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?

4 thoughts on “Catharsis for the Reader (Step 1)

  1. An excellent and accurate article, Liz. Although I’m sure I subconsciously follow all these pointers, I know I don’t often consider them on a conscious level. It’s good to see them listed and explained as you have done here; a great little check-list to use during the final edits, but also to bear in mind throughout the entire story-creation process.

    If I think back on the myriad fantasy, horror and sci-fi stories I’ve read over the decades, and if I had to pick one from each genre that gave me a cathartic experience memorable enough to endure the years, I’d have to pick Winter Warriors by David Gemmell, The Rats by James Herbert, and The Robots Of Dawn by Isaac Asimov. A notable mention ought to go to Spartan by Valerio Massimo Manfredi.


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Scott. It’s great to hear from another lover of fantasy and sci-fi. The Robots series by Asimov is a favorite of mine — for some reason I find Giskard even more appealing than Daneel.


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