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No, Stories Should Not ‘Wreck You, the Reader’

In anxious times, it’s not healthy for stories to destroy us emotionally.
on Mar 8, 2021 · 16 comments

In 2013, I had just given birth to my second child. Pregnancy insomnia hit me hard and never left. When my daughter was still a newborn, a friend let me borrow Divergent. Before long I was completely engrossed. I read day and night when I was up nursing the baby. And in those wee hours of the morning, pages turned, my mind raced, and I got even less sleep. My anxiety already bordered on PTSD after my husband and I suffered a near-fatal car accident, and now it soared to new heights. So after reading the first two books in the series, I stopped.

Divergent’s sexual content and teen angst already violated my personal standards. But I had to stop reading for another reason. Regardless of the author’s intent, the books seemed to be written to hurt me by making me even more anxious.

As we’ve covered, books can help you restore your soul “when sorrows like sea billows roll.” Now I’d like to focus more on what not to read. During challenging seasons, do we turn to soul-satisfying stories, or to novels that have the potential to tear us apart?

Series: Stories Can Help Us Heal

I don’t suggest we avoid adrenaline-inducing stories altogether. Instead, let’s be mindful about which stories we read, how often we read them, and how they can even harm us.

How high-tension stories can cause you harm

After my Divergent encounter, I began to see a troubling story trend emerge: the formula some authors use to make their book un-put-downable. The formula often gets results. No matter what time at night you say you will stop reading, that page-turner won’t let you go until 2 o’clock in the morning.

How do they do it? Simply put, they use a perfect balance of promises and high-running tension. Every story needs promises and tension, but the higher and more often the story’s tension rises, the more often adrenaline is released into your veins. This feeling, if overdone, can be addictive and harmful.

If you’re a daily reader of these books, their constant pumping of the fight-or-flight hormone can lead to all kinds of health problems, such as digestive issues, headaches, insomnia, and depression. More importantly, these books can become spiritual stumbling blocks for anyone who struggles with anxiety. Before you read these kinds of book, it helps to recognize the season of life you’re experiencing and how much daily stress you’re already enduring.

In Divergent, if the story introduced lovable characters, it was inevitable they would either turn against the protagonist or die. If the love interest begged the protagonist to stop putting herself in danger, she would be sure to put herself in danger all the more. And if you’ve read the series, you know how that turned out.

In my case, I decided I could no longer trust that author with my emotions.

Understanding the effects of stories that ‘destroy’ you

After sunset, when our bodies begin to produce melatonin, our adrenaline levels should be at the lowest point. Yet this is the time of day we often choose to read adrenaline-inducing novels.

You might be reading this thinking, “I never have problems falling asleep, so I’ll just keep reading however and whenever I like.” But these problems don’t always appear immediately. They can take many years to come to fruition.

Years after my anxiety struggle, I’m being treated by a functional neurologist for the maladaptation of my fight-or-flight response. This means that not only am I fighting a spiritual battle with anxiety, but my body no longer has the ability to turn off that response (which has led to all the health problems I listed above). Had I been aware of the damage I could do back then, I would have been more prepared to put down the book after the first few chapters and seek more help with my PTSD.

So do authors really want to hurt you? Yes, some of them do. Below is a tweet and comment I read back in 2018 that perfectly captures the some writers’ attitude:

Sometimes I lose sight of why I want this whole Being an Author thing, b/c the anxiety can be Very Much

Then this week a reader said I emotionally destroyed them

And I remembered: ah yes.


That is why. . . .

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with cover reveals and marketing and publicity and [advanced review copies] and reviews and lists and all that and forget the whole Point of It All. Which is, of course, to wreck you, the reader.1

I find the language in the comment most disturbing—that wrecking the reader is “the whole Point of It All.” I think we can all agree that tension is necessary for a story. Without it, there is no story. Without conflict, it’s all just ponies and rainbows.

