How do you write the darkness?


Some writers just seem to write dark stuff more naturally than others. I am not one of those writers. 

I know I’m sensitive. I avoid violent TV shows. (I avoid loud noises and bright lights!)

Because I embody everything I write, I find it challenging to write tension and conflict (never mind monsters, betrayal, destruction, etc.)

But how can you write a story without shadow?

It’s helped me to bring shadow work mindfully into my writing practice. In other words, I agree to imagine the feeling that something awful is happening, and consent to experience this struggle with curiosity and neutrality.

Then my experience writing the dark stuff becomes one of freedom and choice.

It comes from a more powerful place, which feels better, and it becomes way more interesting.

Writing with curiosity changes your perspective, and expands your capacity for feelings of different kinds. 

Isn’t this is why we love songs that make us cry? And why we watch scary movies? It’s because we want to feel more human. 

As writers, we get to practice feeling and experiencing all kinds of emotions. Even the darker, more frightening stuff. We know we’re unconsciously curious about shadow, because shadow comes to us in our dreams to freak us out when our conscious mind is asleep.

All the unpleasant feelings we try to avoid in real life — grief, shame, jealousy, conflict — these all have an important role to play in a story.

You might avoid writing pain because you don’t want to feel pain. That’s valid!

But if you want to write something on the dark side of the human experience, try doing it a little bit at a time. Stretch yourself, little by little. Use a 5 minute timer, or let yourself write a scary part of a scene in a 50 word burst.

Every time you stretch to hold more shadow without judgment, acknowledge how extraordinary you are to do this.

Expanding your ability to feel the myriad of psychological burdens we go through in this life gives us more tools to use in your writing… and in your life.

In other words, when we know how to access more kinds of feelings, this gives us more colours in our paintbox. More flavours in our spice cabinet. More keys to play on our piano! You get the idea.

When we write into shadow with neutrality and curiosity, we can expand our capacity as storytellers, and we become more mature writers.

If you’d like to try some shadow writing, here are two classic prompts you can do once a day as a practice in expansion:

  1. I don’t want to write about…

  2. I don’t remember…

Just set a timer for 5-10 minutes, so you can dip your toes into your subconscious without fear of losing yourself in a deep and shadowy lair. A dab’ll do ya! 

Stretch your capacity for the shadow a little bit day by day, and watch what happens.



Photo credit: Ryan Olson on Unsplash.

Trust yourself.
Writing prompts to help you find the treasure in the dark.


Julie Gabrielli

I love these prompts. For me, the reliable sign that I'm honestly (and bravely) engaging with shadow is if I weep while writing. Those rare moments can feel like sweet release. Or new insight into an old hurt. 

More often, it shows up as a twinge of strong emotion when reading something aloud.  That may be a welling up of emotion or a  "truth tingle" on skin. I've begun to note those passages - if I can feel them, maybe others can, too?

Read more
Read less
Cindy Bahl

Interesting. I'm getting close to having to cross that bridge within my writing and unsure how to approach it. This blog post provides a way to begin. I'm the same as you in that I'm fairly sensitive. Because of this, don't watch or read stories about the dark side of humanity. I already empathize too much in real life, whether a close friend or watching the news. Tucking your advice away as approach the dark side of my novel.

Thanks, Cindy

Read more
Read less

Leave a comment