Through a Pen Darkly

Before the post, I want to mention that I have a couple of appearances coming up in New York City and the nearby town of Chappaqua. You can check them out here on the website by clicking “In Person” and then “Appearances.”

On June 26, 2018, Raina wrote, Does anyone else have the problem where a simple, relatively lighthearted story gets so bogged down by serious/heavy themes that it becomes a different story altogether, and not necessarily one you want to tell? My WIP started out as a relatively simple adventure about Snow White being resurrected with dark magic, but then it got complicated and went into some pretty deep issues about power, human nature, and society. And even though those are interesting themes that would be great to explore in a book, it’s not what I want to do right now. Is there any way to dial back the “seriousness” of a work without losing the general story?

Poppie answered, I’ve been wondering about that myself lately. One idea which I’ve been using in my WIP fairy story is to make sure there is plenty of humor. My MC Lio and his friends are being trained to rescue fairies from dangerous situations where they could end up killed. But Lio is a coward, which can add a lot of comedy to the situation and still have a message to send. I also have a character who isn’t totally comic relief but still has a lot of smart answers for every situation.

You could also NOT kill off beloved characters that play a big part in the story (although you can absolutely kill villains, and unimportant characters can die). In my WIP, fairies can (and do) get injured, but no one dies. You can have consequences, but not have them get dark, such as having a character struggle with survivor’s guilt the whole novel.

Raina wrote back, I agree, humor is a great way to lighten things up. For some reason humor comes harder for me when I’m writing YA (as opposed to when I’m writing MG), but I think this book might need it so I’ll definitely give that a try.

I’m with Poppie that not killing off characters allows the mood to stay light. Death is such a buzzkill!

And what Raina says about YA versus MG humor is interesting. Young adulthood is a daunting time. The complexities that pre-adolescents may not see jump out at teens, and ways to cope aren’t as developed as they (usually) become in adulthood. So the humor is different for the two groups. Here’s a joke I completely adore that I think is perfect MG humor, though it works for all ages: A snail, attacked by two tortoises, is unable to describe the incident to the police. “It happened so fast!” it says.

No sarcasm, no irony. We pity the poor, benighted snail even while laughing at its predicament.

By contrast, the saying, “Life is short and then you die,” is packed with irony and, I think, goes to the YA sweet-sour spot. I just googled “ironic jokes,” and some of the ones I found work to my ear, like this one: “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.” Some are just nasty and unpleasant–I’d stay away from those.

There’s a marvelous, very old (1939) romcom called Ninotchka, directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. The female lead, played by Greta Garbo, is a super-serious Soviet emissary of some sort. The male lead, played by Melvyn Douglas, tries to get her to laugh and fails utterly until he takes a pratfall. When he goes down, she laughs her head off. In my opinion, his spill is MG humor, and his humiliation at falling is YA.

Of course, these are gross generalizations. Some younger kids appreciate sarcasm and irony, and some teens continue to prefer slapstick and lighthearted humor.

But the message is that we can go dark and still be funny for the YA crowd. Black humor abounds in tragedy. Let’s look at a couple of examples from Shakespeare:

∙ Hamlet’s father comes back as a ghost, asking his son to avenge his murder. Dad is dead, but at last he’s confiding in his son. Mom conspired to kill him, but see how pretty she is when she smiles at Claudius. Hard not to be happy for her.

∙ Romeo and Juliet are both dead at the end, but some other people never find true love. Aren’t they really the ones to be pitied?

That was fun!

(Shakespeare does usually lighten his tragedies with comic interludes, but these are carried by minor characters, not the principals.)

Let’s darken a different fairy tale than “Snow White” so we don’t mess with Raina’s plot. Cinderella marries her prince and on her wedding night finds out he’s a vampire. She should have noticed his eager expression when one of the stepsisters cut off her heel to squeeze into the glass slipper (I don’t think this is in the Disney version). After she’s a vampire, too, Cinderella decides to get revenge on her stepfamily. She showers them with jewels and invites them to live at the castle. But sweet Cinderella still lives inside the vampire, and her two natures are constantly at war. Meanwhile the stepfamily members are as awful as ever. Everyone in the castle is vampiric. Cinderella goes back and forth between feeling she should protect them and maybe just scare them a little and remembering how beastly they were to her. I think this can be both funny and compelling.

