6 Writing Tips You Can Use from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)

How great is Heart of Darkness?

I don’t ordinarily rate works of art. However, in my opinion, Heart is the greatest novella (short novel) ever written.

Conrad was inspired by his trip to the Congo (now known as Zaire). At the time, the Congo was a Belgian colony. Perhaps the greatest insight Conrad learned there was that the “civilized Europeans” were anything but that in their domination and enslavement of the natives.

#1: Write about Imperialism and Colonialism

You think you know nothing about those subjects? You think they’re irrelevant and absent in your life? Think again.

Heart is an expose into the Belgians’ exploitation of the “savage races.” One of its subjects is racism and the degradation and demoralization of one people at the hands of another. Ultimately, the exploiters and degraders themselves were destroyed by their own actions and attitudes.

Now…doesn’t that ring a bell?

  • Do you know anybody who acts domineering and tries to colonize people? How about your ex-boyfriend or ex-spouse? Or, worse yet, your current “love” partner? Feeling dominated, used, or abused?
  • Have you ever experienced or witnessed people or an institution wield its power and authority in a vicious, selfish, exploitative way?
  • Know any pimps?
  • Know any thugs?
  • Know any criminals?
  • Know any racists?
  • Know any hypocritical, unethical, or corrupt cops, politicians, teachers, leaders, pastors, or others in positions of authority?
  • Know any just plain old assholes?

If you haven’t experienced any of those things or known any of those types, you’ve lived a charmed life. Or you don’t get out much. Or maybe I’ve been out too much…I don’t know…but I do know that all those situations and people make for great plots and characters.

#2: Tap into your subconscious

Heart is a psychological masterpiece about the subconscious mind. Influenced by Dante, Conrad takes his readers on an Inferno-like descent into the underworld of human existence—searching for lost idealism, a center that holds, a meaning to life, and the essence of our existence.

Take your readers deep inside the underworld of your life. I’ve mentioned this before: the best stories are the ones you don’t want to tell about yourself. You don’t want anybody to know just how bad or twisted you really can be.

“I’m not bad or twisted,” you may be saying. Okay. Have it your way. You’re a veritable saint. You oughta be canonized.

Come off it. You lost your idealism somewhere along the way. Write about it.

  • Your center sometimes nearly rips to shreds and flies apart.
  • In your shadowy or shaddy moments, during your worst experiences, you’ve wondered if life is meaningless.
  • What’s the point of living?
  • Maybe writing about those darkest days is exactly what you need to do to achieve some self-awareness and a catharsis.

#3: Apply some epistemology

Conrad explored the boundaries and limits of epistemology: how it is that we know things. How do we know what we know is one of philosophy’s greatest unanswered questions.

What’s the exact mental and emotional process we undertake in learning and understanding “reality”?

  • You could have a character always questioning things.
  • A philosopher type playing off a foil—someone’s who’s the opposite, who questions nothing or disagrees with everything, or who answers with non-answers.
  • Epistemological dialogue can be extremely funny.
  • I’m not talking about having your characters go on and on like two boring know-it-alls.
  • Make it short, snappy, ridiculous even.

One of Conrad’s greatest achievements was his ability to write self-aware, meta-novels—stories that call attention to the art of story-telling itself. You could try that by having a character who declares that he knows he’s a character in a book, or in God’s story, or that he’s treated like he’s not even real. Maybe he questions whether he’s even alive or it’s all a dream.

  • Like Alice down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
  • Or the Who’s calling out for help on their speck of dust world, and only Horton hears them.
  • Or “Young Goodman Brown” sneaking off into the woods late at night to consort with the devil and his crew.
  • Or the entire 6 seasons of LOST—lives in limbo. Limbo, purgatory, anywhere between two dimensions is a Twilight Zone popular plot.

#4: Tell a twice-told tale

Conrad’s stories are often told through other people’s accounts of them, which are themselves often twice-told tales passed down orally, from several conflicting viewpoints or perspectives.

Conrad employs narrators who confront themselves, both in other characters and in telling the story of their own pasts. The narrator of Heart, Marlow is on a spiritual voyage of self-discovery, where he meets up with his own flawed, fatalistic nature and discovers the darkness in his own heart.

Thus, the reader must take an active role in attempting to discern among the ambiguous and competing versions or accounts of unreliable narrators.

  • Making a reader wonder ‘What the heck is going on? Who are these people?’ creates great curiosity and suspense. If you want answers and you want them now, you’re hooked on sticking with it until you get them.
  • You might have a character tell a story to a group around a campfire, or stuck in an elevator, or, better yet, somewhere mysterious.
  • A vague and ambiguous setting. We’re not sure where they are. We don’t know who the group is, or who the story-teller is, or why he’s telling the story—until the end of the story.

The reader is hooked into hearing this story within a story. The outside story is just as mysterious and page-turning as the inside story. Both stories are meta-stories. And I’ve never met a reader yet who isn’t fascinated by meta-stories.

#5: Try writing an apocalyptic story—they’re always bestsellers and blockbusters

The end of the world. Earth invaded by aliens. A meteor striking New York City. Hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tornados, tsunamis, riots, war. They never fail to attract an audience—provided you have characters caught in the middle of them.

Apocalypse Now, the extraordinary Francis Ford Coppola Vietnam War movie, is based, in part, on Heart. After reading Heart, watch the movie again, or for the first time, and you’ll have an insightful and fruitful intellectual experience noting the similarities (and differences) between Heart and Coppola’s masterpiece.

#6: Study and work hard like Conrad did

Conrad was born in Poland and didn’t learn English until he was 21 years old, which is a remarkable fact considering he’s one of the very finest prose stylists in the history of English literature. How did he pull that off? Hard work.

 

That’s the final point of this chapter: Read great books, watch great movies, and write every day.

Study the art of storytelling. Study like you’re studying for the most important final exam of your life. If you want to be a great writer, you’re taking a final exam every time you sit down to write.

And you should sit down to write at least 3-4 hours every single day. Not every other day. Every day.

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