I don’t generally like ‘clean Christian fiction.’ Not reading it. Definitely not writing it.
My goal when I write is not to keep the story ‘clean.’ My goal is to reveal truth. Truth means a messy tangle of this thing we all call life.
Light is a paradox, after all. Without darkness, the light has nothing to reveal. Without shadows for contrast, even the brightest light seems a bit pointless.
As Christian writers, if we value truth we need to accept everything that goes with it. If we avoid the darkness, we risk undermining the truth by casting it in a misty, uncontested light.
Darkness is an important part of every story
If sin isn’t a temptation, redemption has no point. If death isn’t a threat, life becomes worthless.
In Romans 9:17, Paul states, “For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’” God allows evil to fight against Him, not because He can’t defeat it, but because His triumph over the darkness magnifies His truth.
The world is dark. Catastrophes happen. People die. Fear and depression abound. Every day, the news gives us more things to be miserable about: sickness, death, hate crimes, riots—the list could go on for ages. Due to sin’s curse, we don’t live in a happy, “puppies and rainbows” type of place.
Honestly, this is part of the reason we read. We meet heroes and see the results of good fighting evil. We see that this darkness isn’t all there is. The emotions of hope linger long after we’ve forgotten the words, influencing our view of the world and ourselves.
While truth remains true regardless of if it’s shown in darkness or light, shadows provide the backdrop needed to show the strongest contrast and connect readers with our worlds and themes.
After all, our readers live in this world. They know the darkness here. They’ve dealt with loss and sickness and depression. They’re looking for a story where characters deal with these same things and overcome them.
To best portray truth, we must be able to demonstrate its uncompromising endurance against darkness.
Not a free license to write or read anything
All that being said, handling darkness with truth isn’t something to be done carelessly. Just because we need to show a realistic backdrop of real-life struggles doesn’t mean we need to have gratuitous amounts of swearing, sex, or gore.
It’s the truth we want our readers’ minds fixed on in the end, not terrible images of torture or mayhem.
The key to writing darkness is the focus. The level of darkness will vary depending on style, theme, genre, and audience. However, we need to evaluate our story’s overall goal, as well as the purpose of each scene. What message are we trying to communicate?
Philippians 4:8 commands us to meditate on the honest, just, pure, and lovely. When evil is portrayed accurately (the honest) with ensuing consequences (the just) to accentuate truth (the pure and lovely), darkness falls into this category. If we describe a human sacrifice merely to generate shock, that doesn’t satisfy the qualifications of the above verse (and is poor writing besides). The same sort of scene, however, could be impactful if the atrocities the character is struggling to escape were contrasted with God’s grace.
If our stories don’t contain any darkness, we should return to Philippians 4:8 and make sure we’re being honest about reality and truth. The deeper we delve into the truth, the greater the lies that will challenge this truth. Neglecting to develop darkness in our story worlds opens us to the risk of failing to exhibit truth in its full glory.
Four Recommendations for Handling Darkness
Now then, how to do this?
It can be intimidating at first, especially when you wonder what your mother or friends will say when they see your writing. But I don’t think any of us picked up writing for comfort’s sake.
While writing a dark scene, remember your focus. Don’t gloss over uncomfortable details just to protect your sensitivities, but at the same time, you don’t need to go overboard on details if they’re not needed.
The Bible speaks of a woman petitioning Israel’s king to force another woman to honor her vow to cook her son so they could survive the famine caused by the siege. This is accompanied by the realization of how far Israel had fallen and the king’s own horror and sorrow. Yet, when Scripture records human sacrifice, it uses the phrase “making their children pass through the flame” instead of graphic descriptions.
In your scenes, include enough details to paint a clear picture of the situation, but don’t go overboard. Rely on friends and beta readers you trust to help you draw a balance.
Consider is your target age group. Obviously, a young adult novel can address harsher realities than middle grade. In the former, a man might wander through a red-light district and stay until morning, with enough details to establish the setting and choices. In the latter, this topic might not even be broached.
All this doesn’t mean you can’t have deep themes in a book for younger audiences. A Monster Calls is a great example of darkness and heavy themes but in an age-appropriate (and understandable) way.
Test the truth
Identify the truth you aim to convey, then use the setting, culture, and plot to underline it with contrast and opposition.
If your theme is love, create a culture where love is self-centered, sensual, and pleasurable, or one rooted in survival of the fittest and rife with betrayal.
Manipulate your settings to test and prove your message through the bitterest of trials.
Emotions over events
Finally, don’t concentrate solely on events, but also the characters’ emotions, whether they’re victims or witnesses to the aftermath of whatever happens.
No matter how appalling a death, blood spatters and crushed skulls won’t stir empathy, whereas heart-wrenching grief and fear will.
A thousand massacred bodies might promote a vague horror, but your character crouching over the still-warm corpse of their friend who they were coming to rescue is going to pack a much more powerful punch.
Horrors shouldn’t exist for horror’s sake. They exist to provide reactions and growth in character, and these reactions and growths are what readers want to see.
Depicting Darkness Appropriately
In the end, the truth will be as strong as the enemies you pit against it. The more it endures, the more compelling the truth becomes. Because yes, we have a truth that cannot be destroyed. So let’s not be afraid to test it as we write, allowing it to emerge all the more victorious.
What about you? How much darkness are you willing to write (or read?)
The original version of this post was published on Story Embers as How Should Christian Authors Depict Darkness. Click here to read the whole series about Tricky Subjects for Christian Authors.
So very true! Great reminders. It frustrates me that there aren’t many books from a Christian worldview on hard topics, almost like hard topics don’t exist in that genre. I feel like it is improving though–Ive read some books the past couple years that have discussed really hard topics in appropriate ways, pointing back to the Light.
It’s true. I feel like there have been some really good books in the recent years. More so than when I was a teen, at least.