Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
There’s an old saying that states it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. My goal in writing this column is, ultimately, to ignite some paraffin but I’m going to do a little cursing first.
I have grown weary of the dark.
“Darkness” (a.k.a. “grittiness” and/or “edginess”) is all the rage in today’s pop culture. Modern movies and television are full of grim characters (gangsters; hit men; terrorists; despots; bigots; abusers; drug dealers and addicts; wastrels and losers; corrupt police, businessfolk, and politicians; dysfunctional families and individuals; and just plain assholes) doing grim things (lying, cheating, stealing, abusing, killing, and being assholes).
Make no mistake—I am not averse to dark material. As I’m sure many of you are, I am a great fan of the movies of the 1970s—a not-exactly-cheery era renowned for its gritty films about gritty subjects.
So what’s the difference between the films of that era and modern movies? For me, it’s that the darkness in the films of the 70s was usually organic: seventies movies tackled very difficult material—police corruption, social upheaval, government conspiracies, the Vietnam War, the Mafia, demonic possession, divorce, drugs, and alienation—and their grittiness grew naturally out of those topics. In contrast, the darkness in many of today’s movies and TV shows do not grow naturally out of their subjects, but rather feels imposed upon them—in other words, much of today’s darkness feels like style rather than substance. And that, to me, feels inauthentic.
Seventies films often featured anti-heroic characters in stories that either subverted genre conventions or disposed of them altogether. In contrast, many of today’s films and TV programs tell extremely formulaic genre tales in which traditionally heroic characters have been given unsavory characteristics and the dramatic action made increasingly grim and gritty not because the material demands it, but solely to make them seem hip and “edgy.” The result has been a series of films and shows about corrupt cops, vicious gangsters, addicted doctors and nurses, sleazy lawyers, thoughtless husbands, manipulative wives, mean-spirited friends, unfaithful lovers, vile dictators, cold-hearted hit men, and so on—self-loathing, self-destructive, self-medicating characters who leave endless trails of wreckage, heartbreak, and unhappiness in their wakes. Seventies movies featured plenty of these characters, but they were mostly villains. Today, these negative folks are mostly the protagonists. Action heroes are becoming increasingly sociopathic and their movies filled with escalating amounts of extremely graphic violence (e.g. the cartoon shootouts and car chases in the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon movies replaced by the exploding heads of Olympus Has Fallen and the massacre-level body counts of John Wick). Comedic protagonists have become extraordinarily immature and jerky and their antics focused around poor behavior, abject humiliation, and sometimes outright cruelty.
This trend towards the grim and gritty becomes especially egregious when darkness is imposed upon material that doesn’t have much natural darkness in it. This seems to be an especially big trend in current fantasy and sci-fi filmmaking, which is how we’ve ended up with a decade of James Bond movies in which 007 mopes around looking glum and depressed; with entire seasons of Doctor Who focused around the theme that the charming, whimsical, galaxy-saving Doctor is actually a terrible being and that the universe is a far worse place because he is in it; with Star Trek movies in which Captain Kirk is an irresponsible cheat and Mr. Spock is a prig with anger issues; with a Batman who plunges a knife straight into a perp’s heart and a Superman whose powers are likened to mental illness and who ends standoffs by murdering his opponents.
A little of this sort of thing is fine, but a steady stream of it such as we are currently experiencing can be numbing. It certainly is for me—even more so because for every “dark” movie that is released, I have to read fifty “gritty” spec scripts from aspiring writers eager to jump on the “edgy” bandwagon.
There are several reasons I find this current journey to the dark side to be unsatisfying:
- Whatever else they may do, movies are supposed to be entertaining and there’s nothing particularly entertaining about watching shitty people do shitty things for two-plus hours.
- Every genre promises to deliver a certain experience to the audience—romantic comedies promise humor and heart and good feelings in the final clinch; thrillers promise excitement and suspense; action movies promise spectacular stunts, chases, and pyrotechnics; and so on. If the movie (or TV show) doesn’t deliver on those expectations, the audience will be disappointed, no matter how good the rest of the piece is. So when “darkness” is imposed upon a genre that inherently promises a happy experience—when a romantic comedy presents us with a scene of domestic violence or when a superhero movie shows its protagonist cleaving a villain’s skull in two—there’s bound to be a let down.
