the quality that makes your stories (and you) go viral



What makes a story go viral? In his blog post The Elements of Awe (check it out) Donald Maass draws your attention to a piece in the New York Times that describes how sociologists “have been studying data provided by The New York Times showing which of the paper’s articles are the most often e-mailed”.

Says Maass:

Their conclusions have some relevance for fiction writers because they reveal what it is about stories that probably generate word of mouth.

In his post (which promises to be the first of a very interesting series), Maass looks at one quality in particular — emotion — and how writers can (and can’t) invoke that in their fiction.

I think this study has relevance for writers in another way as well: building ‘author platform’ (particularly when it comes to blogging).

The articles that seem to generate the most word-of-mouth are, quite literally, awesome.

As in: they inspire a sense of awe.

The sociologists define this quality as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” In order for a story to achieve this status of awesomeness, its scale must be “large” and it must “force the reader to view the world in a different way.”

“It involves the opening and broadening of the mind,” write Dr. Berger and Dr. Milkman, who is a behavioral economist at Wharton.

“Seeing the Grand Canyon, standing in front of a beautiful piece of art, hearing a grand theory or listening to a beautiful symphony may all inspire awe. So may the revelation of something profound and important in something you may have once seen as ordinary or routine, or seeing a causal connection between important things and seemingly remote causes.”

What motivates people to share these stories?

“Emotion in general leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion,” he said. “If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together.”

So people want to be moved and inspired. They want to feel part of something bigger than themselves. They want to connect. If you can find ways of engaging those desires, you can capture — and maintain — their attention.

What’s more, you can generate some private awesomeness for yourself…if you can reframe the idea of ‘author platform’ to mean more than the selling of books.

The challenge is to make your author platform part of a much larger vision that includes — but is possibly not limited to — your creative work. To find within your platform a cause and a message.

Writer, traveler and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau doesn’t blog just to promote himself or his upcoming book. He’s waging a war against conformity. His landing page doesn’t hit you with a press release or a sales pitch, but an invitation to join what he calls “a small army of remarkable people”: If you’re dissatisfied with conventional beliefs and want to do something remarkable with your life, I’d love to welcome you to the revolution. This is more than clever copy; it’s a sincere and passionate declaration, and everything he does — his “brand” — reflects his desire to teach others how to lead an unconventional life through instruction and example.

Chris became a rockstar blogger with a book deal in a relatively short time.

But even when he started out, he was never just a dude with a blog. He was a dude with something to say and a message to spread (and an excellent work ethic). People respond to him — and will buy his book as soon as it comes out, just as I plan to — because he stimulates and inspires.

He connects you to something bigger than yourself. He provides not just value, but vision.

Granted, Chris doesn’t write fiction. But if you take a close look at your fiction — and yourself — and think about the kinds of books you plan to write in the future, you will identify recurring themes and obsessions. Every writer has them.

From those, you can draw the answers to some different kinds of questions. In your wildest dreams, what kind of impact do you want your fiction to have on the world? Who do you most want to reach? Who are you writing for, and why?

Take these answers and see if you can organize them into your own personal mission statement. Make sure it resonates with who you are at the core (you’ll know this if it excites and galvanizes you). Suddenly writing is no longer about — or just about — getting published. It’s about having an impact, enriching lives, making change. Your author platform is no longer about — or just about — selling books. It’s about creating your own “small army of remarkable people” to help you share and spread your message (as well as buy your books).

Yes, it sounds ambitious, perhaps grandiose. But socialmedia works when you have something to say, a message that goes beyond ‘buy my books’. Small dreams, small words, small messages won’t get you anywhere. Think awesomeness. Think of ways to make people part of that. In return, they could make you a rockstar.

If you could create a social movement with your writing, what kind of social movement would it be?



Mar 5, 2010

20 comments · Add Yours

Yes. I needed to hear this, but it’s so intimidating. Who am I to have something awe inspiring to say?

It seems both intimidating and pompous to consider. But I know you’re right. The things I have enthusiastically shared—sometimes couldn’t wait until I was finished reading before shooting off a dozen emails—were things that made me see the common as extraordinary.

So I’ve been on the receiving end. How do I turn that around and put myself on the supply side? More difficult, for me at least.

Thanks for your generosity Justine. With this post and so many others like it on your site you have given real value. It is appreciated.


In my wildest dreams, I want to be the kind of writer and have the kind of impact that Madeline L’Engle had.

I want to write books that kids and teens read over and over again–even into adulthood– because the stories and the characters resonate with something deep inside them. Stories that push them to be better than they think they can be.

Stories that tell them it’s more than okay to dream, it’s vital.

Stories that don’t shy away from hard truths–that life involves difficult choices–but that also remind them they have the power to make those choices.

Thank you for reminding me what it’s all really about.


Thanks for the post, especially the link to Maass’s blog.


Thank you for the props! I appreciate that.

All the best with your own world domination plans.



great post thanks for sharing it!


Thanks for this great post. I’ve always told people this point in the simplest terms I could think of, which was “If you move people on the inside, people will move your content on the outside.”

