Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Punch Them in the Feels • by Eric Dontigney

So, earlier this week, Bruce put up the Dark and Gritty Reboot post. He’s not alone in giving this trend to ever-darker content the side-eye and wondering what it’s all about. It’s something I’ve thought about and written about before, not least because my own fiction trends dark. It’s tricky ground. As a writer, one of the things you can’t avoid is that you must do bad things to your characters. Conflict drives narrative action. Yet the bad things don’t automatically have to be enormous, terrible things. If you write fiction for a mainstream, non-speculative fiction crowd, you can get a lot of mileage out of something as simple as someone getting their hours cut at work.

Think I’m oversimplifying? Picture this. Abby is a single mother raising two kids. She holds her family together with her $12/hour full-time job, occasional overtime, a little extra from babysitting neighbor kids, and a budget so ruthless that it would make pre-Christmas Eve Scrooge nod in approval. Her car has 180,000 miles on it and the engine makes an unhealthy noise. Abby has socked away about one month’s rent in her savings account. One day, her boss calls her in and says he needs to cut her down to 28 hours a week. In one fell swoop, she goes from taking home about $1600 a month to about $1150 a month.

What’s the fallout? Abby has just gone from a hard situation to an impossible one. If she had health care coverage through her job, that’s gone. Let’s say she’s living somewhere cheap and shelling out $800 a month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Now she’s got $350 a month to cover everything. The threat of homelessness becomes immediately real. She’s got to figure out a way to pay for gas, for food, for utilities with way less than she can do it with. Sure, there are potential solutions. She can get another part-time job, but probably working somewhere in the evening. She’ll also probably end up working 50 hours a week and not sleeping enough. So, then she needs to think about the problems of childcare and being an absentee parent. If she doesn’t hire childcare, the threat of social services looms large.

In the vernacular of literature, this is all the substance of pathos. It’s the way in which you evoke an emotional response from an audience. In fact, by the end of all that, you probably felt at least a pang or two of pity for Abby, if not some empathy. More importantly, I didn’t need to say anything about her personality to make that happen. I didn’t have to make her dark and gritty. The situation is plenty grim all by itself. Yet, if this was a science fiction or fantasy film or novel, I’d be expected to make her a humorless, hard-bitten person with an allergy to smiles.

In the back of my head, I think of this as the “punch them in the feels” approach. My theory is that it originates in some form or another with something called the negativity bias. For all the people who didn’t minor in psychology, the negativity bias is the human brain’s tendency to register, note, and react more strongly to negative input. It’s why news coverage of a disaster gets better ratings than news coverage of the guy who takes his golden retriever to visit with sick kids every weekend for a decade. It’s probably also why news coverage has taken a turn for the hyperbolic negative in the last 30 years. When you apply the negativity bias to fiction in novel or film form, the punch them in the feels approach calls for making it as dark as possible.

There is also at least some level of what I call the crappy copycat effect in action here as well. People see something like Game of Thrones or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and they look for a simple explanation for why they’re successful. Now, while I personally loathe Game of Thrones, I understand enough about constructing a story to get why people like it. The fact that it’s dark and gritty is a factor, but it’s not the most compelling factor. Nolan’s Batman films, which I personally love, also upped the grit factor to 11. Again, that grittiness is not the main reason why people loved them. But dark and gritty it is the low-hanging fruit on the explanation tree.

The real secret of why things like Game of Thrones and Nolan’s Batman movies work so well is multifaceted. Game of Thrones benefited from source material that wasn’t created by a committee (except maybe that last season that everyone hated so much). The source material was the product of one person’s creative process, and the show writers apparently did a good job of carrying that story intact over into the scripts. That means you got a much more cohesive and frankly sensible story than you typically see on screen. While it’s hard to know exactly how much studio interference happened on the Nolan films, the scripts for those also appear to be primarily the product of Nolan, his brother, and prolific screenwriter David S. Goyer. The end result was, again, more coherent storytelling.

Both examples also benefited from unusually talented casts. Imagine The Dark Knight if they’d cast Jeremy Renner as Batman, Megan Fox as Rachel Dawes, and Charlie Sheen as the Joker. You’d end up with a very different and almost certainly inferior film, despite the outstanding script. Imagine the first season of Game of Thrones if they’d cast Dwayne Johnson as Khal Drogo and Jude Law as Ned Stark. Johnson and Law are both adequate actors, but neither is as good as Jason Momoa and Sean Bean. Both of these examples also display outstanding results in terms of production values. That speaks to a lot of hard work on the part of all the crew members and post-production teams that never get more than a passing nod when the accolades go around.

Unfortunately, the usual TV and film production process doesn’t enjoy all of these advantages. TV shows get written by teams of people in a writer’s room, often on a bitterly short schedule. Film scripts get written by a screenwriter, then usually rewritten with “input” from studio higher-ups, and frequently rewritten by an entirely different screenwriter or two. Can you imagine the mess you’d get if novels were written this way? The whys and hows of casting remain utterly mysterious to me. Production values on films and TV shows vary wildly. Sometimes they vary from one episode of a show to the next. I suspect this leads the people who greenlight projects to assume that factors like good writing, good casting, and high production values are simply random factors and the real secret is to make it dark and gritty.

