Catharsis for the Reader (Step 4)

Catharsis is the expulsion, repulsion, or purification of toxins and impurities. Emotional catharsis can allow the release and possible transformation of many different negative feelings. These may be toxic emotions built up from real life or emotions instilled by the writer.

In Step 1, we looked at various seeds to plant in order to produce the reader emotions of anxiety, fear, and sorrow. The seeds you have planted included character traits, goals and dreams, premonitions and prophecies.

In Step 2, we grew these seeds until they tangled up inside the reader and turned toxic. You grew these seeds by nurturing reader investment in the characters as situations grew progressively worse.

In Step 3, we harvested the negative feelings in dramatic and definitive ways.

In the final step, we will feed the reader with good feelings that result from the harvesting.

Feed Wisely

To sustain reader interest and tension, be sure that the only completely cathartic experience is the final one. If you fully meet the reader’s need before the end of a book, she might not read to that end!

All the same, Don’t let the reader burn out on negative feelings.

  • The reader needs relief. Anxiety, fear, and sorrow wear away at the reader. She can only go on so long before she burns out. A burned-out reader just doesn’t care anymore.
  • The reader needs variety. This might sound strange, but a reader can get bored if the pressure never lets up. She becomes accustomed to it. Lighten the pressure briefly and then crank it up so she can never fall into a stupor.
  • The reader needs hope. If only bad things happen to thee character — and if only bad emotions are offered to the reader — then the reader will have no reason to hope. Hope is an important motivator for the reader.

You can provide these things by filling up the reader with good emotions after an intensely negative response. The negative experience was the climax or semi-climax in the third step.

While any happy feelings will work, for maximum impact you may want to focus on positive emotions that are the opposite of the negative feelings you harvested during the climax or mini-climax. This tactic also follows the cause-and-effect rules of writing. While writing “rules” can be broken, it makes sense that a strong “down” will be followed by a strong “up”. The reader will expect it, the story often suggests it, and doing so will provide all the benefits listed above.

That’s all the steps for creating a cathartic reader experience! If you outline, this process occurs once for every climax and semi-climax. If you are a “panster”, you can still use these steps to track reader probable reader reactions at every step along the way or while editing for the reader.

Share Your Voice: Catharis is a powerful technique. But in the final post of this series, we’ll look at when NOT to use it. Any guesses?

Writing Prompt: “Portal”

I created this writing prompt, “Portal”, for the late middle of a book. Flashbacks are portals to the past. They can be an effective way to show contrasts between the way things were and the way things are. But the time change inherent in all flashbacks can jolt the reader’s sense of continuity. For that reason, it can be useful to use a “portal” — a feature in the story’s present that sparks a memory and pulls the reader into a flashback.


Write a passage that serves as a transition into a flashback. Show a physical detail or event that draws the narrator into the past. Show the changes in emotion without using dialogue or “telling” how the character feels.


Want more help? Here are some extra details you can throw in…
  • Incorporate contrasting details (time, landscape, cultures)
  • Include the color yellow in some way
  • plant reference to an event that evokes controversy within the family
    (these news items usually involve violations of social norms0
  • Involve a minor character from a majority culture but a minority subculture
    (may have a disability or deformity, be of unusual age or appearance, etc.)
Still stuck? Here are ideas for action…
  • One of your characters is washing something
  • Your protagonist ends up surrendering some control to inner antagonist
    (may manifest as doubt, guilt, shame, fear)

Want to share your own unique writing prompt? Contact us and we’ll post it with your name and a link to your blog (if applicable)!

Catharsis for the Reader (Step 3)

I’m sorry for the long gap since the last post. I’ve been ill but am now feeling much better. So without further ado…

Catharsis is the expulsion, repulsion, or purification of toxins and impurities. Emotional catharsis can allow the release and possible transformation of many different negative feelings. These may be toxic emotions built up from real life or emotions instilled by the writer.

