Neo-Noir, Dark Themes & Fantasy

As I comb through my finished draft of The Elementalist: Rise of Hara (TEROH from here on out), reading it out loud for awkward sentence structures and flowing cadences, I’ve come to realize that my novel has a surprising amount of dark writing themes—surprising to me only because I never intentionally sat down and told myself, “Hey, I’m gonna write a dark fantasy novel!” All the same, it’s making me seriously consider whether my story is even a bit neo-noir.

It’s very much dieselpunk and fantasy, sure, but that doesn’t describe the tone. Not that a series of labels for a novel has to, per se, but if I want to give people a better idea of what they can expect from TEROH, then I wonder now if I should also be adding “neo-noir” to the mix somewhere. (Depending on what version of my blurb I use, I could see people interpreting the story as a light-hearted, swashbuckling type, which could be misleading. Especially if I use my shorter “under 200 words” version versus my slightly longer “under 300 words” one, the latter currently showing on my site.)

Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain why I suspect my novel may be neo-noir.

What is Neo-Noir?

I’ve been pondering this whole neo-noir business since I finished revising my last two chapters a couple of weeks ago, but what really got me thinking about this topic was an article written by Larry Amyett over at the blog “Dieselpunk” that I came across on Monday. Here is how he defines neo-noir:

Neo-Noir is the modern day heir to the classic noir of the 1940s and 50s. While Neo-Noir may not use the same cinematography as Film Noir, with its heavy emphasis on German Expressionism, it does [contain] the same sense of alienation, hopelessness[,] moral ambiguity and desperation found in Film Noir while adding postmodern angst and often an existential search for meaning while living in a meaningless world.

While I was reading, I was just nodding and thinking to myself, “OMG…this is exactly what I’ve been playing with in my novel!” Alienation? “At age twenty-four and suffering from emelesia, a rare genetic disorder…” (Alienation naturally comes with the territory of my protagonist’s condition.) Check. Hopelessness? “Running on her last drop of optimism…” Check. Moral ambiguity, desperation, search for meaning…

Check. Check. Check. It’s like a lightbulb turned on in my head.

But there’s just one thing puzzling me about all of this…

(Jan. ’17 Edit: here’s another great link that examines neo-noir as a literary genre.)

Where did all this darkness come from???

I can’t say that, during the process of writing the drafts that led to my current rendition of my story, I was ever particularly drawn to anything that was explicitly neo-noir—at least, not at first glance. I have always been fascinated with espionage stories and (lately) psychological thrillers, which I guess often takes on dark tones but don’t all necessarily go the neo-noir route. (Major examples would be the TV show Alias, the Bourne and James Bond movies, Shutter Island and The Good Shepard as well as some spy novels (fiction and non-fiction) that I’ve come across—all of which I encountered at different points throughout my novel-writing process over the years.) I didn’t approach my story as espionage fiction because real spy thrillers really, really go into detail when it comes to spycraft and I have no doubt that I would not be able to pull that kind of story off. As much as I admire it, I just don’t have a knack for it and I don’t think I could do that genre justice if I tried.

I do have a knack for fantasy, and that is what originally drew me to this project. The espionage I have included in the novel is of my own variety, inspired by some of my favorite thrillers yet definitely in my own, exceptionally loose, interpretation.

Looseness.  That’s what I like about fantasy over genres like spy thrillers or even alternate history. I don’t want to get too caught up in  the “real” details because at the end of the day, I’m more interested in the invented and fantastical ones.

Themes of Light vs. Dark, Good vs. Bad & the Search for Truth

There was a time on the blog where I was thinking about the concept of chiaroscuro in art and how that can translate to literature (like The Grapes of Wrath). I couldn’t see it at the time, but I think chiaroscuro and noir (and neo-noir) are very compatible. Both play with light and dark in ways that are unique to the art and film/literature mediums respectively. This is something I definitely play with in my WIP, as well.

The protagonist, Voi, is a pacifist in the beginning who places her faith in the League, an alliance of nations whose ultimate goal is international peace and harmonious living. However, the very foundations of this “peace” was built upon a great deception, and Voi comes face-to-face with staunch opponents of this lie: a political terrorist group known as the Haran, who fight for liberation from the “Oppressors” in her world. There is a stark contrast of ideologies that causes Voi to question her understanding of the world and how it’s governments ought to run. By the end, it is no longer clear to Voi who’s good or bad, what’s right or wrong—in other words, moral ambiguity.

In any case, it’s nice to be able to look back on my WIP with a sense of clarity. For the longest time, I felt I was fumbling in the dark. A couple months from now, when I get into beta reading, it’d be interesting to get my readers’ opinions on the story and whether they feel it has noir elements. I seem to vacillate between Voi’s optimism and the grim reality of the lie she faces when it comes to the tone of writing I use throughout the novel, but ultimately, I think this is just a reflection of Voi’s character as she changes along the way.

*     *     *

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got today. No new videos on YouTube; probably won’t be for a couple weeks. I’ll be traveling to Chicago for a week to visit my boyfriend, whom I haven’t seen for about five months now (long distance). 😦 I’ll be sure to take pictures and perhaps even some video!


4 thoughts on “Neo-Noir, Dark Themes & Fantasy

  1. See, this is why examples are good. I wasn’t really following what “neo-noir” was until I went to the blog post you linked to and saw that list of movies. That helped a lot.

    Quite an eclectic list, I must say — running the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Chinatown is amazing — it’s the example I always use to debunk the idea that movies (and stories in general) need characters who are likable and “relatable.” It’s a masterpiece and everybody in it is awful..So what?

    LA Confidential is a really good noir, but it punks out at the end. No noir should end with that much sunshine. 🙂

    I think one of my favorite “neo-noirs” is a wonderful movie called Brick. Not a masterpiece, but wonderfully audacious. It’s a noir set in a high school, and (to say the least) it works way better than you’d think from that description.

    And there’s also Farewell My Lovely — I stole a scene from that one (which is probably the highest honor I could bestow 🙂 ).

    Oh, and have fun on your week. My last relationship was long distance, and I know how precious those visits can be.


    • Thanks! Yeah, it’s been a challenge, the LDR. We’re super excited to see each other again. 🙂 (And more determined to work something out now, I think. We were both starting new jobs when he moved and wanted to see how things developed first.)

      I’m glad the link helped because I don’t think I was in the mood to do a full post on neo-noir, haha. Definitely one of my more introspective posts…

      I’ve been meaning to watch Chinatown but haven’t been able to find it on any of my movie services. May have to buy it. Yesterday, I just saw Blade Runner for the first time, which I’ve seen listed as neo-noir in some places. That was interesting (with a total cliffhanger ending!). L.A. Confidential is also on my list to watch!


  2. Pinning down our story’s genre. One would think that’s pretty easy. Well, it’s driving me crazy!
    I think neo-noir also wants a particular kind of setting, but I think your story will have that 😉
    So yeah, you probably have a neo-noir brewing.

    Larry’s series is fantastic, don’t you think so?

    L.A. Confidential is one of my favourite films ever.


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