Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Comfort versus Discomfort

Well, I finished mid-terms and now I’d like to go to sleep. Unfortunately, I have a late meeting this afternoon so I’m still in the office. I’ve got some writing I want to do, but I thought a quick post might be in order.

Over on her blog, Patty Abbott asked where writers tend to set their scenes, and about where writers feel comfortable. That got me thinking, which is always a dangerous thing. And sometimes silly.

I guess there are two sides to that question. Where does a writer feel comfortable, in the sense of being familiar with a place that is featured in a scene? And where does a writer feel emotionally comfortable?

I think it’s important, although not always absolutely necessary, to at least link your scenes physically to places you are familiar with. Or, you need to make yourself familiar with those places. Cold in the Light is set in Arkansas, in the Ozark Mountains, an area I’m intimately familiar with. The Talera books are set on another planet, and I’ve…only been there a few times. But what I haven’t seen in person I try to make up for with research. As writers, we live in a boon time for that. Just about every place has been photographed and those pictures are online. It’s not a complete substitute for actually walking the ground of a place, but it can sure provide many important details. If I need to get an idea of what a jungle waterfall looks like on Talera, I can at least start by checking out photos of jungle waterfalls here on Earth.

On the other hand, when it comes to emotion, I tend to think writers should work from a position of discomfort. I don’t think you want to feel too emotionally comfortable in your fictional world, or else a good source of story tension will be lost. I think this is especially true in some genres. Take horror fiction, for example. I think the best fiction comes when writers are experiencing at least some of the same emotions they want the reader to experience. I realized from Patty’s post, that I like to use claustrophobic situations in my horror. I like to use the dark woods. And those kinds of situations make me intensely uncomfortable myself.

What say you? Is it different for other genres? Or does the rule generally hold true?


Heff said...

I'm currently feeling too much discomfort to comment properly.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, did you eat some carrots or something?

Best Fantasy and Science Fiction said...

I think this is a general rule and holds true across most fiction genres if not all. I think feeling comfortable in a story when writing and reading is a great thing, as long as you go into the unfamiliar or uncomfortable, which every good book I have ever read does. In my opinion there is no reason to read a fiction book where I feel truly comfortable with the characters, setting, etc. It just doesn't make sense. There has to be something unfomfortable about the above mentioned. Every "perfect" world has its imperfect people, places, and things. Those things are what makes life worth living and a story worth reading!

The unknown spurs creativity when writing and allows readers to fill in the gaps. This can be dangerous at times but you cant spoon feed everyone all of the time or your writing and reading becomes boring and trite.

Great post!

Spy Scribbler said...

You know, I don't think enough about setting. I often fret I have too light of a hand with setting, and then I fret I have too boring of a hand!

I agree with the writer feeling what he wants his readers to feel. It's hard to evoke an emotional response in someone else if you can't evoke it from yourself.

Steve Malley said...

Hm, I'm operating at a *serious* caffeine deficit here, but I'll give it a shot:

I have no idea why or when or how I choose my settings, so I'm going to leave that part of the question where I found it.

For the other, I try to work in as UN-comfortable a headspace as possible. All my life, those times I feel like I'm standing naked in a crowd of strangers are the times I'm doing my best work, and I try to hold onto that risk-taking, personal mindset.

And it does help with my characters, every last one of whom should be as uncomfortable as I can make them. I really screw those poor bastards down to the floor!

Like they say: no story without conflict. And me, I've never heard of a comfortable conflict...

Lisa said...

Great points. I think that no matter what the genre, discomfort has to be present or has to threaten either the physical setting or emotional landscape or both. Otherwise...it would just be boring, right?

Greg said...

good point... i think a writer being scared of something can definitely make the story better. i try to write about things i'm scared of, too, and i hope it helps build the story's tension.

laughingwolf said...

i'm with you on that score, charles

discomfort breeds tension, nicely

Miladysa said...

"The Talera books are set on another planet, and I’ve…only been there a few times."

LOL - I'm glad you were careful not to disillusion me :D

All the locations in Refuge of Delayed Souls exist and I am familiar with them although I have never set foot inside the real RoYds building.

Just recently, while editing, I decided to replace my fictional county 'Midshire' with the real county of 'Lancashire'.

I suppose I write about my fears too...

G. B. Miller said...

I think we all have our comfort zones to a certain degree.

I usually place most of my writings within Connecticut, since it's the state I'm most familiar with and the one I explored the most as an adult.

I try for the most part not to make it too much of the same old same old, but sometimes, I'll slip every once and while, and will use an overly familiar location (Cedar Mountain or my hometown for example).

Charles Gramlich said...

Best Fantasy and Science Fiction, I agree. I want at least one character I can identify with, but I don’t even expect that character to make me perfectly comfortable. I want tension, and want to see the characters put through the ringer.

spyscribbler, I probably think too much about setting. I really love description and setting, and I know a lot of modern readers don’t.