In Step 1, we looked at various seeds to plant in order to produce the reader emotions of anxiety, fear, and sorrow. The seeds you have planted included character traits, goals and dreams, premonitions and prophecies.

In Step 2, we grew these seeds until they tangled up inside the reader and turned toxic. You grew these seeds by nurturing reader investment in the characters as situations grew progressively worse.

Now we will harvest the negative feelings in dramatic and definitive ways.

Harvest Wisely

Now that you’ve grown reader anxiety, fear, and sorrow for one or more characters, it is time to harvest these feelings. This harvest might be the darkest moment of your book — in which case you can completely cull thee negative reader emotions — or it might be a smaller dark moment of your book — in which case you probably want to leave behind some negative reader emotions.

In either case, the dark moment for the character is also a dark moment for the reader. It is a point in the book when reader anxiety, fear, and sorrow are higher than at any point before. That said, to sustain reader interest and tension, be sure that the only completely cathartic experience is the final one. If you fully meet the reader’s need before the end of a book, she might not read to that end!

How you reap your reader’s emotions depends heavily on your theme and individual story. The climax (or mini-climax) must be true to both. For your individual story, the culminating event should be inevitable (preferably in a surprising way). At the same time, there are several ways that your climaxes can be suggested by your theme. For instance, if your theme is value-based then you can tie negative reader emotions into situations that show the negative side of your theme.

Let your theme and individual story guide you as you decide how to harvest the reader emotions that you have sown and grown.

Let Your Voice Be Heard: Reader reactions can be heightened through the occasional small cathartic moments (as well as a final climactic one). What one such memorable moment in a book that you have read or show that you have seen?

Writing Prompt: “Honorable Destruction”

I created this writing prompt, “”Honorable Destruction”, for the middle section of a book. Villain motivations are a powerful way to power the story. Perhaps the most potent type of villain motivation is one that the reader thinks is right, justified, or places him on high moral ground.


Write a scene where the antagonist confronts the protagonist about the difference in their paths. show what each character believes her motivation to be. If there are underlying motivations that the character is unaware of, hint at those now.


Want more help? Here are some extra details you can throw in…
  • Your character suspects that the other side is also “in the right” but wants to deny this.
  • Your character scapegoats the other character.
  • The character’s flaw escalates the disagreement into a conflict.
Still stuck? Here are ideas for action…
  • One of your characters tries to stop a fight
    (either emotional warfare or a physical fight.)
    (may be progress in the character arc or external plot arc)
  • Your protagonist begins the scene acting confident and self-assured on the outside and ends the scene feeling confident and self-assured on the inside (but falsely so)

Want to share your own unique writing prompt? Contact us and we’ll post it with your name and a link to your blog (if applicable)!

Catharsis for the Reader (Step 2)

The well-written book can provide a cathartic experience for the reader.

Catharsis is the expulsion, repulsion, or purification of toxins and impurities. Emotional catharsis can allow the release and possible transformation of many different negative feelings. These may be toxic emotions built up from real life or emotions instilled by the writer.

Before you can give the reader a cathartic experience, you need to decide which emotions you want to harvest and plant the seeds for those reactions.

Next you need to grow the feelings until they tangle up inside the reader and turn toxic.

Grow Well

Anxiety in the reader happens for three main reasons. First, the reader must care about the character. Second, a bad outcome must be possible. Third, the odds need to be neither strongly for nor strongly against the character. Anxiety comes from caring, risk, and uncertainty. All three of these should be raised carefully – growing them too quickly will leave you with to escalate anxiety to while growing them too slowly can bore the reader, killing their interest and investment.

To raise anxiety,don’t just raise the stakes — diversify them. build the situation so that it at least appears that several outcomes can advance the character but all outcomes will set her back in some way.

Fear in the reader grows from the belief that characters are facing (or about to face) a threat that can cause real harm. Reader fear is similar to reader anxiety but fear is developed slightly differently. Building fear is less about the possibility of a bad outcome and more about the near certainty of a bad outcome – even though the reader is not sure why she feels certain.

