Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Writers: Embrace the Bleak in Your Stories

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Holiday stories offer happy endings, but they also tap into some dark areas writers can benefit from all year long. Bonnie Randall takes her monthly place at the podium today with tips on making the most of the dark moments in your writing.

Tis the season of peace, love, and good will. Christmas is here again and, like many people, I am binging on seasonal books and movies. I am also—like many writers—crafting stories and collecting ideas that fall under this theme we call the ‘happiest time of the year’.

I am also reflecting on how interesting it is that the best Christmas stories take us to the darkest places. It’s A Wonderful Life starts off with a suicide attempt. A Christmas Carol features a horrifying haunting. Looking past the silly, even the antagonist of The Grinch is a ruthless sadist whose sole intention is to rob people not of their possessions, but of their happiness—and he’s not above engaging in animal cruelty to do so. (Ahem. Consider his poor, little dog). The beatific, altruistic mom in The Christmas Shoes dies while her loving husband and son hover helplessly at her bedside.

My goodness. So much for peace, love and charity. Except….Underpinning these elements is the most profound Christmas concept: Hope. And when do we hope? Well, we do not hope when things are going well. We do not fall on our knees when the sun is shining. We don’t need to believe things will be brighter if nothing is bleak.

Nowhere is the cliché ‘It is always darkest before the dawn’ more pronounced than in the most powerful Christmas stories. So, what elements need to be present in order to amplify the Christmas protagonists’ ‘Darkest Moment’?

(Here's more on All Is Lost: Four Kinds of Death in Fiction)


Helplessness works well: Are they sick? Make them sicker. Poor? Take their last dollar. Abandoned? Steal the car they have been sleeping in. Steal their shoes. Rip their winter coat in two and have the bums beat them up when they try to huddle around the garbage can fire in the back alley.

Trap them: Stick them in a place of intense and relentless misery. Think wrongful imprisonment. The palliative ward of an understaffed hospital. Consider the misery of being stuck in a household where the rest of the family scapegoats you and hates you. Imagine a schoolyard where the bullying and cruelty take your breath away.


Vulnerability: Cut off all their resources. Were they texting the one person who’s kept them sane? Let them run out of data. Leave them completely alone. Better yet, let their one champion die…literally. Oh, and did they have a weapon with which they believed they could defend themselves? Render it useless. Have their last hope turn on them. In fact, let their last hope start working against them. Leave them…

Defenseless: Moreover, when they are defenseless, let whatever the force is that’s working against them get even bigger. Meaner. Uglier. Make it evil.

Sorrow: Sorrow is not merely grief. Sorrow arrives when you realize all truly is lost. Make all lost for your character, and then—

Despair: Despair lives where hope is not. Crush. Every. Hope. That faith they have been clinging to? Annihilate it. God Himself has turned his back.

Beyond that, and additionally, your characters’ entire set of circumstances, both physically and emotionally, have to be unjust. And not just a little bit. You want your reader not just steeped in empathic sorrow for your hero(ine). You want them wildly indignant that your character is suffering so much in the first place.

(Conversely, if this is a redemptive story for your protagonist, you want their self-actualization to be just as intense as the pain would be for a suffering character. Either way, you want your character on their knees).

(Here's more on Battered But Not Beaten? Pushing Your Character Past The Breaking Point)

And also…

Use Your Setting

Winter is dark, cold, and every good thing is hidden beneath a blanket of ice. Use this to your advantage—both literally and symbolically. Let your setting become an additional, relentless obstacle that appears to be working in consort with ‘The Problem’ (oh, and don’t be afraid to strongly imply that this malevolence is supernatural. Christmas is, after all, a supernatural event).

And then…

When all has been lost, when the last bell has tolled, when no solution is within remote sight….give them magic. Give them The Miracle. This is where you get to work just as hard at crafting awe as you did at creating misery. This is where the impossible is now possible; where the unloved are adored, where the hungry are fed, and where the dying spring to life with vibrant joy. This is where the Spirit of Christmas will reign over your tale, and where Hope becomes Reality.

And that is my real-life wish for you too, as we say goodbye for 2019: that Hope springs back in and surprises you by becoming your reality in the upcoming new decade: love beyond measure, joy beyond laughter, and peace beyond any contentment you’ve ever imagined.

Merry Christmas!

xo Bonnie

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

Website | Blog Facebook | Goodreads |


Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”


  1. Often the dreariest of circumstances can make a book the best. Bonnie, I took a lot of notes from your post here. Thank you.

  2. One of the most powerful Christmas stories I've read is A Christmas Tale by Austin Crawley. It's Horror, but the Horror comes from memories of Christmas past and glimpses of awful circumstances in the present and future holidays. Even that ended as you say, with a glimmer of hope.