Steve Malley, I feel comfortable with the idea of making my characters and myself uncomfortable in the emotional department. Put ‘em through hell. The reader will thank you for it.

Lisa, I think so too. Even in my fantasy stuff I try to put the characters in situations they don’t want to be in. I do want to know my setting, but I don’t want to feel like I know what exactly will happen in the character’s emotions.

Greg Schwartz, I agree. And even if it’s something I don’t fear very much, I try to make myself afraid of that thing during the course of the story.

laughingwolf, I’ve got to remember that, and keep that discomfort level up.

Miladysa, I felt at ease moving around in the physical setting of Cold in the Light, but not in the emotional setting.

G, there are definitely environments where I feel like I can better set a story and conflict, because I know them so well.

Cloudia said...

Fascinating post.
Discomfort as desirable?
Yes, fascinating!

Tyhitia Green said...

Hmmm, I like both actually. It depends on what you want to convey to the writer...

JR's Thumbprints said...

If you're writing suspense, you definitely want to work from a position of discomfort - it helps set up the conflict. As for the setting, anything that helps make the fiction more realistic without being overly distracting.

the walking man said...

Are you saying "discomfort" as not working in the comfort zone? Or do you think, Charles, that when we try to convey an emotional response from one of out characters that we should try to place that emotion on our selves as we write?

BernardL said...

I agree. Feeling a character's discomfort is key to a scene. It elevates the tension and sharpens the dialogue.

Lisa said...

I love when a book sucks me in and I'm there, in the pages, feeling what the character feels. That's when the world around you goes away and the house could fall down but you wouldn't know it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, Dare I say it? We must suffer for our art? ;)

Demon Hunter, I think there are moments when you want the reader to feel comfortable and comforted, but only to make the coming shake up more effective.

JR's Thumbprints, yeah, suspense and horror are the best examples of this. I do hear people talk of comfort reads though, and maybe I should give that some more thought.

Mark, actually, I think both are true to some extent. I think we need to work outside our comfort zone as writers sometimes. But I definitely believe that to truly convey emotion on the page, we need to be experiencing that emotion at some level ourselves.

BernardL, that's one reason I like to use harsh environmental conditions in stories. Putting the character in the cold, or the rain, adds to their discomfort and heightens the experience for the reader. Or so I think.

Lisa, you've caputred perfectly that reading "rush" that so many of us book addicts crave. I'm with you. I love that.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think this is very true if you are writing horror or dark crime. I'm not too sure about lighter stuff. But I'm still thinking--always bad because then I don't write.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

This is a good question. I tend not to be able to work unless I'm in an area of discomfort emotionally which makes it easy to work all the time. :) But I pretty much need to emotionally and literally understand the setting or I get lost. Setting was the most difficult and probably the most important thing for me to learn. Setting is character to a large extent.

Lana Gramlich said...

I have no comment, except that I love you. Congratulations on your nomination for a Rhysling & keep looking forward to May 11th! :) *great, big, sloppy hugs 'n kisses*

Charles Gramlich said...

pattinase, yes, too much thinking slows the fingers. Thanks for triggering this post. I riffed off yours.

Michelle, I agree about the importance of setting, but it seems a lot of modern readers don't see it quite the same way.

Lana Gramlich, you're sweet.

steve on the slow train said...

"It is my belief, Watson,
founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in
London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the
smiling and beautiful country-side."

Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Copper Beeches"

You have a point. And for most of us, the uncomfortable setting is necessary for the tension. But if one can pull it off, "the smiling and beautiful countryside" can be an ideal place for a suspense or horror story.

I do agree that one should be familiar with the setting. I'm thinking of Shauna's WIP, set in ancient Sumer. Sha may be as familiar with that setting than just about anyone alive today, but, of course, she can't actually be there and then.

Chris Eldin said...

Thanks for the thoughts to ponder.... I cannot write scenes very well if I haven't visited the place, or a similar place. For example, I could never write (well) a story that takes place in Alaska. I've never been, and even googling Alaska, there is much texture lost in translation.

I'm embarrassed I still haven't read the Talera books. They're on my shelf, in my growing TBR pile. But now I know something about the (pretty) setting, I'm going to dive in when we get back home!

writtenwyrdd said...

Working from a position of emotional discomfort makes sense to me, Charles. Doesn't always apply, but if I'm in the head of the character who's uncomfortable, then I can convey it to the reader. If I'm at an emotional distance, then the writing will be too.

Setting is very important to me, and I tend to be too heavy handed with it. I'm trying to streamline that tendency, though. But when creating a fictional world I just write all the details that come to mind as I go along and prune later, because these are worldbuilding ideas and can be really valuable.

BIBI said...

Great rundown on how a writer should be familiar with the territory that he/she is writing about.
Something to think about when I begin writing my book.
Thanks Charles!

Charles Gramlich said...

steve on the slow train, yes, the contrast between a bucolic outer setting and a tumultuous internal emotional one is excellent material to work with. Great quote as well.

