The Ethics of Button-Pushing

I worked out a program for learning how to write this morning, in the broadest (and most general) possible steps.

1) Read.

2) Write.

3) Study by typing stuff in and analyzing it as much as desired, in a way that satisfies curiosity.

4) Research and practice building understanding on the following concepts:  clarity of writing (the reader can scan the sentence-level writing), ideas, plot, character, setting/worldbuilding, dialog, scenes, conflict.  (The basics.)

5) Research and practice building understanding on the following concepts: beginnings, endings, structure, POV, surprise, character voice, delivering elements of the story at the appropriate time for reader enjoyment.  (The middle concepts.)

6) Research and practice building understanding on the following concepts: pacing, tension, emotion, meeting/exceeding reader expectations. (The advanced concepts.)

7) Specialize as desired, with additional research focusing on a particular genre: what conflicts, characters, settings, themes, and emotions are desired by the reader?

8) Research and practice building understanding on how to increase readership via storytelling techniques.  (Bestseller level, admittedly a GREAT mystery to me, but I suspect involves story in an almost mystical sense.)

–Is this the path that every writer follows?  Of course not.  But it’s the path I’m on so far, and it seems to have been the path of more than a few writers I admire.

I had a dream a couple of days ago, one of those trippy dreams in which you utterly know something, it is truth and nothing but, and then you wake up and it all seems kind of frail and wishy-washy.  I dreamt that I understood how to manipulate readers:  not fully and totally, but with two gestures.  The twist, and the slam-bounce.

The twist wasn’t a plot twist; it was a wringing gesture that perfectly coincided with what you needed to do with a reader in every scene of a horror novel.  In the dream, I understood exactly how this coincided with putting words on a page (siiiiigh).  Horror, I knew, could contain a variety of emotions, but if you didn’t deliver on that twist, then you should get out of the business of horror.  The twist could be a number of different sub-emotions–horror, terror, surprise, revulsion, etc.  But those sub-emotions all shared the same twist-iness.

The slam-bounce was another set of emotions, this time belonging to adventure.  I’ve been thinking a lot about adventure lately: what emotions does it involve, what traits does it share across other genres (in fiction, adventure isn’t a genre so much anymore, so you have to track it down either in movies, in snippets across other genres, or in older work), what does the reader get out of it, etc.  The slam-bounce I wasn’t as clear about, even in my dream, how to translate into words.  But this morning I figured out that the slam-bounce is when a down (some obstacle that slams against the character) forces an even greater up (the character not only overcomes the obstacle, but emerges even more powerful than before because of it).  James Bond is trying to question a contact when the building blows up, from which he emerges scathed, energized, holding more information than he had when he went in the building, and with additional motivation to take the bad guys down.  For adventure, there must be sudden, explosive turns in the main character’s fortunes, up and down, up and down.  You can’t just drag an adventure further and further down into appalling depths, the way you can with a straight horror.  There must be some highs; otherwise you haven’t done a slam-bounce.

Like I said: it was a dream.  I think I’m headed toward some insight that I don’t actually have yet, and got a flash of it in a dream.  I’ll understand it on a more practical level later, I hope.

But for some reason, it got me back to thinking about the ethics of writing: the deeper we go into the great ocean of story, the more we come back with magic fish that allow us to do deep, subtle things inside other people’s heads.  Is it ethical to screw with people’s heads this way, as a writer?  It must be: good writers are honored rather than villified.  They get paid; they get treated almost as shamans, people who carry their readers into a magic world of spirits.

But there must be a limit.  If we can build people up, we can tear them down, too.  Or, possibly worse, we can play them and force them to “like” our work, when really it’s not the best work we could be doing.

Chuck Palahniuk has written a story that makes people literally pass out during readings.  I’ve read it; it didn’t do much for me.  They weren’t my buttons he was pushing.  Was it ethical to write that story?  Or at least, once a pattern of harm was established, to keep reading it at readings?

