Hooked on a Feeling: Hope and Despair

If you’ve made it this far, then you already have most of the tools you need.


Hooked on a Feeling is approaching its close. Only one entry remains after this one. If you’ve sufficiently paid attention to all that has come before, then there is little stopping you from being able to evoke and manipulate the feelings of others through writing.

But one thing escapes you yet, though that will change after you finish this post, because today’s feeling is a double whammy—a trinity of two. And once you’ve mastered both of them you have nowhere to go but down.

Today’s feeling is hope and despair.

Wait, isn’t that Two Feelings?

Not even a little. And I’ll tell you why.

In the real world, there may be an argument for separating these two feelings, or even interpreting them as opposites. In writing, however, this must never be so. Each of these feelings is so powerful that if one is used on its own, without being tempered by its complement, it will lay waste to the story and make it unreadable.

In writing, hope and despair are Yin and Yang to one another, and must not be disentangled.


And so I naturally will not try to do so here. For the purposes of this miniseries, hope and despair are the same feeling, and we will be examining them together, for our own safety.

Let’s get started.

What’s the Benefit?

Before we lose ourselves in this exciting new subject, let us briefly revisit all the feelings that have come before, and examine the benefits that come from each of them.

How much of the list do you remember? Don’t worry, I’ll reprint it here.

  • Inspiration is personally transformative for your reader, and has the greatest lifelong benefit.
  • Fear enhances the suspension of disbelief, and most powerfully reinforces the illusion you are weaving around your reader.
  • Hate makes the story immortal, providing a conduit to future generations of readers.
  • Love keeps the book in the reader’s mind, even when they are not reading it.
  • Mirth causes the reader to share the book with others, spreading its influence and profitability.

These bullet points are powerful, but, as yet, incomplete. Let us break the sixth seal and reveal what is still hidden:

  • Hope and despair cause the reader to keep reading until the end, often without stopping.

In other words, these feelings are what fuels the reader’s addiction. They are the stick and carrot that pushes them ever forward, ever reaching for the end.

the carrot or the stick?

Ah, I see you are already prepared.

Naturally, this is what you want as a writer. Having fans is one thing, having dependents is quite another. And this, more than anything else, is what separates the superstar authors from the midlisters. Their audience is always itching for the next fix.

Come to think of it, I’m making writing sound like something abominable.


I suppose I should tone down my rhetoric, though the comparison is there.

That said, hope and despair are certainly responsible for reader loyalty, and are particularly important in the development of a book series, as this double-feeling will inspire the reader to catch ’em all, as it were.


Nintendo did take my P. It took all of my P.

So you don’t want to miss out on using them.

Putting Them into Practice

Since hope and despair are essential to keep your reader engaged from start to finish, you will need to employ them from the very beginning of your book.

To put it simply, the way you employ hope and despair is your plot. They make the story move. If they are absent, then the story stagnates. And that will cause the reader to put the book down. You want that to never happen.

So, on every page of the book, you need to be bringing the hope or the despair, and you do this in one of two ways.

Method 1: The Character(s) are Waiting for a Possible Reward

The phrase that immediately comes to mind is “Will they, or won’t they?”


I mean, seriously.

It’s not the only kind of hope, certainly, but it makes for a good illustration of the concept. You have two characters who may end up together, but for whom there are no guarantees.

Oh, how this torments the reader. Surely, no despair was ever more painful than even the smallest of hopes. It nags and gnaws at the reader, even as the late hours pass into the early hours. You have work tomorrow? Sorry, you can’t go to bed without knowing whether your suspicions turn out to be true.

This impulse is so powerful, in fact, that when the tension is released, when the lovers finally confess their feelings to each other, it can kill the entire story and send the reader packing.

So be careful with hope. Never let one go out without starting up a new one. And if romantic aspirations have been exhausted, you can achieve the same addictive effect with any of the following:

  • A mystery that may or may not be solved.
  • A lie that the reader is aware of, but the characters may or may not ever wise up to.
  • A vendetta or grudge that may or may not ever be served.

