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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Someone Turn on the Lights! How Dark is Too Dark?

Welcome to guest blogger, Melissa Jarvis!

“Plumb the depths of your soul.” “Don’t be afraid to go there.” When I first started out as a serious, not going to fiddle around with this writer, those words were among the first pieces of advice I received. Essentially it meant I had to let bad things happen to my characters, although of course, with a happily ever after at the end.

Apparently I took said advice too seriously. In doing so, I broke some unwritten rules regarding how dark my book or scenes were. Since this is the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal chapter, you may have done the same thing. After all, if you’re writing about vampires, well, they start out dead, and how much darker can you get?

What I’ve come to realize though, is that most of the horrible things that happen to our characters and plot, such as murder, rape, war, etc., happens in the back story. It’s ok if your hero was slaughtered by the women he loved hundreds of years ago, or if your heroine was pregnant and witnessed the murder of her husband, and then was subsequently raped. Both of these scenarios are in Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series, which have the most gut-wrenching character histories I have ever read. Many though, don’t show up in her present story arc except to explain how said hero or heroine got to the point of giving up on life and love. There are a few books where she has tortured her secondary characters but when you’re a world famous author, you can get away with it.

But what if you do something dark and dreadful to your characters and story as it’s unfolding, and not have it as part of the past? Congratulations, you may have just crossed that invisible line.

Now you may be confused. Weren’t you told you had to go deep, and write those scenes that would make it hard for you to focus through your tears on the keyboard? The answer, like every other “rule” in writing, is somewhat contradictory.

So what did I do to have an editor shriek “You have to change those scenes. They’re too gruesome!” Hmm. My book, Past Her Time, is set during the French Revolution which involved a lot of people who were beheaded by the guillotine, or torn apart by angry mobs. It was not a light, pretty time in history. In one scene, my heroine Alex witnesses a young woman, around her own age, led up to the steps to the guillotine. Alex hears the woman’s cries and pleas for mercy, and then sees her head chopped off. In another scene, she is stopped by the Revolutionary guards at the gates to Paris. The guards are trying to determine if she and the hero are “good citizens” or traitors trying to smuggle condemned nobles out. To test this, they throw something at her, which she deftly catches, and returns, seemingly unfazed. The object? A child’s head, from one of the coffins in the cart ahead of her.

The guillotine spared no one, not families, women or children. What I wrote was historically accurate. And both scenes were, in my opinion, necessary to my character’s emotional development. But the old saying “women and children first” does not apply to romance, at least in my former editor’s view. She had me change the scenes; the first one was simple, the woman became a man, and he was stoically silent. The second scene with the dead child turned into a scene with a live child, a rescue, and a hysterically weeping grateful mother.

As writers, we are continually trying to push limits, and that will mean more questions about how dark a book can be and still manage a happy ever after in the reader’s eyes. What I think it comes down to is this: Do you want that small gasp of horror or sigh of pleasure? And can you do both?


A mild-mannered Public Relations executive by day, and action-packed writer by night, Melissa Jarvis lives in celebrity-friendly Southern California with her husband and son. For over 14 years, she has worked in the public relations industry, doing press releases, bios, newsletters, media campaigns and more for clients ranging from the Playboy Jazz Festival to the Los Angeles Mission to JVS. And she’s survived with most of her mind intact! An active member of RWA, she writes both paranormal romance and urban fantasy, as well as spicy paranormal under the name Melissa L. Robert. She is currently working on the sequel to Past Her Time, featuring agent Banderan’s story



Making the world, if not a better place, at least a familiar one. It is the motto of the Lineage, a secret organization founded in the late 22nd century to correct anomalies in history caused by early time-travelers. Comprised of men and women from different time periods, these agents have been highly trained to get in and get out, and stay under the radar.

Agent Alexandra “Alex” Raines has been assigned to 1793 France in the midst of revolution. But she has no time for Gabriel Huntington, a man who doesn’t always follow convention and can’t take even the most obvious hint. After being inadvertently rescued by Lord Huntington, it takes all of her training not to lay him flat on the ground, and all of his not to lay her flat on her back.

For Gabriel, Alexandra was just another damsel in distress, sans dragon. A fashionable gentleman of the London ton, Gabriel’s main concern was the latest way to tie his cravat. Or was it? Just what was he doing in Paris? And was that a mask in his back pocket?

The French Revolution pitted noble against peasant, friend against friend. Thrown together in an elaborate game of cat and mouse, can these two learn to take of the disguises and trust each other? Or will the fate of the world and time travel rest on Alex’s ability to betray the one man she has come to love?


Merissa said...

Thanks for the rule of thumb. I generally work as a pendulum--I'm way too hard on my characters, or not nearly hard enough.

Incidentally, I'm reading the Larrson series: Girl with the dragon tattoo, played with fire, etc. and keep having to put the book down because he's so hard on Salander than I have to take a break from it.
But I keep coming back. I guess that's the trick--to keep your readers coming back...

Lisa Kessler said...

Great blog!

I started out reading and writing horror so I think your scenes sound great! LOL

I think you can have scary or horrific moments in a romance novel. For me I enjoy a paranormal romance or urban fantasy that has me worried they'll make it to the end of the book. I mean you sort of know they're going to get that happily ever after somehow, but make me wonder... I love being on the edge of my seat when I read! :)


melissa_jarvis said...

I like darker scenes too, but I know what you mean, Merissa. I had to stop reading Kenyon's Acheron several times, because of what she put the character through.

Rebecca Hamilton Paranormal Fantasy Writer said...

Wow, this is REALLY interesting. I know a few of my books (especially my first book) tend to get REALLY dark. There is one that I knew immediately was too dark to bother even finishing. But the paranormal fantasy I have out with publishers now still gets pretty dark at the end (with the MC being tortured). I wonder if they will think that is too much. Definitely food for though.

Nickie Asher said...

I have very dark scenes in two UF/romance mss. The hero is tortured in both and in one the heroine is sold to a whorehouse and raped (not shown). We'll see how it goes over.

Patricia/Cait said...

I've pondered the "How dark?" question a lot as I work on 3 books that deal with young women's escapes from slavery after growing up in a mind control program. It's not possible to write light fiction about a subject as dark as human trafficking, but there are a couple of scenes in the first book that kind of shocked me (the author!) when I let the ms cool off and then reread it. Still not sure whether I should have written them as realistically as I did...?

But I'm writing to the romance market and I'm willing to rewrite to an editor's suggestions to see the books in print. I may tone them down a bit before I submit again, but my theory is that I should write it like it is and let the editor be the one to say "Dear heavens, NO!"