from the Best of Banes Collection
A writing instructor once gave me brief advice on how to write a story, structurally speaking. It was 1/4 Act One setup, 1/2 Act Two complications and rising stakes (I think), and about 1/4 An Act Three “cathartic ending”.
I knew “catharsis” was a powerful word, and my assumption was that “cathartic” meant “emotional”. I looked it up and it meant “emotional release”. Many years later, now, I encountered the word again and with a much-improved Internet, can now see that it is “an emotional release that leads to purification or spiritual renewal”.
Say what, now?
The catharsis is the emotional climax of a story, where everything the Protagonist has fought and suffered through, all the lessons they've (hopefully) learned are put to the final test.
They face a final challenge and become a new person, the person they needed to become. That “rush” we feel at the end of a great book, movie, or comic is our vicarious catharsis (if I may use two five dollar words in a row), and might be the whole point of telling stories.
If stories are guides, in a sense, that show us how to live (or how NOT to live), then the character's Arc is a metaphor for a path we might follow in our own lives. If we have the wherewithal to figure out where we're going. And the guts to get there.
When you feel that emotional ‘rush’ toward the end of a good story, that's the cathartic moment. That's the best moment in a story.
And maybe that rush represents what we want to ‘get to’ in life. The satisfaction of victory, in becoming the people we want to become. Reaching new milestones in our jobs or careers. Being in relationships or making them work better. Spiritual growth. Or maturity of character. Or ‘really living’. Happiness. Success. Freedom. Being “better”. Authenticity. Being kinder, more honest, more courageous. Whatever we decide to go after.
In the Quackcasts and elsewhere, I often reference the moment in the movie ‘Insomnia’ where Al Pacino's character picks up his police badge and goes after the killer. He decides who he is. I watch that scene over and over whenever I play that movie.
It's the same moment in the first Avengers movie, when Bruce Banner becomes the best version of the Hulk. Or when Sydney faces her tormentor with new strength and determination at the end of SCREAM. Etc, etc, etc.
(More literary or comic examples elude me at the moment, sorry).
We read, watch, and write stories to help us create our own real-life stories.
Or at least that's what I was thinking about today…
May we all reach our cathartic moments!
look for the Best of Banes coming to a store near you!
CatharsisBanes at 12:00AM, Nov. 1, 2018
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Banes at 6:11AM, Nov. 2, 2018
AmeliaP - good points, and thanks!
AmeliaP at 5:47PM, Nov. 1, 2018
Great article :) The three arc structure works very well in movies, but the formula is different from other media like a TV show, according to Richard Walter or Gary W. Goldstein. Those writers/consultants said some shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad changed the formula, creating an unprecedented structure. For me, it seems the same structure, but stretched in a TV show. Looking the end of Tony Soprano or Walter White, I said it still is cathartic, right? (And it's one of the main reasons I'm not a big fan of superhero movies. The cathartic moment seems so... forced, inexpressive or mechanic in this kind of film).
Banes at 2:25PM, Nov. 1, 2018
Paul - well said! It's hard to pull of that catharsis!
PaulEberhardt at 10:17AM, Nov. 1, 2018
I knew the word mainly in connection with tragedies (you purge your own troubles by watching a stage character going through some really tough sh*t, usually perishing in the process, and ideally taking your emotional ballast down with him/her). But no matter how you try to achieve it, the emotional release hardly ever works if it arrives in a too formulaic, predictable way. That's why catharsis in a story is ALWAYS a sign of truly excellent writing. Many writers try and fail, especially script writers for TV, as all they seem to manage is a pre-scheduled "meet the end boss" moment you could set your watch by. But no matter how narrowly the world escapes destruction, how many cars and buildings they blow up, or how large the cup size of the recently saved damsel in distress may be - if it doesn't involve you enough for you to stop thinking things like "Oh, there's the cathartic moment already? Got to see what else is on, then!" it's not cathartic ending, just a disastrous one.
Banes at 8:14AM, Nov. 1, 2018
JaymonRising at 7:28AM, Nov. 1, 2018
I know MY cathartic moment in Whiplash: skipping the rest of Damien Chazelle's "good" movies, even Lala Land. (at least Black Swan had the decency to put the person out of their overachieving misery)