What makes a story comforting?

From Molly Templeton at tor.com: What Makes a Story Comforting?

There are common elements to a lot of lists about comfort stories—happy endings, warm fuzzies, sweeping love affairs, lack of strife, familiarity, escapism—and I’ve written before about how those don’t often say “comfort” to me. When I want to escape and be comforted, I’ve sought out a specific kind of reassurance generally found in stories about people who are having a very bad time, a time much worse than anything I’ll ever have to deal with.

But it turns out that at a moment when my own life is full of uncertainty and anxiety, maybe I do want a certain kind of comfort. Not escape to somewhere strange, but a visit to somewhere familiar; not a story with a happy ending, necessarily, but one that offers both closure and change.

What I want is to be reminded that things can be different than they are right now.

My reaction to the idea that a comfort read can be about “people who are having a very bad time, a time much worse than anything I’ll ever have to deal with,” is AAAAGH NO. However, I like this idea about this other kind of comfort read that might offer both closure and change. That’s interesting (and a whole lot more appealing).

You have to rest, physically and mentally and emotionally. When you need that rest, maybe ask yourself: What does comfort look like to me? What book (or show, or movie) tells the story I need to hear right now? What promises do I want it to make for me? What do I need to be reminded of?

Books can open doors, but they can also close them, softly and firmly, when you need to leave the world outside for a little while.

Very nice! I like that idea too — what promises do I want the story to make for me right now, what do I want to be reminded of, what doors do I want to have closed between me and the world?

I don’t think I’d intersect with this author on very many “comfort reads” or shows or whatever, but I do like some of her turns of phrase.

Also, the first comment includes a mention of Summers at Castle Auburn as a comfort read where “people get soft landings,” which you know what, I need to bring that book upstairs and put it on the coffee table, where it will bug me until hopefully I re-read it. I’ve seen this particular book mentioned in this context more than once, I believe some commenters here point to it now and then. Although I read it once, I remember practically nothing about it.

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6 thoughts on “What makes a story comforting?”

  1. I’ve found “people who are having a very bad time, a time much worse than anything I’ll ever have to deal with” stories sometimes comforting as rereads, when I know everything will turn out okay. But I generally avoid that sort of thing when I haven’t read it before, if I’m wanting a comfort read. Maybe if it’s an author I really trust. Maybe.

    I think it’s about matching my mood with the book. As a teenager, my go-to comfort rereads included Agatha Christie era murder mysteries, Jane Eye, and Diana Wynne Jones’ Witch Week. Orphans, murder, Gothic atmosphere, that sort of thing. As an adult, I’ve definitely reread the Vorksoigian saga in a similar mood, but that’s perhaps less about atmosphere and more about the reassurance of people solving their problems.

  2. Herenya, I agree with you, for me a comfort story involves competent people solving problems while developing interpersonal relationships and experiencing personal growth. LMB’s Diplomatic Immunity, for example, or Gillian Bradshaw’s Island of Ghosts are comfort reads for me.

    Personally, I think Sharon Shinn’s novels sneak up on you. They lure you into thinking they are comfort novels and then shock the heck out of you. Summers at Castle Auburn seems cozy but for me, at least, it’s not. Not that I don’t love it- I think it was the first of her books I ever read.

  3. The first series that came to mind in response to “people who are having a very bad time, a time much worse than anything I’ll ever have to deal with” was Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series. Maybe it’s because everything turns out okay in the end, probably it’s because they are finding community, friendship and love along the way, but those are total comfort rereads for me. And they are mostly not having a good time in those books. The second was the Murderbot series. Total comfort rereads, so much so that I want to go read them again right this very minute, and I don’t think anyone is having a good time in those stories. Although, again, they’re finding community and friendship, so I guess maybe that’s what I like in a comfort reread.

  4. I agree on Sharon Shinn’s books being comforting, as are Martha Wells’, even if the people in them aren’t really enjoying themselves. I think for me it’s a mix of knowing things will turn out generally okay, and the fact that the people we spend time with are mostly people who I would want to know exist in the world, or in some world. People who are mostly trying their best, who keep going as long as they can trying to make things a little better, who care about others both individually and in the abstract, who may be cynical or troubled or even self-destructive, but aren’t nihilistic.

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