Revealing the Darkness or Reveling in It?

The other day, a friend and I talked about how increasingly dark many stories seem to be across the board. By the bleak end of some of them, the chill of hopelessness had seeped into our veins and colored our outlook a dull winter gray.

2012-10-hopeless

I don’t need to read a book to learn that life is hard. My mother endured cancer twice. My dad had cancer. My sister-in-law had cancer the same year her father died. I can’t have children and have been unemployed a number of times. I’ve endured bouts of depression and I’ve been rejected more times than I can count. Are you getting the picture that I know how difficult life can be?

So when life is hard, I turn to stories that remind me hope exists. They don’t sugarcoat the bad things that happen to people (like concentration camps; bullying by sadistic kids at school). But the resilience of the characters and their determination to rise above the bleakness of their times spur me to do the same.

kung_fu_panda_2_2011-wideRecently, I watched Kung Fu Panda 2, a 2011 animated film by DreamWorks. In it we learn how Po, a panda, came to live with Mr. Ping, a goose. Though I’ve seen this movie many times and tell myself, I will not cry this time, I lie to myself every time. I won’t give you a play-by-play of Po’s early life. You can watch the movie to discover what happened. But here’s what a soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) said about Po’s beginning:

Your story may not have such a happy beginning, but that doesn’t make you who you are. It is the rest of your story, who you *choose* to be.

This statement seemed hopeful to me. It acknowledged the sorrow of his past without negating the possibility of change in the future. It spurred Po to be the hero he was meant to be.

I found the following video by the Grace Foundation at Nancy Hatch’s blog in her post, “Sustainable Eating.” While Nancy had a different take on making the world better, the video was another reminder to me of the power of stories. This cow had a sad beginning too. But the video showed more than just a bleak situation. Just watch and see. It’s only a minute and a half.

Yes, we can write stories that reveal challenging times. But if that’s all we do—hold up a mirror to the corruption, the ugliness, the violence, the lack of hope—without once providing any kind of alternative thinking, where’s the power in that? Are we revealing the darkness or reveling in it?

Go ahead. Call me Pollyanna, Ostrich—whatever makes you feel better if hopelessness is your mantra and you want to spread that gospel. But I refuse to join your crusade. When it’s dark, I usually do what I need to do: I turn to the light.

under-the-oil-lamp-light-richard-mitchell

Hopeless image from barbwire.com. Oil lamp from fireflyfuel.com. Kung Fu Panda 2 from hdwallpapers.

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64 thoughts on “Revealing the Darkness or Reveling in It?

  1. Great post. I think we have a responsibility as artists to ‘hold a mirror’ up to the world. But I think it’s vitally important that we polish the mirror to make sure it’s reflecting clearly. Keep on polishing 🙂

      • I think if you have a clear mirror, you reflect the positive things inherent in life.

      • Yes. That’s very true. For every sadistic SS guard, there’s the story of someone who didn’t buy into the system.

        I realize I’m not speaking for everyone. I have a tendency to avoid a story that’s going to make me feel much worse than I might already feel.

  2. Fully agree. I always enjoy seeing how a hero survives a hard time and the aftermath. Do they crumble, turn dark, find hope, etc.? There seems to be a bizarre fascination with dark endings and death in stories these days. People scoff at the happy ending by claiming such things are too unrealistic. Just a choking air of pessimism for some reason. For example, I get a lot of heat for not killing off one or even all of my main characters by Book 6 of my series. Many readers want them dead and for some it’s because they think it’ll be good for the story. No notice that it could disrupt the stated plot, but it’ll be ‘shocking’. Here’s my question:

    If people want all these horrible events to happen in fiction because they’re shocking then aren’t they expected and no longer shocking? Wouldn’t it be more surprising for there not to be a high body count like in the more popular stories of today?

    • I agree with you. I’m not sure why people are so eager to have characters die off. Because of George R.R. Martin. Some people say the fact that his characters die off quickly, even in book 1, is so refreshing. Like you I ask why. Shock value never made a lasting impression on me. I’ve killed off characters. But there is usually a reason behind each death.

      I love how J. K. Rowling made each death in her series really count. We grieved, because we’d gotten to know and love these characters.

      • I don’t get it either. The pitch a friend gave me for the series was ‘every character you love will inevitably die a horrible death’. Not sure why that was a selling point, but it’s a tactic that seems to be getting overdone.