Now let’s examine dark humor. Something has to really be at stake. If we’re talking about the premise of a novel or a story, what’s at stake has to be important: a relationship, a life, a way of life. Whatever.

If we want to illuminate a dark story with humor, one way to get there is with an MC who sees the funny side of things, whether she wants to or not. We’re not lightening our story. What’s bad continues to be bad. For example:

∙ Our MC is on a spaceship with mechanical difficulties. The likelihood of survival is slim. She can still have funny thoughts: death just when she’s figured out how to brush her teeth without getting toothpaste all over her forehead.

∙ She’s on planet earth. The love of her life breaks up with her. She still cares about him and decides to set him up with the perfect person for him. She even thinks, What can go wrong?

∙ I’m on my train home, as I often am when I write the blog. I imagine the conductor falling asleep and somehow (I don’t know what conducting a train involves) making the train go faster and faster. People are flying about the train car. I’m wedging myself under the seats because I’m small enough to do that. I hope no one’s been killed. I wonder if I’ll survive–and also wonder if we’re going faster than the bullet train in some parts of the world. Are we breaking any records? I hope we are! I hope the famous black box is getting it. We may die, but we’re making a contribution to humanity, and isn’t that what everybody wants, for their life to have meaning?

You may not be rolling in the aisles, but you see the humor. It’s all in the perspective of the character. Doesn’t have to be the MC, can be a secondary character or more than one.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Try “Cinderella with Vampires.” Cinderella doesn’t have to be the only character with a sense of humor. The prince can have one, too. So can some of the castle vampires and a stepsister.

∙ Try any of my tragicomic ideas above, including, if you dare, a re-envisioning of a Shakespearian tragedy to make it funnier but still sad.

∙ Write a scene between siblings. One is ten and the other sixteen. Somebody in the family is gravely ill. Show how the middle grade child and the young adult approach a serious situation. Make both of them seek relief in humor. Show how they do it.

∙ The most troubling fairy tale I know is “Hansel and Gretel,” since child abandonment sets off the story. Try your hand at a darkly humorous retelling for the YA crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. how do you get yourself to just sit down and write a book? i’m starting to get trouble with actually getting myself to write, i used to love writing.

    • That is one of the worst problems. Do you know why you don’t love writing as much anymore? Are you just not as motivated to write as you used to be? Perhaps you could try setting a goal for yourself. You could try writing half an hour a day, or 500 words a day, or a page a day. Make sure the goal you set is both reasonable and reachable. Once you’ve set up a routine for yourself you can reach for higher goals.

      Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? NaNoWriMo is a website you can use to try to write a set amount of words/hours in one month. There is Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July and NaNoWriMo in November. If you are under 17 (I think that’s the age?) you can use the young writer’s program and set your own word/hour goal. Not only is NaNoWriMo a fun place to meet other writers and get great writing advice I find it very helpful in motivation. It was one of the things that first got me writing.

      Another thing that I do is write every single day. I don’t have a set goal for myself (not right now anyway), but I do make myself write. It doesn’t have to be a ton of words and it doesn’t have to be fantastic. I do however have to write in my WIP. I usually have one story that I work on and then some additional stuff on the side, but that is just what works for me. Perhaps you could just try journaling every single day for a few days to see how you like it?

      Are you struggling with procrastination? Oh my can I relate! I am the QUEEN of procrastination! Honestly the only way I have been successful at my little writing hobby is through the tip I mentioned above – the writing every single day tip, that is. If you are a procrastinator than perhaps setting out a timeline for yourself would help. If you are a morning person you could get up and write first thing, or if you are a night owl you could write last thing before bed. I think setting down a time where you have to write might be a good idea because you won’t think about it and think “Oh I should go read Gail Carson Levine’s blog and get inspired to write first” hehehe…that totally didn’t happen to me just now…(heavy sarcasm there) – No really, Mrs. Levine’s blog always 100% inspires me to write…which brings me to another writing tip…

      ..Inspiration! What inspires you? Seeing other people talk about their work (Like Mrs. Levine’s blog) or looking at or making some other form of art – drawing, knitting, weaving, carving, whatever! – Well by all means, do that! Personally I find that I work best if I just sit down and work. Sometimes inspiration is a life saver, but usually it leads me on rambles that spends time I could use writing.