It’s relatively easy to come up with books that could break, or convince other people to break, various taboos.  Human beings, as a species, are vulnerable to brainwashing, manipulation, con jobs.  We use all kinds of stories to jusify the most monstrous actions; our most monstrous actions are the logical extension of the stories that we tell each other.

The man is the head of the family.  Therefore, if the man is a failure, the family is a failure too, and they should all be destroyed together.

A man will not love a woman with children from another man.  A man can only love his own children.  Therefore, if you are trying to get another man to support you, you should get rid of your current children.

Two examples.  Not everyone responds the same way, of course.  But people are vulnerable to these kinds of things.  A father loses his job and becomes abusive to his spouse and kids.  A woman remarries and ignores her older kids in favor of the new ones.  Some people consciously reverse these things.  But that doesn’t make the story go away.

Would you want a book that encouraged people to kill their kids?

But often a book should break taboos, because taboos change.  Art should challenge social norms; testing and influencing opinions is part of the Great Conversation, and sometimes extreme revulsion, madness, and sex are part of that.  Sometimes gay penguins are part of that.

Where is the line?  Where would a librarian say the line is?

Where should a writer draw their own lines?  A reader?

I can’t judge where the line is for other people, and I think librarians have a specialized muscle that they build that allows them to think about that line more critically than I will ever have to.

So I only have myself as a reader and a writer to really judge from.  And I’ve been a reader far longer than I’ve been a writer, so I’ll start with that.

My thought is that the best way to defend yourself against brainwashing in general is to read a wide variety of books, as well as expose yourself to a wide variety of opinions.  The button pushing becomes more evident, and you’re able to strip it away and examine the (mostly) nonsense that lies beneath with less bias.

The Palahniuk story didn’t affect me because, uh, whatever, dude.  It felt artificial and fake to me–I could see a bunch of the buttons, and it felt like a more sophisticated version of a junior high gross-out story.  I’ve pushed those buttons before, lots of times.  The entire setup felt like a cheap manipulation, and I haven’t read a Palahniuk story since.

A lot of people like, or are at least impressed by, his work.  And admittedly this was a short story, and if you can’t experiment in a short story, where can you?

I liked Fight Club.  But this turned me off.  You have the power to make people faint, and you used it for this?  My reaction probably isn’t fair, but it’s visceral.  Whatever, dude.

I’ve picked up other books, too, where the manipulation is too obvious, and I always ditch them right away.  Not to say that the books I like aren’t manipulative, but I feel like the writer should at least make the pretense of telling a story for the story’s sake, and not just to push my buttons.

So here’s my line as a reader: Don’t expect me to read your book just because you feel like pushing my buttons.

The more I write, the more I have it in my power to write stories that are just about pushing other people’s buttons.  Not necessarily in a way that makes people vomit, makes them uncomfortable because I’m breaking taboos.  Delight…love…hate…understanding…intolerance…the importance of manners… I can, given enough time, work out how to do these things to readers (see the system above).  Any writer worth their salt can, and probably has, picked several of these things, and done them over and over again.

Is that ethical?

When is that ethical?  When not?

Where is my line as a writer?  Are good intentions good enough?  When is it a good idea to write a story that makes people faint?  Is Because I can good enough?

Readers are paying to have their buttons pushed.

The books I most enjoy are the ones in which the writer has dug down deep and pulled something out of themselves and explained it to me, subtly or otherwise.  Even the most light-hearted books are like this sometimes.  The books I like the least are the ones that seem like they’re shouting at me in flashing allcaps, in which I, the reader, am something to be manipulated.

As a reader, I’m paying to have my buttons pushed.  But I hate being treated like a robot, a commodity.  A fine line, a gray area: is the writer pushing their own buttons as well as mine?  If so, is the writer brainwashing themselves, or is this an honest exploration?

Are we in this story together, or am I playing the reader?

I think that’s my line.



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