Sunday, June 14, 2015

Achieving Catharsis in Our Stories

By Kasie Whitener
After seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron, my husband and I sat in a restaurant quietly staring into space.

The film emptied us completely of anything we might have had to say.

From the opening scene to the credit roll, Joss Whedon delivers the highest form of art cleverly disguised as a multi-million dollar blockbuster superhero film.

Action scenes? Check.

Compelling characters? Check.

Computer-generated special effects? Check.

Loud. So loud.

Big. So big.


Why is a writer writing about a film on a writers’ blog? Because Age of Ultron reminded me what great art is really about.


Aristotle says catharsis in drama purges us of our own fear and pity. Cathartic art relieves us of what we were burdened by.

One of my favorite novels, Monsters of Templeton, provides catharsis through what David Coe calls the “Aha! Of course!” moment. When we finally learn who the narrator’s birth father is, we realize we knew it all along. When we finally learn the truth behind the mysterious lake monster that preoccupied the town, we realize the metaphor has been teasing us through the entire book
I believe really good storytellers deliver catharsis on accident. They know the character so well, the events unfold so naturally, and the story moves so beautifully that suddenly we feel satisfied and we’re not sure why. It feels like magic. Unintentional enlightenment.

Books that fail to deliver catharsis typically suffer from the stakes being too low. What really happens if this character doesn’t get what she wants?

The question, “What’s at stake?” is how we recognize the character’s commitment to the story. And when a character is totally committed, as in the stakes are as high as they can possibly be, then catharsis is imminent. Either the character will fail in a spectacular way and we’ll feel the pity Aristotle predicts. Or the character will succeed and we’ll rejoice in the triumph. But we don’t get to the edge of our seats unintentionally. A writer brought us there. There is intention in setting the stakes. Catharsis is simply the payoff. For the writer and the reader.

Can we plan such it? We don’t really know how people will connect with or respond to our character’s journey. We don’t know if people will give a fig that the character has achieved his goal.
We must make them care. The character must experience some kind of transformation as a result of the story. The end point for our characters provides the catharsis for our readers.

If we create the circumstances for high stakes and deep personal change, we’re likely to deliver catharsis. The Age of Ultron delivers catharsis because it keeps us looking, learning, and feeling for the full length of the film. It wears us out. Afterwards we are spent.

Good art provides catharsis. All storytellers have an opportunity to take viewers and readers on an emotional journey and leave them stunned into silence at the end.


Anonymous said...

After reading this, I'm going to see Avengers.

WritePersona said...

Whew! I'm emotionally spent after reading your blog. You've set a high bar for our writing, not that I'm complaining.

Leigh Stevenson said...

A good reminder about the power of our storytelling.