        As you said, the downside is that later volumes will be weaker. People won’t connect with characters, which unwittingly minimizes the impact of their death. It’s no longer emotional, but closer to an audience watching a gory gladiator match. I know so many people who watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Walking Dead’ with the mentality of ‘who will die this time’ instead of carrying about who will live. Guess that’s just a new type of storytelling. Did it really start with Martin though?

      • Martin’s the only one that I knew of. Maybe there were others before him. I got tired of waiting for the next book in his series to appear, so I moved on to other series. And frankly, I was tired of characters I liked getting axed. Obviously it works for him. But that’s not what ties me to a series.

        Thinking back to Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, Lois McMaster Bujold, or Raymond Feist, they have a lighter hand in the use of character deaths–at least in their earlier books. But as you mentioned, the audience seems to have a gladiator/Hunger Games mentality–wanting to see people kill other people. Makes me wonder what’s going on in their lives.

      • I always think about how Tolkien killed only one member of the Fellowship and it is still a memorable part of the entire adventure. Boromir didn’t have much page time, but there was something about how he both fell and redeemed himself in a short time that appealed to me. Those are the types of deaths I want my main characters to have and I fear that going on a culling will make the whole thing feel empty.

      • I also appreciated that aspect. He followed the hero’s journey, which includes a return. But some people complained about that. They wanted more of the characters to die. Théoden, one of my favorite characters, died. But I understood why he did. Same with Boromir.

      • Lord of the Rings definitely comes from another time and mentality. People wanted the Elves to take the Ring or the eagles to do all the work. Merry and Pippin should have died instead of evolving. I think we’ve become so used to there being the 1-2 main heroes (Aragorn & Frodo, Han & Luke, etc.) that supporting character evolution doesn’t get noticed that often.

      • Maybe people are happier with the outcome of The Hobbit. A number of people died in that one! And that was written before LOTR!

        I’m still in favor of series characters living through several novels. If I like a character, I want to keep reading about him or her. But if they’re killed off right away, I don’t have much incentive to keep going with a series.

      • There wasn’t that much death in The Hobbit. Just Thorin, Fili, and Kili ‘off camera’. At least in the books. I’ve yet to gain the strength to watch that last movie. Friends of mine were rather angry after watching.

      • It’s definitely not my favorite of the three. I think he should have stopped at two movies. The last felt extraneous. There was so much padding in the plotline.

      • Yeah I wasn’t crazy about Legolas getting all of the action, though I can understand his inclusion since his father is Thranduil. But I didn’t hate the addition of Tauriel like others did. Yet the inclusion of the elves took a lot away from the dwarves.

      • I think Legolas could have stayed as a background character or something. His appearance actually causes plot holes for the LOTR trilogy. Suddenly, you wonder why he didn’t say hi to Bilbo, acted like he never met Gandalf, and never knew Gimli’s father. As far as Tauriel, I just didn’t like how she seemed to serve no purpose beyond the romance and keeping Legolas in the story. Remove her and you don’t lose anything other than a ‘badass woman for female viewers’. It’d be like adding a ‘badass man for male viewers’ to an Aliens movie. Just seems unnecessary and purely for pandering.

      • Pandering is right. I would have had no objections to leaving the story as it was, character-wise. And maybe others would have felt the same way since The Hobbit is a beloved book. Or here’s a novel idea: create an original story with strong characters of both sexes.

      • Like Legends of Windemere. 😛 Seriously, why is it so hard to create an original idea with strong characters of both sexes? It’s like one always has to be ‘better’ than the others.

      • I was thinking of Windemere as I wrote that. You have males and females. Why don’t they just pick up your series or so something along those lines? It shouldn’t be so hard. Good writers seem to do it all the time.

      • Marketing? Seriously, I’ve noticed that a lot of series are advertised as having either a strong male or female character. It’s never both. It’s like the people behind the ads are only aiming for one demographic.

      • And that’s the kind of too specialized marketing that has me shaking my head these days. I can understand having a niche. But such a narrow niche? Why stop there? That’s what I like about Pixar movies. They aim for everyone enjoying them. They don’t just say, “We only want kids to watch this” or “Women are the only audience we seek.”

    • Very true. Thanks, Jill. I can’t help thinking about your example and the stories you write–stories full of hope! So glad your book will be published and in my hands.

