Punch Your Readers in the Gut!

Want to Take Your Story to the Next Level? Punch Readers in the Gut!

Writing is not only an intellectual endeavor for me, it’s also very much a physical one. When I’m on to the right story, the right location, the right situation, the right theme, my body tells me. I feel a surge of excitement in my solar plexus that literally sends the message Yes yes yes! to my brain…. I listen to my body. When I feel that surge of excitement, I know I’ve hit upon the right [idea] for a scene…. If you’re trusting your gut reaction to what you’re writing (i.e., trusting your body and not listening to the committee in your mind), you’ll do fine.—Elizabeth George in Write Away

Write Away One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing LifeAs one of the most structured forms of art, writing is very much a left-brain pursuit. We put our intellect to work every time we sit down and start thinking about three-act story arcs, complex vs. compound sentences, gerunds and participles, keeping our characters in character, and organizing our subplots.

Our desks are cluttered with notes and reminders; our bulletin boards teem with sketches, maps, and timelines; and our filing cabinets are jammed with draft upon draft of our novels. There’s a lot to think about in this writing game. So much so that it’s almost overwhelming sometimes.

Are You Letting Your Brain Zap Your Story’s Emotion?

However, we have to be careful we don’t let the (very important) intellectual side of the craft take precedence over the even more important guidance of our primal, instinctive, sheerly emotional gut feelings. As perennial bestselling mystery author Elizabeth George pointed out in the opening paragraph, our emotional, or physical, responses to our own ideas and stories are often the most accurate indication of their value.

As much as we want readers to intellectually appreciate the intelligence of our writing, we need them, even more, to react to the underlying pull of the story and its characters with utter, unthinking emotion. When you can connect with the mysterious, often unpredictable realm of your readers’ emotion, you’ll hook them not only into reading your story, but also into carrying it with them for the rest of their lives. A story that connects with me emotionally is likely to win my approval, even it fails on certain structural levels. I’ll forgive your plot issues if you make me love your characters and resonate with your themes.

How to Create Emotionally Resonant Stories for Your Readers

How can you create emotionally resonant stories?

It’s simple: You create stories with which you resonate.

Learn to listen to your body and identify emotional connections and reactions.

Whenever I hit on an idea that makes me literally gasp, that makes my lungs “collapse,” I know I’ve got something. Even if my body were to let me, that’s not a feeling I can afford to ignore. When a story or a character or a theme rips at my heart or fills with me joy—I know I’ve tapped a powerful emotion. If I can channel that emotion, then I’ll likely be able to give readers a similar experience.

Will all readers react to your  story in the same way you do? Probably not, because not everyone is emotionally stimulated by the same things you are. But at least, by utilizing what triggers your own genuine emotion, by letting your story punch you in the gut if it has to, you’re allowing readers the opportunity to share that authenticity.

My uncle, an internationally recognized motivational speaker, often points out that “If they cry, they buy.” Callous as that may be, it’s absolutely true. Readers pay attention to their emotions—and so should you.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What physical trigger always lets you know you’ve tapped an emotionally powerful idea? Tell me in the comments!

Punch Your Readers in the Gut!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I thank Twitter for showing me your link. It was the first in line when I came on and I really like all that you say.


  2. Twitter’s a great place! I’m glad we connected over there.

  3. It does make sense that if we’re emotionally charged by what we write, it’s likely the reader will feel something as well.

    I’ve just come away from a writing session and my stomach aches. In my case, I think it’s from the corn candy I’ve been getting into rather than any gut-wrenching potential in the words I’ve put down.

  4. So know your audience. But know yourself? Dig deep. Spill big. Cry and they’ll cry. Bleed and they’ll bleed. Laugh and they’ll laugh? At least the ones God means to touch and bring healing of some sort to author and reader?

    I think I know that breathless, heart-pounding and weak-kneed feeling. The one tinged with fear that says I’m about to expose something of myself…

  5. @Shaddy: You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: If the writer doesn’t respond emotionally to his story, then why should any reader? As for candy corn, that sounds mighty good right about now!

    @Sandra: In a sense, *we* are our audiences. We’re not always likely to affect those who are dissimilar to ourselves, even if we bend ourselves out of shape to reach them. But if we write to ourselves, then we’re very likely to touch others who are like ourselves.

