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?

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