Oscar Wilde said a lot of things, but I think about this one a lot:
Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don't like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
There’s an assumption in creative fields that stories – in my case, books – need to end a certain way. The simplest way of expressing this is exactly what Wilde pokes fun at: the idea that good guys should win. When you’re writing children’s fiction, there’s also the temptation to add in a lesson learned (perhaps something character building about friendship or sharing cake).
This idea isn’t terrible, but it oversimplifies how art works. Perhaps it’s better to say that stories need a sense of completion, that the reader needs to feel the journey was worth it – that, by the end, something has changed and something has been done.
Completion doesn’t mean a happy ending, though – and that’s where the fun begins. Stories have always had darkness in them – there’s a Wolf for every Red Riding Hood, after all – and children’s books can’t shy away from that. Children are canny and impatient readers, and they know when they’re being preached at or patronised. An honest story is one that admits there’s darkness and bad things in the world – but that there might be a way to beat them (Enter Neil Gaiman, misquoting G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”) It’s this acceptance of the importance of dark tales, and an understanding that shadows can help define the light, that makes writing dark stories such fun. My books, Eren and Not Yet Dark, try not to shy away from this, making sure characters are in real danger, and that I never make assumptions about how kids will react to stories. The day you decide to tone something down because you think it might be too scary is the day it’s all over. Writers should be fearless because children, despite what adults think, can be fearless and clever on their own terms. Maybe that’s really the trick to writing dark stories: don’t judge the readers – don’t limit yourself because of imagined fears – and let the words flow and the monsters prowl. Writing dark fiction means setting up dangerous situations and then telling the truth.
A few things to keep in mind when writing:
- Keep people guessing and don’t give the game away. If no one is safe, readers care more (George R. R. Martin certainly has this one wrapped up – and JK Rowling. Why Hedwig?)
- Sometimes the things you leave out matter as much as the things you spell out. Hints, threats, connections the reader makes slowly - they all help build tension and a sense of something big approaching. Drip feed the danger and let readers get there on their own
- Children live in a world where others make the rules and they often don’t have a voice – but they have a keen sense of justice and a righteous anger when things aren’t fair. Use that.
- There’s no such thing as a happy ending for everyone. Victories mean losses and the world is complicated. Don’t be afraid to show that. Balance is the key to all good stories.
Finally, the best way to learn about dark fiction? Read the books already out there – talk to librarians, booksellers, and teachers, and dive in to the bustling, creative world of books. Just be careful: here be monsters.