Friday, June 16, 2006

Come On Over to the Dark Side

Mary is such an excellent blogger, and oh, how I love to steal things from her. Over at the Bandwagon, Mary just posted a terrific bit about writing dark suspense. You know, the kind where you really get in the villain's head and swim around to show the reader just how sick and twisted he is, where you give blow-by-blows of the gritty forensic detail for verisimilitude, where you kill off or at least harm characters you've gotten your reader to care about, just to show how serious the threat really is.

Mary says, "...some writers are just too dark for me these days. It is probably just my perception--I hardly watch sad movies or police procedurals anymore, and the other night when I was watching Serenity, well, I had my face turned from the screen most of the time. I swear, if I didn’t know I wasn’t pregnant, I would think I’m pregnant (Pregnancy cured me of my love for scary movies.)"

First of all, I had the same experience with pregnancy that Mary did. I can't deal with nasty, violent scenes in movies anymore. Just the preview for Saw II was enough to send me over the edge, and hearing my brother Troy's two-minute synopsis of Hostel gave me the heebies for days.

But I still like dark, psychological suspense, especially in books. (Although I can't deal with anything involving Bigfoot. See, there were alleged Bigfoot sightings near my hometown when I was in the third grade and regularly WALKING HOME ALONE from school, and ever since, I've had a deep, irrational fear of Bigfoot that rivals my arachnophobia. One of my friends in college found, to his great amusement, that all he had to do was slouch a little and swing his arms in that swooping, knuckle-scraping motion made famous on the Bigfoot episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, and I'd immediately bury my face in the nearest pillow and start whimpering. Fortunately for me, he also had an irrational fear of Bigfoot, and if he did this too often, he scared himself.)

Anyhoo, back to the subject at hand. Some of my favorite authors--the oft-mentioned Karen Rose, Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Gardner, T. Jefferson Parker--write some gritty, dark stuff. What I love about them is that there isn't a lot of yuck--no blow-by-blow descriptions of some ingeniously torturous way that someone died. They give you just enough detail to get their points across, and then move on, letting your imagination take over. If you choose, your imagination can gloss over the details and run away to the investigative part of the story.

As I told Mary in her comments section, some days it's hard for me to write scary or dark, even though it's what I generally love doing. My first Intrigue, Maximum Security, was pretty dark--I actually managed to scare myself in a couple of places, because I wrote a few scenes that tapped into some of my deepest fears. Interestingly when I did the "Mission: Family" series, I just couldn't go there again. Consequently, that series is quite a bit lighter than Max. Security (although I got a little creepy in Next of Kin with Polly Singh the medical examiner). And I think that's a big source of my unhappiness with parts of it.

In her post, Mary says: "I wonder if that’s part of why writers write dark, to look into their own darkness. Maybe that’s why I can’t write a villain’s POV--maybe I don’t want to see that side of myself. Maybe that’s why I can’t even read it."

It's such an interesting question. Why do we as writers even go there? Why do I go there? I actually don't like the idea that it's to explore my dark side, although I expect that no one consciously says, "I'm going to write a gritty suspense today to explore my inner Ted Bundy! Whoo-hoo!" Maybe on a subconscious level, I am a little fascinated that I have it in me to write such ugliness.

But I think what attracts me to writing and reading gritty suspense--romantic or not--is that it can take you to the very depths of the evil that does exist in this world and then show how that can be overcome. To me, it's a message of hope. I worry about my daughters so much and so often, so when I write a horrible villain that would be a threat to them, it's comforting to create that villain's inverse--someone with the intelligence, the determination, and the goodness to bring that evil down. I watch a show like Bones, which can be really gross, but I love watching Temperance Brennan taking down a mafia don, an evil voodoo priest, a sociopathic killer husband--with nothing but a bone chip and her mind. I recently read Karen Rose's You Can't Hide, and for the entire first half of the book, I had NO CLUE how such a mysterious, ingenious, utterly singleminded villain was going to ever be brought to justice. But Tess Ciccotelli and Aidan Reagan do it, cleverly, painstakingly, and convincingly--and therefore I loved the whole ride. (Mary, don't read this book.)

Despite my foray into suspense-semi-light with the Mission series, I've gone back to the dark side with my writing lately. Judging by the comments on Mary's blog so far, not everyone likes the dark side. But for me, if I'm going to write or read suspense, I want to do it all the way. However, especially because of my intolerance for horror films like Saw or Hostel (or even their previews. So nasty.), I sympathize completely with people who want to stay in the light.

What do you think? Do you like dark, scary suspense, or does it make you want to hide? Would you rather avoid gritty stories--whether on paper or on a screen--and keep your reading choices positive and life-affirming and not-so-icky? Be sure to read Mary's post, too!


MaryF said...

Okay, no Karen Rose for me.

To me, yes, I like knowing WHY - I think that's the big part of why I'm a writer - but I guess I hate exploring the kind of people that I don't like to think are out there - the really sick and twisted. I guess I don't like to think of the evil that dwells in the hearts of men. (Who said that? Is it from a movie?)

LOLOL on Bigfoot - I would love to read a book on Bigfoot!

Tracy Montoya said...

At least not NOTHING TO HIDE--there are a couple of images in there that really stay with you. She's pretty dark in her other books, too.

And the "evil that dwells in the hearts of men" quote was driving me nuts, so I looked it up. It's from that old radio show "The Shadow":

As for a Bigfoot book, I won't be writing it, that's for sure!

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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