On (Dis)Comfort

CW – Terms may be used that all may not find comforting to think about. However, I will not discuss these terms in any detail unto themselves.

The purpose of art actually is, in many cases, to make you feel quite uncomfortable. Or at least to go to that place that’s already of discomfort inside of you and tap into that.

  • Michael Moore

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: ‘I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive.’

  • Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case

I write to make people feel uncomfortable.

Wait, that sounds cruel. Let me have a go at that again.

I write to make people feel alive. And it is my belief that self-aware liveliness is born of our emotions. It’d be trivially simple to construct a basic narrative that follows traditional plot structures and is all well and good from the perspective of a high school English class’s lesson. But a beginning, middle, and end to a story do not matter to a reader if they are not engaged with the subject matter. And I believe, from personal experience, that engagement is invested in a story as much by negative emotions as by positive ones.

I speak of storytelling here, but I assume the same can be said of other forms of art, such as photography, painting, or music. A painting of a Happy Little Tree is as captivating as wartime photos are stunning.

In this era of aggressive scrolling and glancing from subject to subject, holding an audience’s attention is a tall order, but an important one. And today, personally, it seems like laughs are cheap. But sorrow? That makes headlines. But how does one market discomfort? How do you make a buck on displeasure?

Quick aside here: I don’t write for the money, though it isn’t an unwelcome dream.

I have a vivid memory from my college years of playing the video game Wolfenstein: The New Order on my own. The game was critically acclaimed and very, very positively received nearly-worldwide, so I was happy to give it a go. Plus, I enjoy the genre it’s in, generally. Anyways, this memory comes not from a moment of pleasure, but from one of disgust. Amidst the already-violent “shooter game”—a term overused by my parents at the time—that comprises the entire Wolfenstein franchise, The New Order featured a sequence of such intensity that I needed to put it down and step away from the screen a bit, choosing to get some fresh air and try to put what I had just witnessed out of my head.

For a bored college student in the digital era, that’s a little unusual and a big deal.

Wolfenstein: In an alternate reality in which they’ve found ancient super-technology, the Axis powers achieve victory in WWII. Resistance against them continues, and there’s your story. At least, I think that’s the plot. The worldbuilding of most “shooters” isn’t their main focus.

And it was this moment of revulsion that compelled me, later, to finish what I had started and continue with the game. It is this moment of revulsion that I remember most. And it is this that gave me greater insight into narratives and storytelling. There is probably some further insight that can be made on human psychology pertaining to our capacity to remember “the bad” in our lives, but I am not nearly qualified enough to begin writing on that beyond mere speculation.

Some say we, as a society, are growing desensitized to violence. I think this is partially true. Usually, this comment is used in such a way that implies total desensitization to the point of being unable to see anything ‘wrong’ with violence, which I do not believe is very accurate. Instead, I believe we’re beginning to stomach basic demonstrations of violence better, but it still strikes us as discomforting and immoral, and extreme depictions can still turn stomachs. All in all, I think this is a good thing. How else would we ever begin to address something ‘wrong’ in our world if we cannot even look it in its face?

Bonus quote time! —

Death…destruction…disease…horror…that’s what war is all about, Anan. That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. You’ve made it neat, painless. So neat and painless, you’ve had no reason to stop it.

  • James T. Kirk, Star Trek: The Original Series (A Taste of Armageddon)—story by Robert Hammer

That ‘kids these days’ are playing violent video games and seeing violence in media—news, movies, television shows, etc.—is not a failing of our society to keep them from becoming violent themselves, rather, it is a success to better prepare them for the human nature that troubles seven billion—at the time of this writing—people across the whole world. (Note that I am in no way advocating for the exposure of marketed violence to young children. I mean to use ‘kids’ as loosely as one may disparagingly utilize the ‘kids these days’ phrase.) A child may not understand the complexities of morality, but they can understand the application of its values and formulate, for themselves, an understanding of the evasion of those values. A child may not know why a good guy is a good guy or a bad guy is a bad guy, but they can bear a discontentedness for a bad guy’s schemes and actions. Extrapolating this forward, to we of greater age and—in theory—maturity, we do not need to enjoy something to understand it, nor do we need to shy away from it if we are disgusted by its presence.

I’ve spoken of violence thus far, but there are other things that ferment discomfort. There is a curious parallel in that most discomforts—that I can think of, at least—possess a reducibility to one of the Seven Deadly Sins. There’s been an elaboration on Wrath, above. From my point of view, the United States in particular is oddly disturbed by Lust, at least when compared with other parts of the world; that is to say, “sex on TV” is as negatively stigmatized—or moreso—as violence is. Europe, meanwhile, is far harsher on violence in media yet is—or, was—more lenient on libidinous tropes. There is an argument to be made that this boils down to variances in education systems, though frankly I am not well-versed enough to discuss that to any significant end.