      And lastly I can’t stress enough how it is GOOD to take breaks from writing – and any creativity really. This is something that the wonderful writers on this blog taught me. Letting your creative juices replenish is so healthy. Your creativity can definitely get burned out and that is okay. Sometimes it takes a while for your soul to get into writing again – you don’t want to push yourself too much. Treat yourself with a break from time to time. However I do have to add that laziness can sometimes be mistaken as a lack of creativity. I’ve done that and whenever I don’t feel creative I’m afraid that I’m being lazy. Sometimes it is good to be lazy and give yourself a break if you’re burnt out, but try to get yourself back into the habit of writing. And don’t worry! I’m sure your soul will crave writing again before you know it and you’ll be right back on track!

      I hope some of this helped and I wish you the best of luck with your writing!!

          • It is completely an online thing. You can write solo – on the website or on a separate document and update your word count – or you can be ask to be in a ‘cabin’ which is basically a group chat where you can talk to fellow writers. I’ve never really used the cabins before, but I’ve heard good things about them.

      • i found roleplaying with my friends by having me and my friends create characters, act as the character by typing what they are doing and what they are saying really helpful. maybe you should give it a shot Samantha, because roleplaying saved me tons of brain working ideas. and i have more perspectives going into the book too!

        • You’re welcome! I haven’t done roleplaying for a long time. I should try it again!
          I also just remembered another thing that might help: Gail Carson Levine’s character questionnaire. You can find it on pages 40 and 41 in her amazing writing book WRITING MAGIC, or you can look up ‘Gail Carson Levine’s character questionnaire’ and you should be able to find it. I’ve used this a million times to help me figure out my characters’ little quarks and what makes them tick.

    • I’ve been having that problem to lately too, mostly it’s because I hate where my story is right now, so much so that I don’t even want to look at it. In order to solve that problem I find a blank page or open a new file, and rewrite the scene hate untill I like it again.

    • I have no idea how helpful my advice is, but here goes.
      Write for yourself. If you’re worrying about what the world will think, you’ll never write anything that is truly and completely yours.
      If you have a story idea, write it. If it makes only moderate sense at best, write it. If there are bits of dialogue just bursting to be used, write them down, and build scenes around them. If they don’t fit together, that’s alright, it’s a draft.
      Start wherever you want, don’t feel tied to a beginning, and don’t wait to start until you pin one down. Write scenes you like, funny scenes, sad scenes, completely ridiculous scenes in which your favorite character makes a fool of themselves. Just put down a sentence or two describing the scenes you don’t feel like writing, and move on.
      If you don’t have a story idea, write nonsense. Write the words or phrases that come to mind, and if they stand alone, so be it. Let strange phrases lead to weird poems, poems that you’ll look back on and laugh at and wonder what you could possibly have been thinking. Write little snippets of characters lives, just to peek at the world through someone else’s eyes. Let your mind wander, and your imagination roam. If you’re at all like me, it will anyway, so you might as well chase after it, pen in hand, and take down notes where you can.
      In the end, none of this advice matters. They’re your words. Even you don’t know all the stories in your head. It’s up to you whether you choose to tell them or not, even if you just tell them to yourself.

    • Sometimes when I can’t get moving on a big project, I write something shorter. I like to write drabbles (stories of exactly 100 words) when I’m otherwise stuck, because I get the satisfaction of finishing something.

      Sometimes music sparks ideas.

      Some people I know find that getting some exercise, especially the outdoor kind, helps.

      Some people get fired up after a short break from writing. And some realize that they’ve moved on to other things and just don’t feel like writing anymore. Some felt guilty about it, but if that’s their choice, that’s ok too.

  2. I can’t believe it, this post is exactly what I needed right now!

    My current story is set at the beginning of a war, and things are going to get pretty dark. I’ve been prematurely worrying about making it too dark – I don’t know yet what age group it will be for, but I know with the setting and theme I’ve chosen, it will involve plenty of danger and death.

    For the beginning of my story, my MC’s are pretty young. Two of them are all about having fun at first, and they aren’t shy about making a scene so long as it makes people laugh. On occasion they’ve used straight up slapstick humor, but for the two of them, I feel like it really fits. The third actually has a really dry, sarcastic sense of humor.

