Writing A Depressing Story? Balance It Out

2013 Artwork Depressing Story Sketch

As you may have noticed, when I review TV shows, I usually comment on how depressing or uplifting a particular show, season or series is. This might be kind of puzzling and unusual, but I believe that one of the most critical elements of any story (whether it is told on a TV screen, on a computer or on a printed page) is it’s emotional tone. I’ve already written twice about emotions and storytelling, but I thought that I’d focus on the general tone of your story in this article and offer some advice about depressing stories.

I’m not talking about stylised gothic stories or horror stories, since many horror stories work best when they are bleak or depressing. However, I am talking about stories in other genres which are filled with pretty much nothing but tragedy, woe and misery.

Personally, I’ve never quite understood why people want to read or watch these kinds of stories, but they seem to be at least fairly popular. And, to be fair, when they’re very well-written, these kinds of stories can still be extremely compelling.

Yes, if a story is based on real events (eg: historical fiction), and those events are depressing, then you should be as accurate as possible. But, if you are writing a completely fictional story, then I would suggest that you should think carefully about the overall emotional tone of your story and try to keep it at least slightly balanced for reasons I’ll explain later.

Ok, how do I balance out my story?

Writing a balanced story doesn’t mean that your story can’t be “serious” or “dramatic”, but it means that they shouldn’t be overwhelmingly bleak or depressing just for the sake of it or just because you think that this makes your story more “serious” or whatever.

But, if this is happening to your story, then don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to balance out the emotional tone of your story without turning it into a comedy.

Yes, you can add the occasional joke if it fits into the context of your story, but you can also add the occasional cheerful moment or even just add a few emotionally-neutral parts of the story (as long as they either move your story forwards and/or develop your characters further).

Again, you should only add these things to your story if they fit in fairly well with the rest of your story. For example, if your story is seriously bleak, then it might be a good idea to just stick to adding a few emotionally-neutral moments rather than adding a few awkward and obviously out-of-place jokes to your story.

But I like depressing stories. Why should I balance them out? Isn’t this just your opinion?

Yes, I’m not a huge fan of seriously depressing stories, but there are also valid dramatic reasons for balancing out some of the more depressing parts of your story.

Like how horror stories cease to be scary or shocking if they contain literally nothing but horrific events, like how four-letter words in stories are less dramatic if they’re used too often or like how music stops being music if there isn’t any silence in it, your story will be less dramatic if it contains literally nothing but woe, misery and gloom.

The key to good drama is contrast and conflict. If your story is constantly depressing, then it loses a lot of dramatic value. After a while, your readers will just become desenitised and jaded. The depressing parts of your story will begin to lose their power to affect your readers because they have become predictable and there is nothing within your story for your readers to compare them to.

By keeping a good mixture of contrasting emotions in your story, it makes your story less predictable and it also gives the depressing parts of your story a much greater emotional impact too because they look even more depressing in contrast to the more cheerful or neutral parts of your story.

To use a well-worn analogy, it’s kind of like how a small LED light is a lot more noticeable in a dark room than it is in a well-lit room. In storytelling, emotional contrast is absolutely essential for “serious” stories.

So, paradoxically, if you want to write a seriously tragic and depressing story, be sure to add a few uplifting or emotionally-neutral scenes to it.


Sorry that this article was slightly short (and probably slightly badly-written), but I hope that it was useful nonetheless 🙂

One comment on “Writing A Depressing Story? Balance It Out

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