How To Disturb In 5 Easy Steps

My head is swirling today—I’m going through the overload that comes with consuming too much good media. And it is making me have trouble coming up with a topic to talk about and write about.

Now, to be clear, I am not “blocked.”

I have too many ideas right now. I want to talk about the future, and the world, and art, and getting ideas for writing. I want to write ten books and then go on several podcasts.

But, as these sorts of things go with actual life, I have things that need doing. So, I decided to fall back on something simple, something I understand on an intuitive level when it comes to making art.

And that is creating disturbing things.

So, I thought I would do what I usually do with topics of art, and try to codify. Show the rules of disturbing moments. I don’t mean horror, necessarily, I mean something which regardless of genre will not leave the brain and makes you shudder hours later.

And, to my mind, there are a few steps to set this in motion. And they tend to flow along in an easy progression. One after another. Truly disturbing content has an almost uniform wind up to its execution. Like a recipe for a dish.

And it goes like this:

  • Part 1: The Jolt. The initial issue. The opening remark. A troubling or dark thing presented which is arresting on the face of it—before the implications. It will almost always involve some combination of death, sex, and something innocent or unaware. Sometimes the audience will find it too ridiculous and disregard it as serious. But this is fine—as they will still have their guard down.
  • Part 2: The Clues. A disturbing thing is kind of like a joke, a punchline. As you continue inward, whatever might have seemed too absurd is shown to be deathly serious, and if you want to do this right, you must commit to setting up the pieces. This part is usually fast as it exists to draw the viewer closer. Think of this as the stage of arching eyebrows. The “wait…what are they…?” moment.
  • Part 3: The Inevitable. Back to the implications. Through the clues, the viewer or reader should think “but that would mean….” If you are doing this right, you can stretch out the moment long enough to make the audience reject and accept the implications several times. The funny thing about disturbing stuff, if you don’t just want a massive twist, is it need not come as a surprise. The audience should see what’s coming a minute or two before it happens. It’s like the “don’t go into the basement” moment in horror movies, but instead of thinking how dumb the character is, the audience should realize the inescapable inevitability of the outcome.
  • Part 4: Release. There is some unavoidable catharsis in the action happening. No matter how bad the thing was, once it’s over, the audience recovers. They’ve dealt with it, they overcame it. They triumphed. No matter how dark and strong it all was. But, you’re not done yet. No. And neither are they.
  • Part 5: The Linger. If you did it right, if the topic you chose is sinister enough, then they won’t forget. And they won’t recover fast. To do this, you need to plant a second wave of implications. Deeper and harder to see. These must only come to light because of people thinking about them longer. It must not be strictly obvious. The most powerful of these are when the real-world offers parallels to what you showed. Or, if the outcome is slowly, upon reflection, even worse than initially presented.

So, there you go. If you like being disturbed or to disturb, these are the steps.

Use them wisely.

Special thanks to: Bob GerkinCollin PearmanDylan AlexanderJerry Banfield, and Michael The Comic Nerd. 

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