- For a dramatic narrative to be successful, the audience must invest itself emotionally in the story. Which means it must care about the protagonist and his adventures. And it’s not easy to care about a dark protagonist—a not very nice person doing not very nice things. This is why Hollywood can be so insistent that protagonist’s be “likeable” and/or without flaws or blemishes. Personally, I don’t think a protagonist necessarily has to be “likeable” or perfect for viewers to care about him, but I do think he has to be sympathetic—there must be something about the character we can connect with or relate to. It’s easy to sympathize with a positive, heroic character whose goals are noble and pure. It’s harder to sympathize with an anti-hero, so if a protagonist is going to be “dark,” then we need to understand why he is that way and he must have goals that—no matter how twisted—we can understand and endorse on some level. Too many dark movies, shows, and scripts fail to deliver these things – instead, they just adopt a nihilistic attitude—“Life is hard and people suck”—and leave it at that. Such a position may impress in an undergraduate lit class, but it doesn’t do much to generate engaging drama.
- There is a natural “lightness”—a strong inspirational element—inherent in dramatic storytelling. At its core, drama is about transformation—a dramatic protagonist always begins in a certain place and, as a result of his/her experiences in the course of the story, ends in an opposite place (a coward becomes a hero; a lonely person finds love; a criminal is redeemed; etc). And in most forms of dramatic storytelling, that transformation is from dark to light (the forces of good triumph over the forces of evil; a bad person becomes a good one; a sad person becomes happy; a bedeviled person is delivered from his torment; and so on). This is one of the main reasons why people are so attracted to dramatic storytelling – it inspires us to believe that our efforts will be rewarded; that we will be able to overcome obstacles and triumph over adversity; that we have the potential to be successful in whatever way you care to define success. There are two primary forms of drama. The most prevalent is comedy, which in its classical definition means a story—serious or humorous—with a positive conclusion. In other words, a “happy ending” is actually a key component of most dramatic storytelling. The other primary form of drama – the tragedy (classically defined in which the protagonist brings about his or her own downfall)—does not guarantee a happy ending, but still delivers inspiration (of the “if I can avoid making the same mistakes as the hero did, I will do well” of the “there but for the grace of God go I” variety). The problem with many modern “dark” pieces is that they deliver the grim and gritty set up but not the inspirational transformation. The result is an incomplete—and therefore an unsatisfying—experience. (This is an especially big problem in a lot of television storytelling, which by its serialized nature delivers endless seasons of a dark and miserable second act but never provides an ending—it can’t, because if it does then the show would be over—that makes all that suffering worthwhile).
Okay, enough with the cursing. Now it’s time to light that candle. If you are going to write a “dark” or “gritty” or “edgy” script, here are some suggestions to help your work be successful:
- Don’t be trendy: if you are going to create a dark character or tackle dark material, ask yourself if you are truly interested in that character or subject or if you are just doing it to show you can be hip or edgy. If it’s the former, go to it; if it’s the latter, please don’t.
- If you’re writing a “dark” script, make sure that the darkness is inherent in the material and not something you are just grafting on to it. In my opinion, one of the best movies in recent years was Nightcrawler—the extremely disturbing story of a sociopathic news stringer and then dreadful lengths he goes to in order to gather saleable news footage. This is one dark tale, but it had to be—writer/director Dan Gilroy was doing a serious meditation on our increasingly predatory and exploitative media culture. It’s a dark topic that required a dark treatment. On the other hand, showing Batman mowing down an army of opponents with a Gatling gun in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is just unpleasant.
- If you are contemplating putting a dark twist on inherently light material, make sure you are doing it because you have a genuine point to make and not just because it’s cool. Chronicle puts a dark spin on the superhero genre in the service of a genuinely interesting point about the potential of awesome power to corrupt and be misused. In contrast, darkening up Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was just window dressing – really pointless and stupid window dressing.
- If you are writing about a dark protagonist, then work as hard as you can to help us understand him. Have him be as miserable and manipulative and dubious as you want, but give us some insight as to why he is the way he is—some look at the pain that always produces dysfunction—and give him goals we can support, even if we can’t support his methods for achieving them.
- Make sure you provide a complete dramatic experience—a full dramatic arc. If you begin in the darkness, be sure to end in the light. But don’t just tack a happy ending onto a downer story—instead have your characters earn a positive dénouement by working toward it through the entire narrative. That is the only way to provide a fully satisfying experience for the audience.
- If you choose to end your story on a down note, make sure you give us some sort of takeaway—an insight, a lesson, a piece of wisdom, a grace note—that will pierce the darkness and provide at least a glimmer of hope.
Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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