  6. K.M., this a wonderful post. I never thought about writing be a physical activity, but I like the way you described it.

    I’ll remind myself of this often!

    Happy writing…

  7. Writing can definitely be a physical activity for me. Like you, I know when I’m onto something major, especially in my tense/climactic scenes. My pulse starts racing, I feel glued to my computer, and I’m sure my breathing picks up.

    It’s the same way I feel during certain parts of certain books–no matter how many times I read J.D. Robb’s ‘Conspiracy in Death’, the scene where the MC gets her badge taken away always gets me.

    Great post. Definitely have to feel it or it’s likely your readers won’t feel it either. 🙂

  8. @Tamika: I like thinking it’s a physical activity too. Makes me feel better about sitting in a desk chair all day!

    @Liberty: Racing pulse, tearing up, butterflies in your stomach – those are all good signs whether you’re reading or writing.

  9. I call those feelings my “home runs.” When I’ve elicited the anger, sadness, or joy in myself through my prose that I want the reader to feel then I know I’ve done my job as a writer.

    I vaguely remember something Stephen King says in “On Writing” that’s similar to the Elizabeth George quote. That gut reaction is also why I pay less attention to the mechanics of writing and more how the words sound when I read them aloud. If the cadence of the words elicit what I want without any affectation, then bada-bing bada-boom we have ourselves a winner.

    P.S. Welcome to the Princess Freers Extraordinare, Ms. Weiland.

  10. “Home runs” – I like that. We often forget in all the (certainly meritorious) fuss about structure, that emotion is the end-all of art.

  11. Once again, you’ve sparked and motivated me, K.M.~ I voted “other” for the emotional reaction that I feel when I realize I’ve constructed the exact right words or scene. Breathlessness was very close, but it is more a wash of euphoria. However, until I heard your podcast this evening, I didn’t trust my gut.

    You are such a blessing. Thank you.

  12. I voted ‘other’ too. For me it’s tears. I’m a sucker for a tearjerker, so if I can make myself cry, then I figure I’ve got something.

  13. Love this post! It’s so true. And I particularly loved this statement: “A story that connects with me emotionally is likely to win my approval, even it fails on certain structural levels. I’ll forgive your plot issues if you make me love your characters and resonate with your themes.”

    Connecting with characters is an absolute necessity. The greatest plot in the world will not make me rave about a book unless the characters draw me in. I like a good plot-book, but they are one-reads to me. As in, borrow it from the library, read it once, never read it again. But the books that make me FEEL…those end up on my personal bookshelf.

    I have a neat story about making a reader cry–I wrote a short story and brought it to my critique group, where the procedure is to let the person to your left read your work out loud to everyone. The woman who was reading mine stopped abruptly a few sentences from the end. When I looked up to see what the issue was, she had tears streaming, and mouthed, “I can’t finish…” I had never felt so happy to see someone cry before :). That story is going to be in Digital Dragon online magazine next month!

    Thanks for the great post, KM. I love your take on writing and the cool way you find interesting aspects to highlight!

  14. @Cynthia: Yes, it is a wash of euphoria, isn’t it? Best feeling in the world!

    @Anna: Choking up is right up there next to the wash of euphoria as far as I’m concerned.

    @Kat: What a wonderful testimony to your writing! Anytime a reader tells me one of my stories made them cry my day us officially made.

  15. Great advice! I really need to hone in and figure out what gets me in the gut. I think the inspiration is paramount to following through with this. Now where to get that …. 😉 Thank you!

  16. For me the gut feeling and the reaction are usually simultaneous.

  17. Great Post.
    Emotional connection, yes. You want the reader to feel what your characters are feeling. And if you as a writer can’t feel what they’re feeling then you’re reader won’t be able to either.

    I know I’m in the zone, the emotional connection zone, when I can feel the adrenalin or loss of breath or if I’m happily lost in what I’m writing, oblivious to what is around me. It’s a beautiful, intense place to be.

  18. Writing isn’t *always* that place of intensity. But, my! It’s lovely when it is!

  19. K.M. I am going to try to self publish a book of mine and a couple that my parents wrote. I really loved your book trailers and I Thick our “tour” is such a neat idea. I would really like to ask you some questions and get some ideas from you. My email Address is thedestinyofone@yahoo.com
    Sarah H.

