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Interactive stories can do this quite easily- give the audience a choice, reveal choice to be a bad one, everyone is very sad. Simple.

But can a story the audience has no direct control over manage the same thing?

If we read about a character doing a bad thing, we don't feel guilt, although we can empathize with theirs. Not what I'm looking for. Also not looking for the simple "my-friends-and-family-would-not-approve-of-my-reading-this" guilt.

Are there any techniques that make an audience feel as though they have done something wrong themselves simply through the process of reading? (Examples would also be helpful.)

  • Welcome to Writers! In keeping with the Stack Exchange aversion to list questions, I've done a light edit of your question so it's mostly asking for techniques, and examples are welcome but not the main point. – Neil Fein Oct 16 '15 at 4:17
  • A couple of questions: Can you clarify what you mean by "non-interactive" here? That term makes me think of fiction that's anything but a game or a choose-your-own-adventure book. Also, are you concerned with plays, movies, TV, books, or webcomics? (Or are all media okay?) – Neil Fein Oct 16 '15 at 4:19
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I will not have anything to offer that is as technical and full of advice as the other responses here, but I can tell you this:

Hideaway by Dean Koontz

A story about two people becoming psychically linked, at first they do not know that what is happening is real or that it is happening to the other person as well. Enter protagonist, a normal older gentleman sweet as pie suddenly has a vision of killing someone. It is real. It is visceral. He is seeing this from the first person view, lifting hands and seeing them bloody, feeling the pulse of the person being strangled throbbing beneath his fingertips, the anxiety of doing this actually doing this deed and the unraveling of a perfectly sane man virtually living out these experiences. It was terrifying but here is where your answer comes in. I had to stop a couple of times just to catch my breath and walk it off.

At some point I found myself thinking, "yeah, the way that he arranged that body doesn't fit with the rest, what is missing is that he needs this over here and incorporate something with it like..." and it hit me. The thought of arranging a dead body in a certain way made total sense. Me. In my bedroom, before bed. Me, identifying with the insane logic of an insane person doing an insane act... and I am not insane. He did such a good job of pulling you into the though process of the killer that you begin to think like a killer, you understand his twisted idea of logic and then... with hope.. you are horrified that you were just in that place, in that space with him.

Yes, a writer can make the reader feel guilt, actual guilt for the actions within a book or story. He brought me closer than I ever want to be to the act of killing someone.

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Hmm, I'm not quite sure what you're trying to accomplish.

People will sometimes feel guilty when reading a book because they conclude that they shouldn't be reading something like this. Like, "this book is really obscene" or "this book is really racist" or some such, and the reader concludes that he is only enjoying the book because of his own dark nature that his better side decides he doesn't want to encourage. But I think you're saying that that is not what you're looking for.

The other possibility is to present a story in which the reader is lured in to cheering for a character to do something that is immoral or unethical, and then to turn it around and highlight the harm that this character's action does, so the reader is left saying, "Oh, yeah, what was I thinking, why was I hoping the character would do bad thing X? Is it because I would do bad thing X in those circumstances? I really need to examine myself."

Like, the hero is married but one day he meets a younger, prettier woman. The story is presented so that the reader will naturally say, Yeah, go for it man! Your wife is boring and mean and ugly. You should just run off with this woman. It would be so fun and exciting and you deserve it. Then at the end suddenly show it from the point of view of the wife, how she has done nothing wrong and yet she is abandoned and betrayed and how all along the supposed hero has been selfish and shallow. If done right, the reader could be left thinking, "Why did I WANT the hero to abandon his loving and devoted wife for cheap sex? Would I betray people I claim to love and care about for such shallow reasons?"

Similar things could be done with a story about stealing, anger and violence, racism, etc.

All that said, unless your point is to write a harsh story about some social issue, I'd be very reluctant to write a story that tries to make the reader feel guilty. People don't generally like to be made to feel guilty, so this is probably not a recipe for a popular book.

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You can certainly provide the feeling of vicarious guilt, but directly inspiring such a feeling would be quite challenging.

The emotional response of guilt requires an element of embarrassment or regret regarding an action taken (Dictionary.com: "a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined"). The only way I can imagine this occurring would be to foreshadow something forbidden or guilt-inducing, leaving the reader with no option but to quit reading or continue at the risk of a guilty emotional response.

For example, if you know that the next chapter of 50 Shades of Grey will involve deviant sexual acts, but you read on regardless, you might feel personal guilt for doing so. You had the choice to stop reading and went ahead due to intrigue or compulsion at the cost of guilt. This won't be an outright effect of the story so much as an effect of personal decisions made in conjunction with reading it. I think that was a major selling point of that book - it appealed to the voyeuristic tendencies we all suppress to varying degrees, employing guilt as an enticement (rather than a means to inspire anxiety and discourage further reading, as might be seen with a letter that isn't addressed to you marked with "CONFIDENTIAL").

As a technique, this is a dangerous gambit - you're not providing the reader an alternative, so if they don't want to experience that feeling of guilt, they will simply stop reading (whereas in other mediums they would generally have an alternative, a la choose-your-own-adventure novels and certain video games like Fable or Skyrim).

You could also go about it in a more direct manner - e.g. stating something like "it would be a crime to read further" - then your reader has become "guilty" in the definitive sense if they choose to continue. But will they feel emotional guilt in the manner you are hoping to achieve? That would depend on the reader, though it isn't likely. There's too much distance in such a flat statement - the reader isn't really confronted with a dilemma, as you can't assign them guilt; they would have to volunteer that feeling.