  3. Lots of great insight here. I have to admit, I like darker novels and TV shows, but like you, I need there to be hope. And I’m all for a happy ending. It may be unfashionable to say, but I want one. Or at least a satisfying one. I want the good guy to get the bad guy. Simple, I know, but I want to walk away with that hope.

  4. Your familial environment has gone through hardship and yet you’re right, these people certainly have always maintained hope and faith, as you do by saying that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Now we must also be realistic, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”
    In friendship
    Michel

  5. Couldn’t agree more! Both about the need for at least some hope and about the fact that so many books at the moment are so bleak they’re depressing. Like you, I’m not Pollyanna but the real world and the news gives me enough to struggle with each day – I’ve always thought of fiction as being something that helps put life in perspective and gives the full picture, bad and good. If there’s only bad, then it’s not a true reflection of life…

    • Totally agree with you. Fiction puts life in perspective. And it’s fiction. People who complain about fiction being unrealistic probably need to read nonfiction and stop complaining.

  6. Hallelujah, Linda! I had the recent opportunity to watch “Gone Girl” and was excited after hearing how many people liked it…I don’t know if you’ve seen it, so I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I was left feeling both utterly disappointed and just plain bad. Like you said, there seems to be darkness everywhere without any hope of light. I’m sure psychologists would have a field day about the recent popular taste in entertainment–are we so well off that we need to revel in the darkness more than normal?

    • Someone told me the whole story, Phillip. I didn’t care to see it though many people liked it. I would rather feel good leaving a theater. I know many people like this sort of story. It isn’t for me though.

  7. As you know, I’ve been distracted by a family crisis. I haven’t revealed that I’ve had more than one family crisis this summer. But I’ll share what I told that person last week:

    “Happiness is a funny thing. For much of my life, I sought happiness in other people. I let my circumstances determine my internal outlook. I didn’t understand that genuine, true, unbreakable happiness is a fire I must cultivate from within. I have to chop the wood, find the kindling, light the match and keep it going. Regardless of whatever’s going on around me, it’s up to me to decide, every day, all the time, to keep the happiness flame alive.

    As you know, Michael and I have been through a tough year. He broke his collar bone. I went blind in my right eye. He’s had job problems. I’m slogging through the hardest thing I’ve ever done and spend most days feeling like the world’s worst failure. I’ve been running interference for six months between my brother and my mother in a sick, twisted codependent dynamic that’s lasted for three decades. It’s hard to stay outside of that once one’s escaped, but I’ve managed. You can’t imagine how exhausted, demoralized and brokenhearted I am.

    But I’m still happy. Life sends us what it sends us. It’s up to me to get up every day and choose happiness over despair. And that happiness can’t come from Michael. Or from my circumstances. It can’t germinate from my family or friends. I choose it.”

    My words didn’t get through to the recipient, but I needed to write them for me. 🙂

    • Oh Andra. I know you’ve had a tough year. And what has happened lately has just added to it. So I’m grateful to hear about your invitations to speak at San Diego and other places. I think of you daily! I’m sorry your message wasn’t received. But perhaps it will be.

      I know what it’s like to feel like the world’s biggest failure. I live with that feeling every day.

  8. I’m with you, Linda . . . I want HAPPY endings in the books and movies I consume. (The only exception: if it’s a documentary & I know ahead of time how it ends.

    Thanks for sharing Milkshake. What a cow!

    • Thank you for first bringing her to my attention. 🙂 I agree with you. If I’m watching a documentary, that’s one thing. I also don’t mind if a tragedy has a purpose. But gratuitous darkness for the sake of pleasing those eager to watch it–count me out.

  9. Excellent, L.Marie. I won’t repeat what many here have already said. Instead, I’ll mention that Milkshake reminds me of Beauty and Ladybug. Two of the 6 rescue horses I was honored to have a hand in their healing & rehab back when we lived ‘on the compound’ during our ‘between homes’ journey. These two were kept separately on Deb’s section of the compound, and had full roaming privileges on that property surrounding her teeny trailer-home. Often, she’d wake up to them climbing the rickety front steps to the door…and on one occasion got bowled over when she opened it up to see what the noise was all about. Yep, Beauty walked right inside and had to be backed right back out since she was way too big to turn around in that space.
    It’s interesting to note, that Beauty was the hardest/slowest of the 6 to respond to ‘treatment’ and the last of the 6 to progress in her healing.