I am not a fiction writer. I am a copywriter, a journalist, a flack, an editor, and a snarky blogger and Tweeter. I have my passions, yes, but for me it’s less about creating a social movement and more about getting the message across the best way possible, whichever hat I’m wearing at the time.

Thanks for the inspiration. :)


Interesting and it relates to some reading I’ve been doing.

I think to be successful at anything the primary goal isn’t to inspire others but to focus on a topic/goal you are passionate about. You lose focus if you think to much about the affect your work will have on the public and your peers.

I can’t quote it at the moment bc I’m to lazy to look it up but there was a study done where a group of students were given a poetry competition assignment. One group was told about the rewards and status that comes from winning, the other was told to focus joy of writing and what moved them, and the other group was told nothing. The 2nd groups poem’s stole the show.

Point was that inspiring others comes if you work at what you care about because that’s where you excel.


Note I’m not a writer you can probably tell by the grammar :)


“If you move people on the inside, people will move your content on the outside.” That’s awesome. And so true.


You’re absolutely right, and the key to mastering anything is to fall in love with the process, instead of fixating on the desired outcome. Being passionate about the process will motivate you to stay in it longer and push yourself further and take risks, experiment, innovate — in short, to put all of yourself into the work.

So that’s the thing — if you can find a way to turn ‘building an author platform’ into a *process* that excites you and has meaning for you. Which means it has to be about more than just selling books. It has to tap into your core passions in some way, yet still relate to your writing. The challenge is to figure out how to do that — how to transform it from a self-promotional thing into something that genuinely moves you (and thus others).


Not at all! — it was a well-written post. And the anecdote about the poetry competition is really interesting. You’re tapping into the principles behind concepts such as ‘flow’ and ‘deliberate practice’ — when we lose ourselves in the work, time disappears, and we perform in a heightened state. It’s awesome. :)


Thank you for such an awesome comment.

Now go forth and empower young people!


If you could create a social movement with your writing, what kind of social movement would it be?

A merry disorganized rabble, neither owning nor desiring any lord or master; full of argument and monkey curiosity, in love with the world and the good things thereof; and moving principally in every direction at once, except the narrow mean ones. And each admitting small duty to their neighbours except plain good-fellowship and the dictates of their private code, but filling those bowls to overflowing, and quick to jog a country mile past duty for the whim and the worth of it. And when a last stand surprises them at the end of any path, yet still there is a panache, and they need not fall alone.

That is what it would be like. I don’t know how far I’m fit to live like that, but I do know that at the top of my game I can sing a fair song of it. Perhaps that is part enough to play: it would be nice to think so. Yes, I suppose its call does reach close to the heart of my tellings, at that.

You did ask, and it was a very good question!


Again, a compelling post. I agree with everything Donald Maass has written here. And I also agree with your added comments about falling in love with the process and not just the outcome. (One can apply that to just about everything.)

Regarding Donald’s post: I think that any offering which induces an uplifting emotional response, or allows the recipient to gain an expanded insight, would be called “Art.” And the more “universal” the emotional connections, the greater influence the artistic expression has on society, assuming many people have access to the experience.

For me, the most important part of my “movement,” if I had one, would be to make honestly a corner stone of every decision we all make. I do realize though, that many of us, if not all, rationalize personal honesty to fit the desired outcomes. Or worse, our true motivations and fears are hidden by our egos. I suspect that if we could break through our mental barriers and release truth within ourselves, we might connect to others in deeper and more meaningful ways — through our writing and most importantly, through our personal actions.

Yet…it takes two to tango. Some people don’t want “deep and meaningful.” And others have been socially programmed to lie. (All for the “right” reasons, of course.) And others are simply lost.

The biggest surprise I encountered, and learned, when people read my books was:


One CAN however, affect emotions. So on on this level, something intangible IS being communicated. Hopefully, it’s positive.


I think fiction is all about communicating the kinds of truths that really can’t be delivered any other way except through emotional experience.

When I was in my early twenties I was really struck by CAT’S EYE by Margaret Atwood. I loved the book and was impressed by it because it was so deep and rich you could come at it in so many different ways — I wrote several essays on it in different classes in university. Then one summer when I was back in my hometown managing the drive-thru at Taco Bell I kept noticing how many other people were reading it and they were just enjoying it as a straight story, the way I did when I first read it at 15. I decided that that was the kind of book I wanted to write: depth and meaning there if you wanted it or were looking for it, and a good, compelling story either way.


start that movement today! give it a name and a blog/website! the world needs you! :)


Yet another great post Justine.
Reminds of the saying, “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

I’d dare say that the people, books, movies, songs, or any contribution for that matter, that remain with us are those that have moved us and therefore changed us.



The three questions:

I want my writing to open people’s hearts to the nature of power, so that more of us will reject that corrupting lust, and begin an honest search for truth and beauty.

I want to reach people who love a good story, so that my sci-fi novel reaches the general population of book lovers, and that my screenplays get turned into films that people talk about decades later.

I write to follow the first two commandments – Love your God, and, Love your neighbor. All success falls under one or the other. Justine, we are badasses and we love it, so we embrace the first because that’s what God made us. You blog and are published so you are successful under the second. I’m getting there. When my work is ready someone will pick it up, and then I’ll join you.

“At least I’m enjoying the ride!” – J.G.



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