People respond to dark stuff. Punch them in the feels, dammit!

This creates an unfortunate knock-on effect. Like it or not, every writer is influenced by the books, shows, and films they read and watch in their formative years. When my writer’s voice was first being developed, I was watching films like Seven, The Usual Suspects, The Matrix Trilogy, and Heat. I was also watching things like the excellent Granada Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett and the outstanding ITV Poirot series. This might help explain some of the darkness in my writing, as well as my tendency to unintentionally write everything like a mystery. Of course, I was also reading some top-shelf authors, like Neil Gaiman, Asimov, Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King. I credit King with saving my writing from descending into irreparable grit and gloom. Say what you like about the guy, he has a knack for working humor into some pretty dark stuff. If I learned the art of working in humor, I learned it from him.

For people who came along later than I did, though, their influences were things like the godawful Saw movies or Hostel. That’s to say nothing of all of the other dark and gritty, but not especially good, stuff I never saw because I didn’t know it existed. All of those writers were subconsciously learning bad lessons about storytelling and mimicking them in their own fiction. This was at the same time as the Potter books, which are pretty good storytelling. Unfortunately, it was also the time of the Twilight books and the Hunger Games books, which are both (by all reports) absurdly dark and not especially good storytelling.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with a generation of writers who were brought up watching and reading popular books and movies that glorified grit and darkness without the saving grace of humor. These writers, in turn, seek pathos through the wrong channels. They write dark and gritty characters into dark and gritty situations, rather than building pathos through careful construction of story and situation. It’s unnecessary and unfortunate because it violates the essential rule of writing: what you know.

What every writer knows best, whether they realize it or not, is other people. Every writer has a vast web of prior and current relationships that should teach them about how people react to situations. Yes, some people react to bad situations with stoicism or grim determination or anger. Others meet those challenges with humor or can-do pluck. Some get worn down and give up. Others rise to the occasion and shine. The amplified nature of speculative fiction doesn’t change that reality. It should simply offer a bigger imaginative canvas on which to express those variable reactions.

In short, don’t punch people in the feels.


Eric Dontigney is the author of highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at


Pete Wood said...

Well said.
I hate the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. They have a great look, compelling characters and top notch acting. They all lack good writing. I have a hard time thinking of a series that relied more on idiot plot than the three Batman flicks.
Nobody behaves sensibly in the Dark Knight except for Batman, the Joker, Alfred and Gordon. The Joker's plan works only due to the absolute incompetence of the gotham City police. I'm all for suspension of disbelief, but after a while I stopped throwing up my hands and just gave up.

~brb said...

> Can you imagine the mess you’d get if novels were written this way?

I don't need to imagine it. WILD WILD WEST is credited to six screenwriters working in three successive teams. There were actually eight, but the last two, who were brought in to fix it in post-production, remain uncredited. The script went through seven (I think) complete rewrites, and as the guy writing the tie-in novel I was expected to rewrite the novel every time a new script came in. At the end they were faxing me daily changes to the script as they were rewriting scenes while filming and expecting me to change the novel accordingly.

Because it takes six months to go from finished manuscript to mass market paperback on the racks in the stores, my editor eventually said, "We're out of time. Whatever you have today is the final manuscript. Email it to me now." And that's why there are things in the movie that weren't in the book: they were still rewriting the script, redubbing dialogue, and recutting scenes 30 days before the film hit the movie theaters.

A mess? Nah. More like a dumpster fire.

Eric Dontigney said...

Pete, I can think of lots of movies that relied more on idiot plot than those three Batman movies. For example, pretty much every Fast and Furious franchise film. That being said, I'll admit I'm more forgiving of dumb plot in superhero movies than I am for non-superhero movies. I watch superhero movies for the same reason I watch action movies. It's because I want to see cool special effects and ridiculous action sequences.

If we apply standard story logic to superhero films, they're all stupid. Let's use Iron Man as a case in point. Sure, this egomaniacal guy has made Nobel-prize-winning breakthroughs in the something like 15-20 fields necessary to make that armor work. Yet, he apparently hasn't made ANY of it publicly available through his for-profit company, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars in profit he'd have netted for even a handful of them. I mean, he supposedly coded a highly-sophisticated, operational AI but decided he'd just use it as a glorified Alexa? He could have named his price to the government or made a killing on the open market and...just didn't? Why?

Batman is completely absurd on the face of it. Even if someone could rack up enough of the right training in all the right disciplines to operate as Batman, had the unlimited resources necessary to equip Batman, and somehow managed to operate with the covert blessing of local law enforcement, they likely couldn't handle the physical brutality of it for more than a few years. Batman is basically MMA fighting every night. Real MMA fighters take months off between bouts to heal up and train. Even if we grant that Batman's body armor is soaking up some of the punishment, nobody could endure that lifestyle for long. That's assuming a federal task force didn't swoop in within six months to start arresting everyone in sight for aiding and abetting a vigilante and start their relentless hunt for the crazy guy in the batsuit.

I figure if I can handwave all of those kinds of logical problems away, I can tolerate people making dumb decisions/acting irrationally as part and parcel of the worlds that superheroes operate in.

Eric Dontigney said...

Bruce, I wish I'd recalled that example when I was writing the blog post.