When grimdark is too grim and too dark

Grimdark is popular these days. This did not begin with Game of Thrones but it certainly encouraged writers to consider more fatalistic story telling. It seems everyone wants to be gritty and serious and while it can work, I think it often falls flat.

Life is almost never truly grimdark. It can feel that way at times but even when we are on our deathbeds, it is often human nature to face the long night with humour. Setbacks hurt, but they tend to hurt more when we were genuinely hopeful of success.

I think this is often a problem with Grimdark. For the kick to really hurt, there had to be a realistic hope that the outcome would be positive. When the fifth awful thing happens in a row, not only can it seem trivial due to the existing situation, it becomes expected. Relentless grimdark is predictable and there were points in Game of Thrones (TV at least, I’ve not read the books) where I honestly lost interest due to how expected some of the deaths became.

It can also lead to unsympathetic characters. People surviving in grimdark universes are often shown at their worst. We don’t see the bright points of their personalities and the humour that often exists in real life is rarely present.

I want to use Star Gate Atlantis as a counter example. Bear with me, it’s a good one, I promise and if this is as geeky as you think this blog is going to get, wait till I put on my weeaboo glasses.

Star Gate Atlantis is not grimdark. It’s an adventure show using a plot of the week structure. One of the characters in the show is called Rodney McKay and he was there primarily as an engine for humour. He was awkward, arrogant and neurotic but ultimately sympathetic and entertaining. Over several series they built up another character, Katie, who was attracted to him despite his flaws. She was shown to have a seemingly endless supply of patience.

In season 4 there was an episode called Quarantine. In this episode, Mckay was trapped with Katie as the base went into lock-down. His neurosis and paranoia went into overdrive and over the episode, bit by bit, he finally managed to wear her down. What had been a cute ‘not quite relationship’ failed in a genuinely heart wrenching way. It was powerful because it had started on a high. Had Atlantis been a ‘grimdark’ show like the failed Stargate Universe (Apologies, I know it has its fan) then the effect would have been far less potent. If we didn’t like Mckay and didn’t care about him, this scene wouldn’t have been that memorable.

Grimdark can of course work. There have been several spectacular examples recently and it’s that success that draws so many people towards it, but I fear many looking to emulate that success are missing the pitfalls. Grimdark is not a style to be attempted loosely or you end up with Star Trek Discover (Apologies to the Star Trek Discovery fan as well!)

Style versus Convention

Writing has unspoken rules. Mix your sentence lengths. Show don’t tell. Don’t switch POV between chapters without a robust structure. Okay. Perhaps unspoken is the wrong word. A quick Google search will easily find these and more.

I was recently reading a book excerpt on a writing group I’ve joined. It was written in a style reminiscent of Pratchet and as a result a lot of conventional wisdom did not apply. It was a difficult piece to critique because structures that should not work did, and each place a rule was broken, it seemed a valid stylistic choice.

It begs a second question. If style can trump convention, should convention be discarded more often? Additionally, is an absolute adherence to convention a bad thing? Do people develop a unique voice through their ‘mistakes’ If everyone’s work was broken down by an endless march of editors would it become like a blurred average of faces. Beautiful but unremarkable?

This isn’t the first time I’ve considered this question. As mentioned before I have a condition called aphantasia. I have no visual imagination and cannot picture things from memory. When I write, I cannot see the scene and instead run logically through a list of events that I want to happen. This naturally has an impact on my writing and it tends to be very logically ordered as a result. Additionally, visual language is perhaps lacking while a focus is placed on characters thoughts and feelings. Is this a problem? Or is it in these flaws that I gain my style? It’s difficult to say, and I genuinely don’t have an answer.

I’m not suggesting we discard convention, and if in an attempt to develop your voice you decide your next piece will drop full stops in favour of a single ten-thousand word run-on sentence, well, I wish you the best of luck. I think however, it is worth considering if something might be lost in the search for perfection. Perhaps by letting some flaws through, we may show more of ourselves. We are after all, only human.

Why Write?

I found myself in an interesting conversation recently which essentially boiled down to ‘Why Write?’

I don’t mean ‘Why Write’ as in, why bother doing the activity at all, but rather, what are the motivations behind writing? What should the motivations be and are they all equally valid?


Advice I once read was ‘Write for yourself first’ This isn’t some nugget of ancient wisdom. I am sure you have heard the same worded in many different variations from a plethora of sources, but I think it’s worth examining.

The concept is simple. If you write for yourself, if your goal is to enjoy the process, it doesn’t matter what happens at the end. Don’t write what you think other people want. Don’t write what you think is popular. Write what you want, try and make the process the goal rather than the result.

It makes sense, right? And I certainly took it to heart. The choices I have made with my novel boiled down to writing the kind of story I like. I like shape-shifting as a theme so the characters are were-foxes. I prefer female protagonists. I toned down some of the elements to try and increase the appeal but ultimately, I took a route that I knew would turn some people off. An approach that some people would find too weird to consider reading.

So, I took that advice right? I was writing for myself. That was the answer to ‘Why Write?’


Like most things, it’s more complicated than that. Now that I’ve reached the second draft and the core process of writing moves on to editing, I can start to examine that answer. Why Write? Was I really only writing for myself?

Before I started writing seriously I spent a lot of time drawing. Like many people, I have a creative streak and originally art had been my main outlet. Unfortunately, I have a condition called aphantasia and despite making great strides, I struggled to get good enough to get any real attention. Sure, I wanted to become better for my own satisfaction, but even when you are proud of your own work, I think we all want the acknowledgement of others. Art in a vacuum feels wasted. You ultimately want to entertain and I cannot help but be disappointed when a piece I am proud of receives no response.

My natural disadvantages do not really manifest in the same way when writing. I decided I was going to pursue that instead. I did set out following that advice, to write first for myself, but can I really be satisfied with my own self-entertainment. Is it okay for my work to exist in a vacuum?


In my cse, I’m not sure it is. I took that original lesson to heart. I wrote the kind of story I would like to read using themes that I enjoy, but I still want it to be a success. I think hearing people enjoyed it would mean more to me that any financial boon it might bring. Perhaps that’s a sign of a shallow heart, a need for approval that stems from a psychological flaw, but it is who I am and if there is anything we cannot deny, we each are who we are.

In the end, there are multiple reasons that I write and some reasons matter more than others, but I think it’s interesting to ask yourself that question. So, Everyone. Tell me. Why do you write?