To grow reader fear through the book, you first need to decide what the reader fears before you can find ways for the reader to fear that outcome for the character. Maybe you will clearly and repeatedly build on the seeming inevitability of a disastrous outcome. Or perhaps you will be more subtle and rely on your writing vice, carefully selecting the right words for dialogue and description to build a sense of dread.

Sorrow in the reader can be for character loss, handicaps, or disappointments. All of these elements need developing before they can be effective. A common early source for reader sadness might be found in thee character’s backstory – especially the backstory wound. Later in the book, of course, the character can experience additional grief, afflictions, or misfortunes that can cause sorrow in the invested reader.

Reader sorrow does not need to be static. you can build on the initial reaction by expanding on the ramifications for the character. Diversify again — a clinical disability affects many (or all) areas of life and so can the character wound.

A gardener knows that to grow wisely, weeding and pruning are needed to balance and enhance the desired growth. In writing, the “weeding and pruning” of negative reader emotions are the temporary victories for the character. These character successes heighten and enhance character predicaments and set-backs that create reader anxiety, fear, and sorrow.

Let Your Voice Be Heard: One way to humanize villains and anti-heroes is to give them backstories that evoke reader pity and sorrow. When these characters act in redeeming ways, the reader can have a (often short-lived) cathartic experience. Who are some of your favorite bad guys and girls?

Catharsis for the Reader (Step 1)

The well-written book can provide a cathartic experience for the reader.

Catharsis is the expulsion, repulsion, or purification of toxins and impurities. Emotional catharsis can allow the release and possible transformation of many different negative feelings. These may be toxic emotions built up from real life or emotions instilled by the writer.

Before you can give the reader a cathartic experience, you need to decide which emotions you want to harvest and plant the seeds for those reactions.

Plan wisely

What negative reader reactions should you aim for? I think the top three reactions could be anxiety, fear, and sorrow.  All three of these reactions are signs of an interested reader who has become invested in your characters and plot.

Anxiety grows from prolonged suspense. Anxiety is caused when the reader understands the situation and either does not know how things will end. Reader anxiety can be useful at points of change in the character’s circumstances where you’ve left the reader without an understanding of the possible outcomes OR several equally likely outcomes.

Fear grows from immediate threat. Fear is the belief that a situation probably will end badly. Reader fear can be useful at points where the reader has been led to believe that the character will come out of a situation damaged in some way AND certain that the damage will make things more difficult for the character in the future.

Sorrow grows from distress or regret. Sorrow comes after misfortune. As with the other two reader emotions, the reader must feel invested in your characters before the reader can feel sorrow. Reader sorrow can be especially useful later in the book as a way to convince the reader that things really are getting worse for the main character.

Plant wisely

The seeds of these reader reactions should be planted early if you want to harvest them at key points in your plot. These seeds are what will enable the next step in the process of creating a cathartic experience for your reader.

  • Character traits
  • Goals
  • Plans
  • Daydreams
  • High stakes
  • Warnings
  • Premonitions
  • Prophecies

Just like a good gardener plans and plants her field based on what she hopes to harvest, so too does a writer pan and plant seeds based on the reactions she wants the reader to experience. The seeds planted by the author are facts, bits of information that will grow and develop later in the story.

Let Your Voice Be Heard: Reader catharsis can be powerful. What books, movies, or shows have created a cathartic response for you?

Discover Your Work’s GPS

The process of writing a scene can be very much like using a Global Positioning System. By learning the components of your own work’s GPS you will be able to generate scenes faster, and more efficiently.

When creating co-ordinates, the standard GPS relies on one receiver that takes in information from at least four satellites and creates concrete co-ordinates that move through time and space.

When writing a scene, the writer acts like a GPS receiver. The writer taps into the information provided by at least four of her own orbiting “satellites” and combines this data into a concrete scene that moves through time — and sometimes through space.

