When is “Dark” too dark?

Nancy J. Cohen

One of the words I’ve been repeating in my works lately has been “dark”. You know, the man swung his dark gaze her way. He wore a dark suit. He had his dark hair brushed back over a wide forehead. Shadows darkened in a corner as he gave her a dark scowl.


This can be considered lazy writing, except I hadn’t even been aware of this fault until I ran one of the self-edit programs described in my personal blog at http://bit.ly/12iU9nZ. I embarked on a search and find mission to replace as many of these weak terms as possible.

Let’s start with clothes. Face it, men wear dark suits. To get a better idea of colors, I accessed this website: http://lawyerist.com/suit-colors-for-the-clueless/. Ah, now it became clear which colors are popular for men and suited to business. My descriptions of dark suits changed to black, charcoal, slate or navy. That’s a lot better than “dark”, isn’t it?

charcoal blazer

If you want to get even more particular, go online to a department store site like Macys.com and put in the search feature “suits, “blazers”, or “sportcoats” and you’ll get a wide variety of colors.

navy blazer

What about the character who has dark hair? Is it black or dark brown? Check this reference:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_hair_color. Instead of black hair, give your character raven, ebony, or onyx hair. Varying the descriptions adds spice to your story.


Also watch out for redundancies like dark shadows & dark scowl. Both of these work well without the “dark” element.

Despite its ambiguity, this word is popular for movies. Witness Batman’s The Dark Knight; Thor: The Dark World; and Star Trek into Darkness.

The filmmakers can get away with it, but as a writer, you cannot. What other ambiguous words like this might you want to change?

19 thoughts on “When is “Dark” too dark?

  1. This is a great topic, Nancy. One of the suggestions I constantly make to writers in my critique group is that they find fresher ways to convey a scene. Too often I think we reach for mundane words when describing a character or action. That doesn’t mean we should drag out a thesaurus and use five-dollar words everywhere; we just need to remember that precise words are usually more vivid, and therefore they help inject a stronger sense of life onto the page.

  2. I agree, but with one caveat: it depends on which character’s eyes the scene is described through. Spenser would know these colors; Elvis Cole might; Mike Hammer would not, and might bust you in the chops if yo asked him to distinguish between off-white, eggshell, and ecru.

    • On that note I am moderately color blind. For a couple of years I wore a pair of weight lifting gloves to the gym that I thought were black with grey piping. Couldn’t figure out why so many gay guys were striking up chats with me until one day a friend came to work out with me and asked “Dude, what’s up with the pink trim on your gloves?”

      I bought a new pair that day…all black.

  3. Good post, Nancy. Most of the ambiguous words I’d love to see eliminated are in bios of business and corporate types.

    Dana makes a great point, and that’s a good lesson for all of us. I know a few men who would notice the color of another man’s suit, but most men I know wouldn’t be able to tell you later whether or not the other guy even had any clothes on.

  4. I suppose this falls into the workings of the whole “Show Don’t Tell” concept. That’s why I keep thesaurus.com open while writing. My brain can’t hold enough different ways to say cold, dark, suddenly, etc.

    • First we have to recognize that we’re using these words before we can fix them. I hadn’t even seen so many “dark”s in my manuscript until I ran that self-editing program.

    • That’s a point I forgot to make earlier. I ran a word count program on a manuscript of mine and was shocked–shocked!!–to see how many times I’d used some words, often words that had little value. (“Just,” “Enough,” “but,” etc.)

      Made me more ruthless on the next draft, and it’s a better book because of it.

    • “Just” is my bad habit as well, so I have to watch myself very closely. Fortunately, my journalism profs trained me to axe the “that” but I’m having to train myself on lots of other words.

      Communities like these make good accountability groups. 🙂

  5. Nancy: I’ve been away in the mountains for five days, so I’m catching up. First off, I’m taking JEN4 home with me. Second, yeah, “dark” certainly is one of “those” words.

    Well, just how “dark” is it, then?

    Thing is, the author is supposed to know these things. I hate it when the author hedges on details. It sounds like he (or she) just showed up and has taken over the “job” of pushing the pen around. Sweat. Gasp. Back bent. Like digging a hole in reaaaly hard ground.

    If the writer is showing us (reader) the situation through the eyes of the MC or somebody, then the approximations are understandable.

    Of course, I find myself doing this all the time: hedging my bet and not wanting to commit. Yunno, just in case…

    Makes a reader really feel confident in the driver of this bus. Will we get where we’re supposed to be going?


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