But, in my estimation, authors should make a first priority to care for their reader’s betterment. Authors can create tension and realistic darkness in such a way that takes the reader’s heart on a journey of bad to better, from mediocre to superior.

Perhaps in 2020, you also went through the dark night of the soul. If so, if I hope to encourage you to be proactive with your spiritual, emotional, and physical health.

God didn’t create us in parts and pieces. We are whole beings.

What we do with our minds also affects our bodies, which also affects our relationship with the one who made those bodies.

In such times, when personal tensions run high and we must combat anxiety, we need a spirit of thankfulness in combating anxiety (Philippians 4:6) and self-control (Galatians 5:23). It’s difficult to put down a book when all you want is to find out what happens next. Stop and pray that God would grant you wisdom and self-control to read what will edify and build you up rather than “wreck you, the reader.”

  1. Tweets dated Sept. 15, 2018, preserved via screenshot.
Staff writer Marian Jacobs has created Lorehaven stories since the first print issue, exploring magic, sexuality, and story ethics. Her work has also featured at Desiring God and Stage and Story. She and her family live in southern California. Her first nonfiction book, a theological analysis and guide to discerning fictional magic, is set for summer 2025 release from B&H Publishing.
  1. Well done. In this day and age, when we are rapidly approaching the end of the church age, we have a responsibility to build up the reader. It’s part of our walk as a believer. Jesus gives all believers this task— to build up and love the people in our lives, and the people we meet. As creatives, made in the image of God, it’s hard for me not to see that being a major part of our creative output.

  2. Kessie says:

    Hm, these are good points. But I don’t think I agree. Putting the onus of “nice books” on the author shifts responsibility away from the reader. If a reader can’t handle an intense book, they should avoid those types of books. An author could write the mildest, sweetest book in the world, and it would still hit somebody wrong. Look at My Antonia. It is quiet. It is not tense. It is sad. And I will never read that book again because I hated it so much. Saying an author should only write books that never cause anxiety doesn’t work. Everybody has different triggers. Some things will strike some readers some way and not others. You might as well tell authors to not write at all. An author has to instill an emotional response in the reader, or the reader stops reading. If the reader can’t handle that, that’s their problem.

    • Esther says:

      I see what you’re saying, Kesie, but I didn’t read that into this blog, although it could be taken that way. Stories like Divergent have no hope, no reason for being at the end, and there are A LOT of books out there that are written almost to convince the reader that the world isn’t worth it.
      At least that’s my thoughts.

  3. Esther Wallace says:

    Thanks for writing. I feel this way many, many times when picking up books.

    Yes, I have found I like the Morder portion of Lord of the Rings and rough stories like that. In darker times, I can’t stand the fluff and glitter. It feels pointless, but the dark stories are only good when they point to the light, when they show God is in the darkness.
    I love the scenes of Frodo and Sam traveling through Morder because Sam looks up at the sky and realizes that whatever happens in this world is really unimportant in the long term. We’re already won. Our only task is to try our best for our King while life remains. Also, it’s very clear that God gives Frodo the impossible strength to reach the end.
    This type of dark story gives us strength, but unfortunately, that’s not what people write. They write no hope, no light at the end, and frequently invent tense things just for the drama.

    Thanks again for pointing out the failures in today’s popular books, and the scariness of the authors’ missions.

  4. Kathleen J Eavenson says:

    On possibly a slightly different but related track: I’ve noticed on my FB feed many ads for secular apocalyptic novels. They seem to be split mostly between some type of plague wiping out almost everybody or else an EMP knocks out all power so civilization collapses. My reaction is why would anybody want to read these in the middle of a pandemic? Because we don’t have enough to worry about already?