    • I’m so glad you were part of that process, Laura. What a blessing for those horses. So Beauty liked to roam indoors? Why was she the hardest to respond? Did she have trust issues?

      I loved watching Milkshake gamboling along. She had such a spring in her step. So sweet to see.

  10. “Are we revealing the darkness or reveling in it?” – I’ve been wondering that myself lately. Sometimes, lately, I’ve felt like moths to flame, so drawn to the sadness and gloom, but, you are right. Turn on the light. I seek my lightness in family and in nature. Lately, I’ve been wandering around in nature more than usual, which I am quite comfortable. There is a phrase by Fra Giovanni I sometimes turn to. When I find it, I’ll share it with you, L. Marie.
    This was such a provocative post and your threads of comments so interesting as well. Be well and take care.

    • Found it. Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer:
      I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.
      No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.
      No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present moment. Take Peace.
      The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!
      And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee awa

      • That’s beautiful! Take joy. Take peace. So everything is a choice. I get that life is hard. And some things are easier said than done. But I love this quote. Thank you for sharing it. This prayer could be adapted for every day.

    • Thanks, Penny. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and seeing the photos of the plants you come across in your wandering. That’s another way of looking toward the light. 🙂 It’s so easy to dwell on the gloom and sadness we see. But we need those moments of beauty to draw us away.

  11. I saw Kung Fu Panda 2 with my grandson. I don’t watch animated movies very often, so when I do, I’m surprised how much I enjoy them. It would have been a good moving even if I’d gone alone, but it’s even better watching it with a child.

    I, too, like happy endings. One of the great benefits of reading or watching a good movie is that it gives us a chance to experience how others have overcome obstacles. I see now reason to enter into a story that has nothing but darkness and no hope. You say that “when life is hard, I turn to stories that remind me hope exists.” Good for you. And thank you to the authors who wrote those stories.

    • I’m grateful to them too, Nicki. When I heard about some of the popular trends today–lots of gloom–I was tempted to give up writing, since that’s not what I’m writing. But instead, I decided to quitting was not the answer. Neither is giving in to the trends.

  12. The beauty of our imagination is that we can hope, visualise a way that how our lives can be. I saw your comment about Jurassic World-James has been to see it twice. He’s hoping for more!

    • And poets like you can help us with that. 🙂
      Yes, I enjoyed Jurassic World. Chris Pratt is my favorite now. Like James I hope they make another. It’s a safe bet they will, since it made a ton of money.

  13. Speaking of Tolkien, your blog reminds me of two words he used in an essay titled “On Fairy Stories. Eucatastrophe: “. . . the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe. Evangelium: “. . . a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
    You can read Tolkien’s thought-provoking essay about happy endings here: http://excellence-in-literature.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/fairystoriesbytolkien.pdf
    Oh, the hope of a happy ending.

    • I love this quote by Tolkien. Love the concept of eucatrastrophe, which is shown so poignantly through Lord of the Rings. So love that. I read that essay when I worked on another book. It made me cheer! Thank you for bringing that up, Afton.

  14. Eek. Just replied twice to your blog of revealing the darkness. Can you delete the first comment? Silly me!!

    Grateful!

    Afton Rorvik Twitter: @AftonRorvik Facebook: aftonrorvik Website: aftonrorvik.com

    >

  15. That’s a lot of cancer in one family. 😦 Big hugs for you and your kin. And big hugs just for you regarding children. I know that can be devastating.

    I don’t mind deep, dark stories, but I don’t immerse myself in them. I don’t think I get a sense of hopelessness from them, though, maybe because I don’t immerse myself in them. Hmm. I may need to think about this. I don’t intentionally read or watch tragedies and I barely tolerate straight-up drama. I’m having trouble thinking of something I’ve read or watched recently that didn’t have hope attached to it.

    More hugs before I go.

    • Thank you, ReGi. I don’t mind a tragedy, as long as there is some hope involved. I know that seems like a contradiction. But I can’t help thinking of Children of Dune–at least the miniseries. It has a tragic element. But there is such redemption and hope for change. I can’t help loving it. I totally get the sacrifice made, which makes the story all the richer for it. That’s why I love Kung Fu Panda 2 (and the first one, but especially the second one). One aspect is horribly tragic. But that aspect shines like a vein of gold and makes the ending all the sweeter. It’s why I’ve watched this movie over and over again.

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