    Soon they’re going to start getting older, and I was originally thinking their wise-cracking will have to go away; but this has gotten me thinking that actually, the fact that I’ve already established a sense of humor with them could be useful – I think, if I manage it right, it could be an excellent tool for keeping the whole “death and destruction” theme from becoming too overbearing. I’ll make sure that their humor grows up with them, but I’m going to try to be careful not to lose it entirely.

    Anyway, thanks, as usual. 🙂

  3. Hello! I am a new to commenting on this blog but have been following it for several years. I missed seeing Raina’s original question, however. If it’s not too late, I’d like to comment on it.

    On occasion, I have experienced the same thing in my writing when a story has turned darker or more serious than I was intending. Something what has helped me in such situations is to ask myself, “why?” Why is it becoming more serious?

    For me, the answer to that question has varied. There were times when emotions surrounding a personal matter were seeping into my writing uninvited and they required some attention before I could free up my story. At other times, I realized that the change in the story was my attempt to deepen the characters or the plot, and what I needed to do was pull back and look for other ways to add dimension and depth that were more in line with the story I wanted to write. And, sometimes, I discovered that when I moved into a more serious or darker realm, I was doing nothing more than exploring the world I was creating. If time allowed, I would not fight it but, instead, grant myself the freedom to get it out of my system, knowing that at some point, I would return to my original path.

    So much of what I have read on this blog has helped me with my writing and I am truly grateful. 🙂

  4. Thanks for answering my question, Gail! Gotta say, your vampire Cinderella story idea sounds really fun! I might have to try that if I get bored with Snow White.

  5. Gail Carson Levine says:

    A lot of love has been coming my way in these comments, so I want to reflect it back. I’m so happy with all your participation and comments and mutual support. You guys are a HUGE part of what makes this blog a great writers’ hangout!

  6. I think one of the best examples of the perfect balance of seriousness and humor is in an episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender. In season 2, Episode 11, “The Desert”, the gang is stranded in the desert and trying to get out without dying. Aang is upset and grieving because *spoilers* of losing Appa. Meanwhile, Sokka gets drunk on cactus juice and spends the entire episode hallucinating and acting plain whacky. The humor is just enough to keep the dark tone and seriousness in check without overpowering it and making it lose its weight. I frequently tell people that this particular episode is simultaneously the funniest episode and the saddest. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it to see how well the writers and show creators stuck the balance between dark and funny.

    • Yes! Somebody else loves this show! It goes between serious and hilarious all the time, because it’s still just a kids show but it takes place during a war and has a lot of really mature themes. Such a good show!

  7. I started revising (really, reading through it and making notes) my first draft yesterday and I’d just like to say how awesome it is to have this place to come to for advice, support, and cool stories from other people who write!

    • You can go any way with this, sometimes, but since you say generally I think the most time-tested option is three main heroes. Of course, there’s still people on the good guys’ side that could be main characters, and on the bad guys’ side, but I think the main main characters are usually the friends who are around the same age. With secondary main characters branching off from there, maybe you’d want about two, three, or four on either side (hero or villain). If you have lots of little side plots that still work with the main one and you have lots of POVs, then you can have more main characters.

    • So far, I’ve been balancing four Main Characters. To keep them all important to the plot, I make sure that they all play an important role in their group.

      • Thanks! The book I’m working on now involves four important characters. Three of them are boys currently sharing a cabin/dorm at this academy and will be growing up and fighting as soldiers/spies together to save their kingdom. There’s a girl who is also the same age as them, friends with each of them, and will be fighting alongside them. They all have very different and important backstories which end up sort of connected, and completely different personalities.

        I’m worried about having too many mains – I think one would be by far the simplest and most normal – but though the story mainly involves all of them together, there are a few parts where they are separated and all of their rolls then will be vitally important to the plot (it will be even more so in their near future when they are pulling off missions and I’m basically writing a fantasy spy novel), so I think I have no choice to keep it at more than one. I agree, I think the usual is no more than three, so I’ve been trying and trying to figure out a way to get rid of one of them or combine two of them into one, but I just can’t think of it – they’re all so different and important to my idea (not to mention I’ve already fallen in love with them, haha!)

        I don’t know. It’s encouraging at least that you’ve managed four, Sunny Days! And I suppose that C. S. Lewis did, but…I just don’t know about me. Hopefully I’ll feel more clarity as the story progresses.

