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