Chris Eldin, it's certainly much easier to write about settings you've walked and touched. I like the challenge of doing other kind of things, alien cities, for example, but we know that our images aren't going to be just what the readers are seeing. Sometimes that's just fine. and, we're all a little behind in our reading, I'm sure. Thank you for getting the Talera books.

writtenwyrdd, I do something much the same with setting, give fairly elaborate worldbuilding stuff, then copy those scenes to a sort of story bible I have before I trim out the stuff that I don't need the reader to see.

BIBI, no problem. Glad if any thoughts helped.

Lois Karlin said...

I'm with you on the discomfort thing, even for settings. The problem is that discomfort is really uncomfortable. I can race away against the unknown as long as I don't stop to think about it, but when I step away it terrifies. I think Patti's right...it works best for dark novels, or dark segments of lighter novels.

Rick said...

Nice to know that when I take a break and drop in you're still making us all think!

The three difficulties I've found when using tension (as an emotional writing device)is that it's difficult to endure over an extended period of time, it provides diminishing returns as we tone down our response to it to avoid the discomfort, and the fact that it takes a great deal of energy to create real tension through discomfort because of the natural resistance of the mind to that state.

Mind you, the upside can be seriously kickass plots and interesting prose!

Mary Witzl said...

One of my biggest problems now is where to set my stories. I've been out of the States for a long time now -- over half my lifetime -- and though I want to set them back in America, I'm so out of it in terms of American culture, this is iffy. But when I consider setting them in the U.K. or Japan -- where I've spent the latter half of my life -- there are problems with that, too. So no matter where I set my stories, something is going to be a little weird.

ivan said...

Well written and well-reasoned, Charles.

But this is the way it really seems to go:

For a man, writing is like an epileptic fit, or even sex.
You become the Enegrizer Bunny and you go, and you go and you go till you run out of power.
Or more like an old New Yorker writer. DETAIL DETAI DETAIL CIMAX.


Omigod. I've just turned myself on!

...That old Master Painter from the Faraway Hills......? :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Lois Karlin, maybe a little masochism is good for the writer eh? Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the input.

Rick, I think that's true. I find that writing some sections of books is much more exhausting than others, and it relates to the amount of emotional involvement I have. Glad to see you back and well.

Mary Witzl, Definitely a good point to consider. I have a friend who lived in Australia when she first began publishing, and she said she really didn't feel comfortable setting stories in modern America because she didn't feel like she knew that world. but if you were writing anything historical I guess it wouldn't be that much of an issue.

ivan, interesting analogy. I've got to give that some thought. I'm not sure I can agree. I suppose it depends on one's motivation for writing.

SzélsőFa said...

A very interesting post, Charles. with the internet making available almost every angle of our planet, there's really no need to travel anywhere - yet personal experience can add those little effects and details that are very important in writing. Just my two cents.

As for comfort vs. discomfort: so true, Charles, so true. As more of a lyrical person myself, I observed that the feeling of harmony seldom initiates interesting writing within me. That is my case, I'd like to emphasize. There are many great poets and writers who capture harmony and peace with such a gift, but unfortunately that's not me :(
My inspiration tends to well in feeling discomfort.

Cath said...

LOL at our comment to Heff.

Now, where was I? What was I thinking of saying...? Oh yes.

I think if the writer feels (or has felt) the emotion then they better convey the sense of that feeling to the reader.

I am glad you have only been to other planets a few times. Too often might cockup your physiology. ;0)

J. L. Krueger said...

Great post. I tend to be a minimalist in scene description even though the world I write about is another place.

I like to create situations that produce extreme emotions. If I can get my faithful wife beta reader to throw down the manuscript in anger, or reach for tissue, or squirm in the chair I'm fairly sure I'm on track.

I had her jaw-dropped horrified, reaching for tissue and squirming at a revelation about my protagonist in the opening of my fourth book (still in progress). So I think I found her discomfort zone in that one.

Lauren said...

I have a really hard time with setting. I'm so focused on plot and the character's inner thoughts that I usually forget to put anything about the setting in. Usually I go back and add it later and I am never very comfortable writing about it.

I like how you say that emotion should be written from a point of discomfort. I agree. I think for it to be real and raw you have to be pulling from your own experiences and, if it IS real and raw it will be uncomfortable to write about.

Charles Gramlich said...

SzélsőFa, I know that when I'm feeling in harmony with the world I seldom feel the "need" personally to write. I'm just being. Sounds pretty similar to what you're saying.

Cath, yes, too much interstellar travel can be worse than carrots for your digestive system.

J. L. Krueger, Eggselenttt. Yes, we all like to see our readers so moved and involved.

Lauren, I think that's one reason why many writers get better as they age. They have those real life experiences that they can pull from.

Barbara Martin said...

Charles, uncomfortable is the best way to sustain conflict in a plot. Easing on the tension a little can increase it later, so the reader is riveted to each sentence.

Charles Gramlich said...

Barbara, I like to be raked over the coals as a reader so I strive to do the same thing to my readers.