Great question!

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This is a great and challenging question. I think the key to guilt is feeling complicity in an action that goes against either a person's own morality/ethics or against society's morality/ethics. This isn't easy in a narrative situation, since it requires an extreme identification with the protagonist. You could write in a sympathetic 1st person narrative, since 3rd person creates an immediate distance.

Setting up a narrative situation in which complicity is the goal probably requires several things:

  • An agent who the reader is identifying with on a visceral level. This takes a lot of time to set up, basically mapping common morality/ethics onto the character and doing everything in your power to make the reader feel empathy with his/her situation and, ultimately, their response to the situation.
  • An agent who the reader is identifying with on an intellectual level. This is going to be harder to control, since there are so many readers with so many different opinions and thoughts about something. That being said, try to create moments where the protagonist's thought patterns align with the average person's.
  • An act that feels both in the reader's control and is realistically possible. The moment of guilt arises either in reflection or in the instant the action occurs. But more importantly, what the action is that produces the guilt should be something anybody is capable of doing (e.g. pushing the red button that blows up the universe will be less guilt inducing than running over a dog when you're late for work).

A possible example: Ian McEwan. McEwan consistently manages to get the reader to relate with seemingly average individuals prior to those individuals doing something awful (his early short stories, the novel The Cement Garden). Whether or not the reader feels guilt is a very personal thing, but I suspect that if anyone can do it, McEwan comes closest.

Another possible example: Jim Thompson. Thompson's The Killer Inside Me is very effective at putting you directly in the brain of someone who is doing awful things. It's a gritty book and if you really identify with the main character, you're in trouble.

Note: the situations you read about in the examples above are just as likely (or maybe more likely) to produce feelings of revulsion and good old fashioned horror, and can potentially further distance the reader.

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I'm not quite sure what you're looking for, but I'm wondering if some sort of unreliable narrator technique might be useful?

Like, when I first read Gone With the Wind, I was pretty young (my only excuse) and I came out of the book sympathizing with Scarlet and the KKK. Scarlet was a defenseless Southern Belle, the KKK were taking back the streets and protecting her way of life, etc. Obviously when I re-read the book later, I realized I'd been 'tricked' into sympathizing with a group I don't have any real sympathy for. I didn't have any real guilt about it, but possibly if my realization had come within the reading time of the book (like with a gradual realization of what was going on) I might have?

Or, in Lolita, where I ended up feeling a sort of pity for Humbert, did that result in me feeling guilty? Not really, but I think it's the closest I might have ever gotten.

So - I don't think I'm likely to feel true guilt for having been tricked by an author, without me taking any bad action as a result of my guilt. But these two incidents are the closest I can come to in my memory.

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A reader always try to connect himself with any of the characters in a story(and most of the times that character is the hero of the story).Like if you are reading a story about Superman and you only wants to be Superman ,because he is the hero and he is doing all those good things.If something happens bad with him, you will feel bad also. Some times people also try to connect themselves with villain of the story,If the villain is cool and smart.

I want to say that connection of reader with the story is very important, if you want to make him feel anything. Without connection there is no feel. So, according to me non-interactive stories can not make an audience feel guilt.

Yes,you can make an audience feel guilt through reading but your story should be connected to the reader. When a reader is connected with a story,he feels like story is not just a story,its happening in their life. And to force a reader to feel like this,is the only aim of a writer.

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In short, yes, by making the reader identify with the character and their choice. If you can do that, then when you show the choice to be a bad one, the reader, knowing he'd have made the same choice, will feel the emotion the character feels when that same revelation occurs.

How to make your reader identify with a character and their choices is the topic of entire graduate-level college courses, as it goes deeply into the fundamentals of character design and story development. The basic concepts are:

  • Your character must be formed from a general, yet plausible combination of character traits. Ideally, everyone should be able to look at this character and what they do and see a bit of themselves in him/her/it, and that comes from ascribing qualities to the character that a person would ascribe to themselves (or at least, would want to). It doesn't take much; identify the basic traits you need in order for the story to work (i.e. honesty, physical strength, good looks), and the reader will use the "similar to me" bias to fill in the blanks.
  • If you, as the writer, ever look at something you've made your character do and ask "why", your reader will ask the same question, and you either need more background for that choice in the character's development (for instance they may have started out a stereotypical goody-two-shoes and you haven't corrupted their character enough with the events of the plot), or it's the wrong choice for that character to make given their basic design.
  • This trope of a seemingly good choice ending up being very bad must ideally toe the line between a decision that is too easily foreshadowed by the reader, and a "Deus ex machina" (an event that is so unforeseen it feels artificially pasted in). A decision by the main character to put all the town's kids on a truck heading for some nebulous "better life" is a huge red flag to your reader and a lose-lose for you; the reader will expect, the moment he reads this, that the kids are going to their deaths, so if you play it that way there's no shocked surprise on the reader's part, and if you play it straight with the kids making it to some utopia, it'll be implausible and you'll lose your reader. At the other extreme, you can't have the character plausibly thinking he's sending his kids to Disneyland and then have the van or bus be hit by an RPG on the I-5. It's so random and implausible that it feels like you pasted in a page from Lone Survivor. There's middle ground, but you have to be careful; the ideal, IMO, is an event that surprises the reader, but when they go back and think about it they'll realize they should have seen it coming. Failing that, go for overt dramatic irony; have the character make a decision that the reader knows is going to go badly, but only because they know something the character can't know, and make the reader realize that if they knew what the character did, they'd make the same choice. Again, it's gotta be plausible.

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