    As you may have guessed, I’m not rushing to (over)load my Kindle with these books! I choose not to read them; in fact, I would probably do this even if we weren’t in the current situation. Sufficient unto the day …

    • I get those ads, too. It’s weird, but I kind of find those stories relaxing. For example, the 2011 movie, Contagion, had a virus with a death rate 25x worse than Covid. Stories about EMP disasters go on for months or years, whereas the blackouts from our Texas storm disaster lasted about two weeks. So when I dive into stories with orders-of-magnitude worse disasters, I feel a bit better about what I’m going through. But I realize it’s not for everyone. And to Marion’s point, I’ve definitely read stories that simply exhausted me from relentless tension and danger. It’s like trying to dance to a 160bpm song for hours. There has to be a better rhythm.

  5. Alice says:

    Excellent article. I agree with your perspective, and I appreciate the lesson on adrenaline and how it affects the body. I would add that, as Christian authors, our first priority should be to honor God with our words. The tweet you quoted about “wrecking the reader” does not at all sound like a Christian perspective, and how horrible it is to think that there are writers who genuinely wish to harm readers with their art! It seems so backwards to think that way.

  6. As someone who hates being emotionally destroyed by books full of no hope, I love this post.

    As a writer, I know that of course there must be struggles for the characters and emotional connections for the readers, but it can be done without shredding the reader’s soul or making them feel that life is hopeless.

    The use of eucatastrophe and of happy endings for instance can help hugely, and I often wish there were fewer shock-value character deaths that accomplish nothing and are only there to devastate the reader. My opinion, of course.

    It’s no doubt a difficult balance but I think it’s helpful to think about, and reminds me why I avoid reading those books that promise to destroy me or sound too dark. 😛

    It’s a choice for each reader and for each author, but I think it would be good if more people at least thought about this aspect.

    Thanks for a lovely, thoughtful post.

  7. Steven says:

    I don’t mind action and tension if through the story the characters learn and grow and iwho n the end become stronger by going through hard times, like we do in life. But when I read a book like For Who the Sun Sings where in the end the main character ends in loss, not seeming to come out stronger supposedly the future children would gradually change the village, but the main character won’t see that. I feel angry, when I think that a story is heading for a positive ebe if their journey , but instead experiences loss with only hope for the next generation. I want to feel like even after going through hard times we can emerge with having been made stronger, not just survived.

  8. David Corder says:

    Before deep reflection and after initial thoughts, I don’t think this can be said of everyone. I think different stories affect different people in different ways. What may tempt one person may not be as potent for another person. It’s not what you put in the body that causes sin, it’s what comes out of the body. The only books I really steer away from are erotica novels for obvious reasons, but most of everything else is fair fodder for me. But to each their own.

  9. Well…I agree that books aren’t there to cause permanent damage to people, and that authors should try to make a positive impact on their readers. It sounds like Divergent wasn’t the right book series for you at the time, and if that’s the case, it’s good that you realized that and stopped reading it. Readers should know themselves and abstain from books that are genuinely harmful to them.

    That said, some people read dark, angsty, or otherwise emotionally heavy books with no harmful effects. Or, those books are EXACTLY what they need to get through hard times in their lives. Sometimes edgy, angsty books give their emotions an outlet where they otherwise might not have one. Or they see story chars that are going through something similar, and it makes the reader feel less alone. This gives them the inspiration to keep going, if not some clues on how to make things better in real life.

    It’s similar to how a lot of people make vent art to help release their painful emotions. Dark, angsty stories have also done a lot for me personally, in terms of finding solace in chars that felt alone or misunderstood. And analyzing their situations helped me have more compassion for others and figure out how to handle difficulties in real life. Many people experience the same thing. If angsty stories help them, they shouldn’t be robbed of that just because other people can’t handle such tales.

    I know you aren’t trying to get rid of adrenaline inducing stories, but now days it’s very easy for people to turn to banning books or attacking authors instead of learning to have more care with what they read. So I wanted to point the issue out more clearly, in the sense of showing that angsty books actually provide a BENEFIT to a lot of readers, that way people realize that running around banning(or even trying to silence certain types of books) tends to do more harm than good.