You don’t need to shine a light on the subject all at once. You need only offer a glimmer, and the more subtle the glow, the better.

Method 2: The Character(s) have Exhausted Their Options

This is also sometimes known as “The All-is-lost Moment”.


Strangely enough, this is not yet a meme.

This is the point where you allow the reader to doubt that there will be any kind of resolution. Because you need to give the reader one moment, in each storyline, where he is right to believe that he has been wasting his time and that he will hate how this chapter or this book or this series will end.

And, while it is dangerous to linger too long in the valley of the shadow of death, you do have to linger for a time there. If you move too quickly through the All-is-lost Moment (as well as the smaller Much-is-lost moments), it loses its power. You can’t just show the outside of the character(s) at this point; you have to give the reader a glimpse of the hero’s broken heart. Otherwise, you’ve failed.

And this is also the moment where you have to pull out all the stops, and cast away the mask of subtlety.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

If possible, you should get a full choir and orchestra to SCREAM at the audience when it happens.

And then you have sweet despair. The reader will tear the current page out of the book, because it blocks his view of the next one. He has to find again the hope he has lost, or, at least, he needs to know just how bad the damage is going to be.

Having that kind of power over a person can be an addiction all its own.

A Vicious Cycle

But you can’t hold the high notes or the low notes forever. People have come to the concert hall expecting a symphony, not a ditty. As such, you can’t rely exclusively on just hope or just despair. You need to move between them, like a sine wave.

Or, if you prefer, a rotisserie chicken.


You want the chicken to be evenly cooked, don’t you? You want both the light meat and dark meat to be hot and moist, so you have to keep the chicken in rotation, basting as appropriate.

When hope is getting too close to fulfilment, turn the bird over and try some despair. When an excess of despair threatens to flatten the story, crank that handle and rotate back to hope.

Mmm, that’s juicy.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

You may have noticed, in my analysis of each these feelings, that they share at least one great commonality: the absence of certainty. And that really is the key to all this.

When the character is pursuing a hope, he is largely not in control. He has no guarantee of receiving the hoped-for blessing. He may get the girl, or he may not, but he hopes for it.

Likewise, the All-is-lost moment is steeped in uncertainty. We believe the hero will get out of the jamb he is in, but are tempted into losing our certainty that this story will have a happy ending. This is doubly so if we know that the hero is in danger, but we cannot be sure what form that danger will take. Being blind to the danger, you will remember, is a hallmark of fear, but under the right conditions it can be woven together with despair, to powerful effect.

But, in the end, if you’re not sure how to instill hope or despair in your story, remember that all you have to do is remove the certainty from the scene. Once you do that, either hope or despair will occur as a natural consequence.

The Achilles’ Heel

I’ve already spent much of this post detailing the dangers and pitfalls surrounding these two feelings. However, to reiterate:

  • Don’t try to use only one or the other. A saccharine-sweet tale is just as despicable as a doom-and-gloom story.
  • Don’t linger too long in one or the other. The chicken is cooking, and your audience wants both light and dark meat to be evenly roasted.
  • Don’t destroy the hope by granting your characters’ wishes too soon. There’s a reason that the boy usually only ends up with the girl at the very end.
  • Remember to be subtle with hope and less than subtle with despair.

It’s a fine line to walk, but you must keep it balanced. Nobody likes the village of the happy people or the neverending litany of tragedies.

Unless you know how to make it funny.


Because humor covereth a multitude of sins.


This subject is a two-edged sword, and by now you must know why I had to tackle both edges together.

Furthermore, I cannot overstate the importance and power of these feelings in writing. I might be making a mistake by sharing such knowledge so openly. If you can listen to this advice and put it into action, you are automatically a contender in the writing world—already better than 99% of the competition.

So make of it what you will. This may be the most important chapter of this miniseries. I hope you plan on reading them all, because by now you are definitely hooked.

Get ready for the withdrawal pains.



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