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Monday, April 27, 2015

Tip #1 for the Fiction Writer: The Dark Side of Writing

Tip #1: The Dark Side of Writing   

By Peter Gilboy 

"Everyone has a moon. Everyone has a 
dark side which he never shows to anybody."
--Mark Twain

Darkness is a universal theme in writing. Why? Because a good writer knows about the dark and the light places in their own hearts. 

That’s what writing is all about. Not making money. Most of us never make much, at least not at first. We write about hearts. Our own hearts and the hearts of others. Money may come. Or not. But writing is a relief to us. Writing a novel is like keeping a journal. It’s how we stretch ourselves from the inside. We examine the conflicts within ourselves. We place these conflicts in our characters and watch how they play out. 

People say, “love makes the world go round.” But that's not so. It's conflict and darkness that makes the world go round. Someone might argue – “But look at all those romance stories out there!”  Yes, and yet those romance stories are about adultery, lies, betrayal, uncontrolled passions, unrequited love, or some other conflict. There is no story without conflict; and the very best stories are well-written ones about conflicts within the darker regions of the heart.  


What happens when the CIA
gets inside your mind?
What novel isn't about darkness? Isn’t this darkness what draws us when we read? Captivates us? We want tension. We seek conflict followed by a revelation within the human heart. And we crave a resolution. 

Not just Mark Twain, but psychologists and theologians too tell us that darkness is a universal theme. Equally as universal is that we hide our darkness from others and even ourselves. Still, it silently haunts us. Freud was honest with himself and vulnerable with his readers to even admit he had sexual feelings toward his mother. He didn't hide. 

Or, in Faulkner's words, "Unless you are ashamed of yourself now and then, you aren't honest."

As readers, when we pick up a well-written book we sometimes are transported into that dark place we've been avoiding. It is often the protagonist himself or herself who has a dark place. He or she is perhaps a mystery even to themselves. It absolutely deepens the story. Makes the character more interesting and more real. As readers, we squirm because the good guy has a problem. Perhaps a big one. And if we, as readers, like a particular story, it’s because we have discovered ourselves inside that story. 

That’s what makes a revealing read. That's why we buy a book in the first place. 

I’ll give an example: In Stephen Jay Schwartz’s fine story Boulevard, his protagonist is a police officer who is also a (recovering?) sex addict going to twelve-step meetings. And who has the insights to help solve sex crimes in that city? You guessed it.

Not just the readers, but the writer too is present in his or her novels. We are the adulterer who can’t help himself. We are the soldier who is afraid, the spouse contemplating murder, the politician who is divided between personal gain and social good. Good writers know this and don’t hide from it. Good writers know that they are in their own story, maybe many of the characters. There’s no escaping it.

Kafka said - "Don't edit your soul down to a fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly." 

You’ve read that we should all “get in touch with our feelings.” But the better writers dig deeper. He or she gets in touch with places the “feelings people” don’t dare go; places whether others won’t look at all. The writer is alone there, because he or she has been honest there. 

As Salman Rushdie puts it, "Masks beneath masks, until suddenly the bare bloodless skull."  

She knows the darkest lie of all. 
As a result of this digging deeper, the novels by these writers are not just another version of Law and Order or read like a rerun of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. They are so much more.

And yet, not surprisingly, when we write our books from those darker places, and write them well, we find that our audience is waiting for us. The audience too knows those dark places, and has been waiting all along. 

Email Peter:
Peter is the author of Operation Fantasy Plan, a spy novel published by William Morrow.
Peter has now gone "Indie" with upcoming Madeleine's Kiss and The Whole Truth.  

Peter can be contacted at:
Peter is a former university and college instructor, intelligence officer, ombudsman, counselor, truck drive, bartender and short order cook. He has been in jail only once. He almost always takes his meds.

He says he didn't do it. Sure.

Peter Gilboy is a former ditch digger, short order cook, bartender, truck driver, soldier, counselor and academic.  He has been in jail only once. Peter almost always takes his meds.  
His website is    You can contact him at

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