  10. I concur on this wholeheartedly!!! I’ve quit author’s altogether because of the non-stop despair their works were barraging me with… as a single, the romance genre can also be done in a way that makes a ‘reader without’ feel extremely hopeless and ‘unworthy’.

    I try to only write books which will build up and encourage, in the midst of whatever fictional drama which goes on, they’ll release the reader back into the real world feeling emboldened, inspired, and a little ‘expanded’ thought-wise!

  11. davelandrum says:

    True. I remember, as a college teacher, going through Orwell’s 1984 every time I taught Modern British Literature. Finally I said, “This is the most depressing, ugly book I’ve ever read,” and I stopped including it in that class or any other class. I’m all the better for it. We’ve simply got to draw the line and realize that our emotions can be damaged or sullied by the wrong reading.

  12. audie says:

    You are, of course, free to read or not read whatever you choose, but the tone of “It was bad for me, so it must be bad for you too” in this article is very off-putting.

    When a reader or viewer or even a storyteller talks about being “destroyed”, it usually refers to a strong emotional reaction to what a character is going through. If I wanted to point to some times when I’ve been very strongly emotionally moved, I might point to examples like the last three episodes of the anime series Your Lie In April, or the infamous episode 10 of Violet Evergarden. Yet there have also been literary passages that have worked at my emotions:

    Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
    Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country (p. 73). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

    And trying to force stipulations, such as “Bad things can happen but only if the characters becomes better at the end”, is artificial. Tragedy has its place. Hamlet would not be half so fascinating if he did not follow his endless broodings with bloody actions. And 1984 is a great piece of literature that should be read, not blithely shunted aside because one thinks it “depressing” and “ugly”. That is especially true in these times, when 1984 looks more and more like a work of prophecy.

    • I agree with you, Audie. But note that she didn’t say we should ban these stories:

      “I don’t suggest we avoid adrenaline-inducing stories altogether. Instead, let’s be mindful about which stories we read, how often we read them, and how they can even harm us.”

      Is what she put early on in her article. A lot of the article DOES sound critical of stories that have a chance of producing negative emotions in the reader, and it’s good to point out how that comes across. But we should still acknowledge what she was actually doing in this article, which was basically saying that she’s not trying to completely ban emotional difficulty in stories, but that we should be more mindful of the damage those stories could cause us at the wrong times in our lives(which was why I acknowledged the intent of her article in the last paragraph my comment). That actually is a valid point for her to make, so long as she’s not running around trying to ban books or harass people into writing stories only she approves of. One or two of the commentors seemed more likely to try that than she would.

  13. Catharsis is a real thing, and a valuable thing.

    Just as a reader might be more careful about choosing tone when in a vulnerable place, the same reader might at a different time choose an incredibly intense work to help process deep and intense emotions. I have chosen gentler stories when I needed to be cautious with myself, and also I certainly deliberately chose some emotionally intense pieces to “enjoy” in the past year when I had a lot of Big Feels that needed an outlet.

    I’ve seen this idea put forward in several places in the last month or two — that books/movies/etc. should be gentle and soothing, nothing more — and I have to assume it’s pushback from people who are straining under pandemic and political pressures and cannot imagine taking on one more stressful thing. But I don’t think they understand that emotional investment can also be a stress reliever.

    Some of my work is pretty emotionally intense. In 2020, a year which was pretty emotionally intense, I was told by more than one reader that my work helped while they were under stress.

    Catharsis provides a safer outlet for these emotions, in the same way that roller coasters provide a safer adrenaline rush than actually falling off a building. If I don’t like roller coasters, that’s fine, I don’t ride them, but I have no place telling other people they don’t actually enjoy them, or to say that the designer was wrong for wanting to build a ride that made people scream.

    I certainly wouldn’t say that a book is wrong because a reader chose a certain time of day to read it.

    If the point was to warn readers of potential fallout from poor choices of material and timing, fine, then write that. But such a health warning wouldn’t start with “stories should not….”

    It is not the job of a creator to write something “safe” (bland) enough for readers of every sensitivity.

What say you?