disturbing aspects of my novel for increased palatability? There appears to be an attitude typified in Hollywood movies that commercial fiction, particularly in genres like fantasy, should never get too “deep;” to sell, they should be happy, escapist adventures, universally enjoyed and ultimately forgettable.

This attitude ignores the abundance of wildly successful books and movies that evoke painful emotions, yet made a lot of money, such as the bestselling novel Bridge to Terabithia. In 1928  All Quiet on the Western Front, the book I could hardly stand to read, made 2.5 million dollars during the first 18 months and was translated into 22 languages.

Although my genres, fantasy and science fiction, are generally considered escapist, I want my writing to offer more than amusing diversions. I have to decide: Is it worth comforting the disturbed to disturb the comfortable?

I believe it is. Besides, fiction thrives on contrast. Hope burns effulgent against a backdrop of shadow. Death reveals life to be the rare gift that it is. Pleasure is more potent after suffering.

In writing no emotion is off-limits; to forbid any one of them shackles the writer and drains power from story telling. Writing addresses every aspect of life, the good and the bad. Sometimes it is necessary to risk depressing a reader. “Summoning the kraken” may cause some readers to flee, but showing its face, in all its uncompromising starkness, is the most potent way to reveal, demystify, and tame it.

If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my new novel “The Ghosts of Chimera” will soon be published by the folks over at Rooster and Pig Publishing.

16 thoughts on “Staring Into the Eyes of the Kraken: Can Writing Be Too Dark?

  1. I think evoking emotion is one of the biggest compliments we can get as an author, so I agree with the person who told you that. It means we’ve reached the reader. Might be the best reward of all when it comes to our writing.

    Wonderful post as always!

  2. Superamazing post with SO MANY great lines and insights!!!!
    Don’t tone it down, my friend!

    p.s. And can I be a freak and express how much I love saying the word “”kraken”? Fantastic image….that definitely caught my eye! As did your title!

    • Wow, thank you so much Dyane!!! You give the best compliments ever! And I like saying the word “kraken” too! And writing it. Maybe I should put MORE krakens in my blog posts. Maybe I could even keep one as a pet. I’m sure there must be something cuddly under their fearsome exteriors. 😉

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!!! 😀 Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!

  3. One of the most powerful and disturbing books I’ve ever read is The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Talk about dark and depressing! Yet even in this apocalyptic, nightmarish book runs a thread of hope, and that’s what makes it worth reading (and re-reading, though a long time between readings to recover!). Some people like to read breezy books to escape (myself included sometimes), but great fiction is meant to move and disturb you. As Hemingway said “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Thanks for this insightful post.

    • I’ve heard of “The Road” and now I’m definitely intrigued. I may check it out on a day I’m feeling brave.

      So glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for the kind comment! 🙂

  4. HA! I just called a Periscope yesterday “Releasing the Kraken.” Must be something in the air…

    As the wife of a horror film expert and enthusiast, I’m confident my husband (Billy Crash of The Last Knock) would argue you should explore the darkest elements you can and never fear making your audience uncomfortable.

    As an editor and reader, though, I’d suggest you focus on the elements that improve your storytelling and hone your craft. You will not please everyone. But there is often more to fear by allowing the imagination to do its due diligence, than leading it there by a defined path. So I’m all for allowing your instinct to press your boundary, rather than feedback from a reader. They may not be your ideal audience, for one, or it may be that your brand of “darkness” is designed for someone who can embrace their own interpretation.

    For what it’s worth. 🙂 Great post.

    • I love this! As I mentioned below, I wrote extremely dark and out of my comfort zone recently and since I’m an inspirational fiction writer, this book was NOT well-received though I think it is some of my best writing. Thank you ladies so much for the encouragement!

  5. Wonderful post! I guess it shows that you have written something beautiful because the readers was immersed in the novel. Keep up the great work and I wish you all the best!-Chris Thompson

  6. Oh my gosh, you have totally freed me! I, too, write as you do. I despise perfect neatly tied up endings and everything hunky dory. However, I offer that glimmer of hope in the face of sadness or in the face of tragedy. I wrote a dystopian story recently that my inspirational fiction fans do not care for. I have a despicable character who is charming, but is also a human trafficker. He is in a position of authority and of course my protagonist meets up with him at some point, and well….Anyway, I have new hope for this book. Although I’ve been trying to circulate it in sci-fi groups, I realize it is not about that, but the underlying story that is the “heart” of this book so to speak. Your article is wonderful, and I can’t thank you enough for being another “dark” writer and freeing this author!!

    • I am thrilled that my article gave you new hope for your novel!!! It sounds like you have a strong villain character, and villains do a lot to fuel the drama of a story. It might just be a matter of finding an audience that can appreciate a dark work of fiction. I know of many people, myself included, that can appreciate that kind of novel.

      The best of luck with selling your book, and thank you so much for your kind comments! 🙂

  7. Great read. I can tell you have put a lot of thought into this issue and the writing process itself. I don’t think you should tone down your story at all. If it came out that way, it should stay that way unless you yourself don’t like it (which is obviously not the case). Besides, there are plenty of readers, like myself, who don’t run at the sight of the kraken. We just buckle ourselves in tighter.

  8. Maybe the comfortable NEED to be disturbed!

    “Should I tone down the more disturbing aspects of my novel for increased palatability?”

    You might want to make two versions: real and Lite.

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