  20. I definitely had that breathless feeling when I discovered my latest story. I was bored one day, reading old legends in Japanese mythology and while I was reading one about the Yuki-onna (“snow woman), my body definitely told me “This is the next story you’re going to write!” I wasn’t even looking for another story to write at the time, but it just happened.

    I came up with a loose outline very soon afterward. 🙂

  21. When you’re body reacts – out of the blue – like that, you know you gotta listen! Your story sounds interesting. Have fun with it!

  22. Great post.

    Emotional writing can be some of the best there is, if not the best. Most likely we will have to edit it a bit, just so it makes sense, but if you feel it, then yeah the reader should too.

    I tend to remember the ones with those lung collapsing moments in them 🙂

  23. Oh, editing is *always* important. 😉 But, yes, the emotional pieces tend to just spew out onto the page. The heart is there, but the brain sometimes has to be tweaked in later.

  24. Hey, I just saw Behold the Dawn’s book trailer. I love it! Will be buying the book soon. Congrats!

    There are so many days I LONG for that emotional punch in the gut, whether from my own writing or from reading someone else’s.

    The trick is, how do I write that into my story? Perhaps this is one of the things NaNoWriMo does best. By putting such a rush on the writing, whatever is most accessible of my feelings goes into the book.

  25. Thanks, Reesha! 🙂

    Good point. Because writing can become such an intellectual endeavor, we sometimes analyze our emotions to death until the punch is no longer there to put on paper. Sometimes you gotta block up the think tank and just write!

  26. K.M., thanks for such a wonderful post. I had a gut reaction, “That’s it!” when reading it! 🙂 I’m going to be attempting my first novel during NaNoWriMo this year. Every now and then I get an idea that I react to physically. Good to know that I should be listening hard to my body’s cues.

    I’m so glad you posted on my blog. Your awesome site fell off of my reading list somehow when transferring to my new addy, and now I can re-add you! I shudder to think of all the gems I’ve missed! (I mean literally, I am shuddering.) Have a good night!

  27. Good food for thought about hitting readers in the gut.

  28. @Heather: Glad you found me again! And I’m tickled you had a gut reaction in response to the post. :p

    @Angie: Thanks for reading!

  29. I am writing a fictional story. A few days ago, I was typing along, getting my rough draft down as steadily as I could. Without any planning or thought whatsoever, I wrote a scene that made me physically sick. I was shocked at what came out onto the page. I don’t know where it came from or why. I couln’t sleep that night for thinking I should get up and delete it all, start over. It upset me that this ‘thing’ happened to three of my characters. It angered me and it saddened me. My reaction to this was, ‘okay, you’re weird, why did you write this? Now get rid of it and replace with another story line’. I didn’t replace it, it’s still there in the story. It took me a couple of days to move past and continue writing. Now, after finding this post on your blog, I feel alot better about keeping the scene, at least, during the rough draft. And now I know I’m not crazy for being shocked and sad over what I wrote about my characters! Writing is a peculiar thing, isn’t it?

  30. Writing, to be worth its salt, has to be such an organic thing. We have to be willing to dredge up the secret depths of our souls and empty them onto the page. Is it scary? You bet! But if we except an honest resonation from our readers, we first have to be honest with them.

  31. Here, here! Truer words were never spoken!I believe in organic story telling too!

    I’ve given you another award at my blog http://www.StarlightBlog.com But this one is more like a group award, even though I listed everyone separately. Don’t worry if you don’t have time to do the whole award thing.

    I’m all ready for your November 3rd Blog Tour to Starlight.

  32. Shucks, all these awards you’re giving me are going to go to my head, you know that? 😉

  33. YES, I will agree there, about emotions sticking with you. You cry you buy. 😉

  34. I think the same is true about laughter, just maybe not so much. Depends on the person and his mood, I suppose.

  35. ” A story that connects with me emotionally is likely to win my approval, even it fails on certain structural levels. I’ll forgive your plot issues if you make me love your characters and resonate with your themes.”
    Mindset of almost every reader. (Myself included 😉
    Which automatically makes it an awesome advice. Since the second major thing one write for IS reader. First being the urge of doing it…………

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Structural perfection is always going to be a great goal. But, in some ways, it really takes the pressure off to realize the only thing we *have* to get right is that emotional connection.

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