Other instances of distaste for the aforementioned ‘sins’ are very numerous in modern media. The Gamestop debacle, which close friends of mine may know I am a part of, and Occupy Wall Street before it, are examples of rebellion against Greed. (Note: one may argue that the Gamestop situation is a “get rich quick” scheme for some, and while there is undoubtedly profit (and loss) to be had in the ordeal, many are only involved to “stick it to the man.”) While perhaps “discomfort” is a mild way to phrase the ideological motivation of Class Conflict, it is—and nearly always has been—a pivotal part of societal unrest.

But enough about our sins. The parenthesis around “dis” in “discomfort” as much make this post about comfort as otherwise. And for the sake of self-promotion of my own works, I am compelled to note that my stories are not all doom and gloom. The connection between my works and my readers which I seek to cultivate is of a cyclical nature. Were I to describe it in a formulaic scheme, the general process would be as such:

  • (Comfort) Invite readers in with likable characters/fantastical worlds.
  • (Discomfort) Impose a tragedy upon those characters/the world that upends the sense of ‘safety’ felt in the story beforehand.
  • (Comfort) Establish some sense of ‘hope’ that the previous discomfort can be thwarted.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Those who have studied creative writing may note that this is not too much unlike the general usage of a three- or five-act structure story:

  • (Exposition) The beginning of a story that sets the time/place of the world, introduces characters, etc.
  • (Rising Action) Complications arise in a story that motivates a protagonist toward a change in their life.
  • (Climax) Suspense is maximized as said-protagonist does what needs to be done to realize the aforementioned change.
  • (Falling Action) The implications of the Climax settle upon the protagonist, their supporting cast, and their world as a whole.
  • (Dénouement) (aka Resolution, though I was taught Dénouement in school and that’s the one I’m accustomed to) The final outcome of a narrative. If there is a lesson to be learned from a story, it’s usually overtly described here, especially in Shakespearean works (which loved the five-act structure).

The first “Discomfort” I described in the first list, above, takes place over two acts in the five-act structure—Rising Action and Climax. An initial discomfort is introduced that provides a motivation for a protagonist to do away with it, and the actualization of that motivation is addressed in the Climax of their story—this bleeds into the second “Comfort” I described. However, typical Dénouements in stories from the Greeks or the works of Shakespeare often feature a secondary “Discomfort” as a means to teach an audience the intended lesson of their narrative.

A summary of Sophocles’s Antigone. Antigone is the third of the three Theban plays, the first of which, Oedipus Rex, is probably more widely-known. But this was the best visual depiction of the Greeks’ ‘Catastrophe’ implementation of a Dénouement that I could find. Credit to "RebeccaRay" of StoryboardThat; click image for its source. There's plenty more reading over there!

As an author of serial fiction, I am compelled to theorize most of my doings in the context of a five-act structure’s application. However, it is worth mentioning that contrary to what standalone plays may have you believe, a five-act ‘story’ needn’t be merely one “book” in its entirety. In fact, I see and write my characters and their tales with greater nuance; a character may see their development realized over a small handful of chapters in a story, each chapter containing one or more of each of the five acts described above, only to then later re-engage with such development a second time later on in the same narrative. Furthermore, some ‘acts’ are simply too great in scope to describe them and their four partners within the confines of a single book, which is to say some story beats may last from one novel into another, a conclusion being realized only after several volumes of reading.

I feel this is all important because I think it better captures what makes us who we are. Our stories, as human beings, are not an isolatable unit, but rather the sum total of our traumas and pleasures. Were I to tell a tale of my life on this Earth today, the quarter-century which I could describe now would be as relevant unto itself presently as it would were I to tell my life’s story three decades later. My life so far is overwhelmingly influential on my future days. Why, then, should my fiction be any different? My characters, and their relationships, and their worlds, will rarely fully recover from their discomforts. But, likewise, the pinnacle points of their lives will equally change them forever after.

And I believe giving my readers an opportunity to experience that in fiction is my duty as an entertainer, that they, in turn, may reflect upon the futures of their own lives.

This post is long-overdue, and there are a few reasons for that. One is a flurry of unforeseen interrupts offered by life. But the biggest reason is that I found it notably difficult to write, and not for lack of trying. I returned to this entry on a near-daily basis and just couldn’t think of how to formulate my thoughts into readable text. Strange, isn’t it, to have something to say but to not know how? And even now, having ‘finished’ this entry, I am not certain I’ve conveyed its points in a fashion that does not come off as mere rambling; that is for you to be the judge of.

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