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26 June 2008 @ 10:57 pm
Writing Dark Emo and How to Make it Satisfying  
Dark stories are not always sad stories. Why do I like some and not others? What makes a dark emo angst fest satisfying to me?

So there I was, at a friend's wedding, and inbetween checking out the yummy four tiered cake, the mini desserts served on little trays, and the Banana's Foster (oooh…fire…pretty) and after watching all the relatives from overseas trying to talk to each other in three different languages none of which anyone else spoke, I managed to grab MrWubbles and sit in a corner and turn to the fun stuff—writing. Yes, even at overwhelming social occasions writer talk will sneak its way in.

We were talking about writing emotionally heavy or dark stories* and why some were good and others just didn't satisfy. What made some stories successful even if they were heavy and emo but we still went away okay and happy at the end?

MrWubbles said...that it was like diving, where you're deep in the dark of the water but need to take a breath every once in a while, break the tension of the moment with air.

I really liked that analogy and so kind of got to thinking about it.

Dark Writing Thoughts

When writing a dark or traumatic story it's a good idea to write it like you're a diver.

Go deep into the depths, into the dark of the events or the emotions, then have the characters come up for air, break the tension by getting their head just above water for a moment to take a breath.

The breath is where you show a moment of true levity or lightness in the most ordinary of ways or scenes between characters. Break the tension and the desperate need for oxygen, then plunge back down again this time going all the way down, touching the bottom where it's darkest.

Then have them go back up to the surface, break through to the day, take the mask off their face and gulp in great gasps of air and light. Have a swim buddy there ready to pull them back into the boat where they're cared for and safe.

This analogy really worked for me rather than the hill/valley one always used to describe writing. I think because it highlights how important it is to give the reader a break in the tension, a real break, with the idea that a reader needs that break from emotional tension like they need oxygen.

It also resonated as to why some endings satisfy in dark stories and others don't because they don't break the tension enough and they don't give enough feeling of hope, of things getting better.

Happy vs. Sad Dark Endings

Trying this idea on for size (and running with the idea as far as I can during a 45 minute taxi ride to the airport) I can see three different story endings.

1. End the story with just the guy swimming towards the surface.

2. End the story with the guy swimming up and breaking the surface, but being all alone in the middle of the ocean with no help and no boat in sight even if we know it's supposed to be coming.

3. Then imagine the end instead is where the guy comes up from this dark bottom to break the surface with someone there to help him and there's boat anxiously waiting for him and they haul him on board.

The last one feels better to me. It gives more emotional relief from the roller coaster of him hitting the bottom.

Note, I find it interesting that it still feels better no matter whether he's been going to the emotional bottom because he was doing it to himself, desperately trying to save something or someone down there, or was forced down there by evil forces.


(Warning -- Brief spoiler mentions of the season finale for Supernatural and Torchwood below.)

Of course, I can think of all sorts of analogies why certain TV show episodes and even whole TV seasons now work better for me than others.

For example, why some Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis episodes with their sometimes very abrupt cut-as-fast-as-we-can-afterwards endings are dissatisfying even if I really liked the emotional whumpage of the story. And it explains why some heavy emo Firefly episodes were very personally satisfying, because they did linger long enough at the end to get back in the boat (to let Mal wake up and see his crew and hear them around him).

It also explains why Supernatural's entire third season didn't give enough tension relief for me at times.

Supernatural - Like, hello! Dean's storyline for SPN was to die and go to Hell. The absolute bottom of the ocean. All season long we were given few real moments of character levity between him and Sam or anyone else (i.e. a funny looking fish going by named "Ghostfacers" is not enough to give relief). Especially because in this case Dean needed to have real moments of relief from the possibility of going to Hell of being alive after this with his brother. But did we get that? No, we didn't. At all times Dean and Sam could never escape the fact that this was hanging over their heads. There was no moment of true relief. Which is why, I think, I always felt this heavy burden of tension this season. Because the writer's never broke the surface and let us draw a breath (not even with amnesia, an wonderful dream, an AU, etc.). At all times, as a viewer, I knew we were going to the bottom of the ocean like we were in the sinking in the Titanic and I never got to take a real breath and so the anxiety and tension level was constant all season long, making it less satisfying than one that had let off and then renewed the tension.

The same thing in a dark episode, but done with the relief present.

Torchwood - On the other hand, this explains why Torchwood's season finale was much more satisfying for me despite the fact that they KILLED two characters (Tosh and Owen)!

I think it's because Jack, Ianto, and Gwen were together and holding onto each other in the end.

Even though it was terribly sad, and very heavy emotionally, we didn't just cut with the character's dying after trying to save everyone (stopping at the bottom of the ocean) and rest there with people crying at their desks as they packed their fallen comrades' stuff up. We had some relief from Captain John Hart's banter (a brief breath) and, more importantly, we had real emotional relief with Jack Harkness and his team coming away from their desks and rejoining eachother in the end scene (returning us to the surface with swim buddies) so we ended with a potential for things to be okay because they're holding onto eachother at the end there, literally hugging (sort of helping eachother into the boat).

Writing Dark Emo Can Be Good - Just Remember to Let the Reader Breath Now and Then!

So it's an analogy I've managed to beat to death here. But still I think it sort of helps me to visualize why it's important to build in little breaths of relief during stories that are long and angst ridden. And how to make the ending much more satisfying even if it is a "dark" fic by remembering to take the end scenes to the point of getting the guy to his swim buddies and the boat and not just stop when he's heading towards the surface.


*(No doubt there are tons of inferences that can be made over the fact that we were talking dark fic at a wedding. Lol.)

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