        • Good luck with managing your characters! For me, I find that the hardest part is coming up with four unique personalities that can all get along. There are some really great books out there with more than three Main characters- it might all depend on perspective. If you’re writing in third person, you can switch around your focus on each character. (My favorite example of this is The Candymakers by Wendy Mass). I love the idea of fantasy spies!

        • Often it seems that books with multiple main characters still end up following one character more closely than the others. As a reader, I almost always connect more with one than any other, even if the author evenly alternated the POV scenes. Usually, but not always, it’s the POV character in the first scene that feels like the “main” main character. Even in C. S. Lewis’s books with four main characters we see Lucy’s thoughts more than anyone else’s. So that could be a strategy (or it might “just happen” or you might not like the idea and try to intentionally avoid it). You could choose one to follow a little more closely. Maybe you’d let them have the majority of the scenes that the four of them are together.

          So far, I haven’t written anything that required more than one MC. (One book has quite a few people who take the POV from time to time to show what’s happening elsewhere, but I have one MC who has the vast majority of the scenes.) But I think if I was in your situation (working with 3 or 4 characters that all have equal parts in the story) I’d probably write the first draft how ever the POV seemed to fit for each scene. Then I’d evaluate the result at the end and try to determine if I should even things up, or weight it more heavily toward one character, or if it works the way it is, etc.

          • Thank you! That is great advice, and I completely see what you mean. I’m definitely going to start by taking your advice and just do whatever seems to work at the time for the first draft, and I’ll go from them once I’ve gotten it written.

  8. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Does anyone have any advice on how to choose a POV for your story? My WIP is a Snow White adaptation, and it’s in third person, but centered on my MC, Annabelle. However, I’ve been wondering if the story might be better if told from first person POV. Some of my favorite books ( our in first person, and I thought it might work for my story to, because I really want to get inside her head. However, another character who ends up being Annabelle’s companion for most of the story comes along a little later, and he really interests me. He’s the grouchy gnome type, and he hasn’t opened his heart to love for years, so I want to get into his head, to. I’ve read some amazing books with multiple POVs, but the story is complicated and I’d like to keep it simple. Any advice on which POV I should use? Also, do you have any ideas on what/how to name my gnome character?

    • Lucy in The Sky says:

      Each POV has it’s strengths, but I personally think that the best one to use in this case, seeing as this is a quest of many characters, is Third-Person Omniscient. You switch focus from character to character, and you could know things that the MC doesn’t. You can go inside the brains of each person without it getting confusing. I hope that’s helpful.
      And I don’t know anything about this gnome, but for some reason, the name Percival or Percy popped into my head.

    • A good piece of advice I’ve heard for picking POV characters is “Who changes the most during the story?” If we’re in their head, we’ll experience the change more closely.

  9. Superb♥Girl says:

    Okay, this is a very specific question, so sorry in advance.
    My WIP is about four about-middle-school kids working on a play. When the day of the production arrives, none of them show up, except for my MC. This causes something terrible to happen, and the MC assumes it’s because they didn’t do the play, but it’s something else. (I don’t know what yet.) The MC forces himself into their lives, and although he’s really book-smart, he causes a few disasters due to his poor social capabilities– but everything works out okay. It’s one of my favorite ideas that I have, but the more I think about it, the less I’m liking the idea of the play. Not only does it not make sense that it’s only four people, I hate the fact that it seems to hang over them. How is he supposed to connect with the other three when he’s like, “We need to do this, we need to do that, now!” And yet, it’s the entire backbone of the story! It’s even mentioned in the title?
    So, do any of you have advice? Should I change the core of the story and start the plot practically from scratch, with no idea of what to replace it with, or muscle through and keep something I don’t like?

    • Is the play an assignment in a class (which would make the only 4 people thing make sense) or an extracurricular activity? If it’s a class assignment, then your MC doesn’t have as much of a reason to be so overbearing, maybe, because it probably won’t be a super complicated or advanced play. And he can get involved with them or connect with them because of something else having to do with the class, like everyone going to a school game or to see a movie or something of that sort. At the same time, if it’s just a project and he’s still super overbearing, the others can make him see that he’s being ridiculous. Hope this helped!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.