Novelists Are Observers of Darkness
“…he stretched out his arms toward the water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward- and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone in the unquiet darkness.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
In those few sentences Fitzgerald sums up Gatsby’s longing, the longing that has driven him to create an entire life out of false cloth. All because of a love lost. A dark night, a light shining across water representing the dream that would eventually be his end.
A story without that darkness cannot reveal light. Good writing uses this contrast to draw a reader in and give them something to relate to. I’d argue that any novel that does not ultimately be this exploration of the dark side of all of us is fluff. Fantasy. Even unicorns can be symbols of darkness. In Peter Beagle’s classic novel The Last Unicorn, he reminds us that the myth of the unicorn is a story of darkness, of a magical creature that is the ultimate prey. So much for those pink things.
When I started considering this notion of darkness as an essential background to any novel, it was because I was writing about it and wondered if it was too much. My character may or may not be mentally ill, a schizophrenic. I don’t actually know yet because it is a work in progress. Was I being too dark?
Writers, consciously or not, deal in metaphors, and the contrast between the depths and the potential is almost always one about light and dark. When you write a story, or read one, look at this. I cannot think of a single example where this contrast is not essential to the core of a story.
It’s pretty basic. Joseph Campbell makes the case that all stories share the same arc, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, his classic breakdown of the common mythological journey behind all stories. And it always involves a descent into darkness, a struggle, and in most cases, a transformation. But not always. Gatsby never understood that his dream was foolish and never to be realized. I think we have all had that experience on some level. That might be why his story is often called the greatest modern novel ever written.
Even the formulaic ‘romance’ novels require a villain. And they must be alluring enough to force the heroine (typically a woman*) to make a choice between the bad and the good. I haven’t read many but I once cynically thought of an idea for a series that could have brought me some serious perks so I did some homework. It turns out this genre has actual rules enforced by The Romance Writers of America, an actual organization that determines the ‘rules’ of these stories.
*This is one of the ‘rules’, though I’m quite sure there are many now that explore the POVs of many genders.
I think about this when I meet a relentlessly perky person, someone always up and positive. If I write this character you know there would be something being held inside, something dark. Otherwise the character and the story would be flat, 2D, and no one would read it through to the end. Entirely happy books only exist in bad children’s writing and even (especially) there, darkness is required to rescue a story from mediocrity.
So, when you are reading something great, look at how the writer handles this contrast. It will illuminate your understanding of the writing process on a deeper level. Then make sure your work uses this transition effectively, not relying entirely or too much on the light or the dark.