What are an author’s “satellites”? In this context, your satellites are your “big picture” sources that provide direction and inspiration. You have lots of these and you will draw on them all during the course of your work but you will draw on some more often than others.

Satellite 1: Main Plot

Even for the most dedicated “pantster” will have some idea of what she wants to happen and roughly (or specifically) when it should happen in relation to other events. For “plotters” the information given by the main plot can be even more useful. When writing a scene, remember to ask “what happened before this and how does that affect this scene?” and “what needs to happen later and how can I plant seeds for that happening here?”

Satellite 2: Subplots

Subplots are like side-streets. They give a city more substance, provide shortcuts and detours, and give characters places to live and work. There are many ways to weave subplots into your narrative. When writing a scene, remember to ask “what has been happening behind the scenes and how does that affect this scene?” and “how do the subplots tie into my main story and how can I reinforce those ties?”

Satellite 3: Character Arcs

The scene will happen very differently depending on where a dynamic character is in her character arc. For instance, a naïve (or ignorant) character will react differently than a character in denial or a character who is consciously trying to change. When writing a scene, remember to ask “where are these characters in the course of their development?” and “do the start, middle, and end of this scene accurately match this?”

Satellite 4: Cast of Characters

Keep track of what characters appear in each scene. If the reader hasn’t seen an important character in awhile, you may want to include that character either physically or mention him less directly. Keeping track of what characters are present also means that a character won’t simply “vanish” partway through the scene. When writing a scene, remember to ask “what characters are present here?” and “how do these characters affect the course of the scene?”

Satellite 5: Culture

Cultures influence almost every aspect of your scene: how your characters behave and interact, how the surroundings look, what activity may be happening around the characters, how characters dress… as well as how conflict is handled and what are some potential sources of conflict. When writing a scene, remember to ask “what different cultures and subcultures are in play here?” and “how do these cultures feed the scene’s conflict?”

Satellite 6: Location

Your “big picture” location can also affect the particular scene. The weather must be right, the demographics, and the location of this scene must fit logically with the locations of other scene locations. When repeating a location, you may want to include new details – especially if the mood or POV has changed. When writing a scene, remember to ask “how does this location fit in with the locations used in other scenes?” and “did I choose the best location for this scene and not simply the easiest location?”

Satellite 7: Time

The time period and season(s) are part of your big picture. Time ties closely with the culture and location parts of setting. But time can also refer to the time span of your story and the flow of time inside your story. When writing a scene, remember to ask “how much time has passed, how long does this scene last, and how much remains after this scene?” and “does this scene take the reader outside the regular flow of time and if so, how do get the reader back without confusion?”

Satellite 8: Theme

Any scene can be a playground for your theme. Theme can be used to build on a started scene or to brainstorm new scenes. When you have the start of a scene then you can look to your theme and use that to guide the types of conflict in the scene, the characters’ choices, and the consequences of those choices. When writing a scene, remember to ask “does this scene explore a side of my theme?” and “how can I use my characters to better express my story’s message?”

It could be successfully argued that “Writing Skills” is yet another satellite that is in orbit around you and your story world. I will suggest instead that the skills in your writing toolkit are part of the receiver’s software (the writer’s mindset) that places the results in a form that can be easily understood and enjoyed by the reader.

As you write your scene, keep in mind which satellites are in your line-of-sight. Be sure you include all of those when you formulate your scene. If you include each relevant satellite while first constructing your scene, you will find that you have to go back and add information less often.

One trick to writing detailed scenes lies in recognizing the relevance of the satellites at the edge of your field of vision. Those big picture concepts add nuance and definition to your scene. You may not normally rely on them but in an emergency (or for a change of pace) they can serve leading roles too. So mix it up some and see what scene results.

Share your opinion: What are the big picture ideas that you use for reference when writing a scene? Have an idea for a satellite that we should have included?