Ways to Hit Your Reader in the Gut

12 Apr

I found this list of “10 ways to hit your reader in the gut” compiled by Keyboard Smash Writers! (original article here) and thought it was worth sharing.

10 ways to hit your readers in the gut

One of the strongest bonds that link us to our favorite stories is the emotional tie, or books that sink a fist right into our guts. When you finished a book where you couldn’t let go of after the last page, chances are, the author successfully punched you in the spleen. If you’ve ever wondered how to do just that, here are some of my favorite methods:

  1. Make your reader root for your main character(s). Make your character stretch out their arm toward their goal, as far as they can to reach, until their fingertips barely brush it. Make your character want something so much that your reader wants it, too.
  2. When your character trips and stumbles and stops to question themselves, the readers will hold their breath.
  3. Push your character to their very limit, and then a little further.
  4. When your character hits the bottom, they should scrape themselves back together and get back up. Give readers a reason to believe in your character.
  5. If your character is challenging your plot, your plot should challenge your character.
  6. Leave a trail of intrigue, of questions, of “what if?” and “what next?”
  7. If a character loses something (a battle, an important memento, part of themselves), they must eventually gain something in equal exchange, whether for good or bad.
  8. Raise the stakes. Then raise them higher.
  9. Don’t feel pressured to kill a character (especially simply to generate emotional appeal). A character death should serve the plot, not the shock factor. Like anything else in your story, only do it if it must be done and there’s no other way around it.
  10. What’s the worst that can happen? Make it happen. Just make sure that the reader never loses hope.

Obviously, not every novel we write will need tons of gut-wrenching moments, but I really liked step 1.  The ability to create a character that wants something so badly that the readers want it right along with him.

Some of my beloved fluffy YA books (like Sweet Valley High) aren’t good at this.  Jessica Wakefield wants a new boyfriend almost every book, and as readers, we are mostly just reading to see what happens–not because we’re rooting for Jess to get her new man (or steal Lizzie’s current man).

I think Hunger Games did this well–in the first book, all Katniss wants to do is to win in order to  protect her sister.  As result, I developed a real affection for Prim, and Prim’s eventual fate (no spoilers!) certainly delivers that epic gut punch.  Katniss isn’t the most likeable character, but I still like and root for her because I want the same thing that she wants–to win and take care of her family.

I might go further and add a step 11–make sure they want something worth fighting for.  (Did anyone else start singing Mulan in their heads just now?)  If all your character wants is to get a boyfriend (ala Twilight‘s Bella), then I really don’t have a huge emotional stake in your journey.  (I guess a bajillion teenage girls can disagree with me on that point.)

What are some of your strategies for creating powerful emotional moments?  Or have you read books where there are way too many gut-wrenching scenes?  (Step Nine made me instantly think of A Song of Fire and Ice.   Characters seemed to die left and right for no other reason than shock value.  It’s a big reason why I wasn’t a giant fan of the series.)

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