Updated: Sep 26, 2020
There are two reasons a reader might cringe while reading a story:
Because the writing itself is cringe-worthy
Because the character’s actions are cringe-worthy
Believe it or not, the difference between these two reasons is HUGE, and can make or break a story.
When readers cringe because the writing is cliche, poorly written, forced, etc., their attention is drawn to the writing itself, and their focus on the story — the illusion the story was meant to create — is broken.
But when readers cringe because the characters embarrass themselves, make a terrible decision, or let their mouths run away with them, then suddenly the readers are pulled even more deeply into the story.
When I wrote I’m Not a Stalker, I found that readers responded in a huge way whenever my characters humiliated themselves, made disastrous choices, or did something they were sure to regret. I received comments sharing their own embarrassing stories, comments of second-hand embarrassment, comments of sympathy for the characters, and — of course — just plain reactions of entertainment and humor at the characters’ expense. Why? When characters do something cringe-worthy, the readers feel something, and they feel it strongly. And when readers feel strong emotions, they are more likely to continue reading.
Cringe-worthy character actions make readers uncomfortable, but oddly enough, that seems to connect them to the story even more deeply. The readers are entertained, they are curious what will happen next, and they may even feel empathy for the character they didn’t previously.
As writers, we spend a lot of time and effort trying to avoid cringe-worthy writing. But I just want to say that sometimes, cringe-worthy writing CAN be a good thing… but only if the cringe is caused by the content and not by the writing itself.