Well, I thought that I’d talk about the topic of bleak, miserable and/or depressing fiction today. This is mostly because the novel I started reading a while before I wrote this article (“The Ice Queen” by Alice Hoffman) is, on paper at least, an incredibly depressing book. The first thirty pages or so are pretty much an unending stream of woe and misery. Yet, rather than abandoning the book and reading something a bit more cheerful, I’m eager to read more of it. Needless to say, this caught me by surprise.
So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to write bleak, miserable and/or depressing fiction that people will actually want to read.
1) Writing style: One of the main reasons why Alice Hoffman’s “The Ice Queen” is still so incredibly readable, despite the incredibly tragic and bleak opening chapter, is because of the sheer quality of Hoffman’s writing style.
The novel’s first person narration is written in this incredibly beautiful and poetic style that makes you want to read more, even if the story itself is kind of miserable. Here’s a quote to show you what I mean: ‘Wishes are brutal, unforgiving things. They burn your tongue the moment they’re spoken and you can never take them back. They bruise and bake and come back to haunt you.’
The narration in this quote is informal enough to flow quickly, but it also contains lots of little poetic moments too – such as the alliterative use of the letter “B” in the last sentence or some of the vivid imagery used to describe wishes. Not only that, it also uses mystery to create an ominous sense of foreboding too. If this novel was written in a more “ordinary” kind of way, then it wouldn’t be half as compelling to read.
So, one way to make depressing stories more readable is to use a really compelling writing style. A writing style that adds an element of beauty, poetry, suspense and/or dark humour to the bleak events of your story.
2) Genre elements: One of the best ways to leaven the depressing elements of a bleak story is to include elements more fantastical genres too. This gives the reader a very slight level of emotional distance from the events of the story, which means that they can still enjoy the story even if it is really bleak.
For example, Joe Haldeman’s “Old Twentieth” is a fairly grim and bleak tale, but the inclusion of lots of futuristic science fiction elements means that the story comes across as slightly more of an intelligent thought-provoking fantastical story about the future than a depressing story.
Likewise, Jonathan Maberry’s “Fall Of Night” is a really grim and downbeat novel, but the story’s zombie apocalypse premise places it firmly into the horror genre and makes the story just about “unrealistic” enough for it not to be too overwhelmingly bleak.
Plus, even though Alice Hoffman’s “The Ice Queen” is set in a fairly realistic version of America, there are enough subtle fantasy elements and fairytale-like descriptions to distance the story just enough from reality for it to remain readable. So, this sort of thing can work in more subtle ways too.
Even so, including at least some fantastical elements can be a way of telling a rather bleak and depressing story without making the reader feel so miserable that they stop reading your story.
3) Give the reader something: Finally, one of the best ways to make a depressing story compelling is to give the reader something. In other words, there should be some practical truth, emotional truth or hidden uplifting message which means that your readers come away from your story feeling richer than they did before they read it.
In other words, there should be a reason for the depressing elements of your story. If the goal of your story is just to make your readers feel miserable, then write something else.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