Death of the Critic

"Grimdark" Storytelling

Written by: Tom Blaich


There is a widespread hate for the oft-maligned "gritty reboot" of a beloved franchise, where a director takes a well-established (and often not dark) property and propels it into a much more "realistic" world, which usually means a greyscale color palette, an actor with a five o'clock shadow, and a love of the word "fuck". Sometimes these can work out for a property, and the new direction can be a refreshing take on a familiar formula. The problem comes in with so-called "grimdark" storytelling, where the point of the story stops being the characters and becomes about how "dark" or "edgy" it can be.

Spend any significant amount of time reading fanfiction (which no one should ever do), and it is a trope that you'll become intimately familiar with> For many writers, they don't know how to make a story more mature, and as such they conflate maturity with severity, and fill their stories full of rape, torture, and gruesome murder because "it happens in the real world all the time."

Which is true. Awful things do happen in the real world every day, and frequently without reason. But it is horrible and life changing every time that it does. The issue comes when authors use these complex and heavy pieces of subject matter as a cudgel to beat their world into shape. If a character need to be distrustful of others, they'll have them be assaulted or tortured or brutalized. And they'll have it happen over and over again, in case you didn't get the point the first time. It is never enough for one bad thing to happen to someone. All of the bad things in the world need to happen to them, until it threatens to crush them under their weight.

Before I go any further, I should clarify. It is perfectly acceptable to include these kinds of mature themes either in a character's backstory or in their story arc, as long as they are handled properly and treated with the gravity that they demand. You shouldn't have a character raped just because it fits the story or because you want them to be vulnerable until they open up to (read: fall in love with and then have sex with) the main character. When you do this, it cheapens both the character and the event. It becomes exploitative, unconcerned with the emotions of your audience or how these acts might affect them.

Actions like these, especially in a "serious" story, carry a certain weight to them. As we have said, bad things happen everyday to normal people, to your friends and neighbors, and if we play off these horrible offenses like they are simply plot points in a story summary, they become not only worthless for the purposes of your story, but they make the people who may have experienced these acts feel worthless as well.

Writers have a responsibility to their audience. They have the ability to create amazing, lifelike worlds, characters that we grow to love and identify with, and a narrative that grabs hold and won't let go. So within these worlds, they cannot betray the reader. They can't make the character do actions entirely out of line with their personality or break the rules of the world to service some predetermined arc, and they certainly can't try to emotionally torment the audience to try to gain some pity points. Awful things can still happen, and they can happen out of the blue to good people. But they need to have a reason in your story. They need to earn their presence.

The problem with grimdark storytelling is that these acts don't earn their keep. There is an abundance of exploitative and gendered violence simply because it is "dark", not because of how it will impact the story. At a certain point, it just starts to feel like these authors simply want to create a laundry list of the most horrible things that they can think of, and use as much purple prose as they can muster. It's there to shock the audience, to provoke them without saying anything. Like if someone watched
Event Horizon or A Clockwork Orange and their only takeaway was how "messed up the movie was", so they try to go out and make Hatred. They completely miss everything that the authors were saying with these works, with the inclusion of the violence to offer a commentary on the boundaries between reality and Hell, or to the way in which we feel justified treating someone else.

We don't see this as often in big budget movies, as there are hundreds of people between the writing room and the making of the film all waiting to say that 1.) This is a really bad idea and 2.) There is no way this movie will ever pass certification or be accepted by audiences. Even then, many of the themes commonly used in stories like these do make it through, like the prevalence of using rape against female characters to provide backstory.

Look at the casual use of sexual assault in
Terminator 2: Judgement Day, where the guards of the hospital molest Sarah Connor in her cell just to establish that they are jerks and pump her full of drugs to keep her docile. And then compare that to the awful depiction of rape in Irreversible, where Monica Belluci is raped onscreen and we are forced to watch. But instead of glossing the event over or using it as an excuse to punch guards, the entire movie revolves around this awful event, and how it effects everyone involved.

The same can be said of the entirety of the "torture porn" genre: movies like
Saw or Hostel, which tried to cram as much gore into a film strip as they could. When a man has to cut off his leg in Saw we watch with open eyes because it's "fucked up" but at the same time, we're almost desensitized by the gallons of blood we'd seen leading up to this moment. Yet when James Franco performs an amputation with a pocketknife in 127 Hours, it's hard to watch every single time, and the harsh shriek of the blade hitting a nerve makes me cringe every time I watch. It's a movie that is in part about this event, but also how it doesn't define the man who did it.

Examining stories and how they deal with the worst of humanity and what can happen to all of us can give us such valuable insight into how to write a tragedy, or more importantly, how not to.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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Image courtesy of Paramount

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