Last time I talked about catharsis I focused on how important it is in a story, whether by its presence or absense. This time I want to talk about how to incorporate it in a story.
To give a brief recap, catharsis is the feeling of release of powerful emotions (such as anger, grief, high stress, etc) that have accumulated as we follow a character (or characters) through their struggles to achieve a goal. The more we are invested in these characters and care about whether they achieve their goal, the higher the emotions we feel about it, and the more powerful the catharsis will be when it comes.
That's why usually the catharsis is expected to come just after the climax of the story, where the “payoff” happens. Catharsis isn't the peak of the story, it is its closure. If there is closure. So let's first take a look at what closure is.
I was thinking a lot about it when watching court footage of murder trials. Closure is something that comes up a lot during victim statements and in testimonies of professionals that conducted the investigation of the case. Finding the body, giving an accurate account of what happened, and delivering just punishment for something so terrible as murder is closure that potentially allows victims to heal, if not move on.
It's because closure offers catharsis- a chance to let go of heartbreaking, enraging, highly stressful emotions because the issue has been resolved. How does one resolve an issue in a story?
In order for closure (and thus catharsis) to occur, story resolution must contain the following in some shape and form:
* give answers to the most vital question the plot poses
* the answers must be satisfactory, even if unpleasant
* proper retribution (or reward) has to be given, even if marginal or minimal.
What is the most vital question in the plot? Simply enough, it's your A plot. The one thing your entire story revolves around is your “most vital question”. Will the characters save the world? Will the characters discover the killer? Will the characters find out their family's secret? etc etc
What answer is satisfactory? It doesn't need to be a happy answer. Maybe they don't save the world, they don't discover the killer, or they don't find the family's secret. But it needs to give the characters something else instead.
For example, in Don't Look Up, the scientists don't save the world. In fact, the world gets destroyed. And yet, we are ok with it for two reasons: the scientists come to terms with having lost the bid to save the world and in the process become calm, even content. The whole point of the story isn't the end of the world itself, but whether the scientists (and the world) will redefine who they are in a more constructive way.
And what about proper retribution? The villains of the story (antagonists if you like), escape the end of the world and never change their ways. They end up in another world where retribution happens: they are immediately killed by the new world they try to inhabit. They get their comeuppance if you like, purely as a directly repercussion of who they are.
And that gives catharsis on two levels: the characters are content, and the story resolves in a way that we feel gives retribution regarding the antagonists.
On the other hand, in a story like The Green Mile, you don't get catharsis simply because the characters aren't content, there is no retribution given, and nothing is quite resolved. Everything remains unsolved not because the question of the story wasn't answered, but because the answer it gives doesn't have resolution or retribution. The actual killer of the two girls is never caught. The innocent man dies. Those who could free the innocent man are never punished for failing to do so. The world goes on. No catharsis.
Some might argue that there is a form of punishment given to everyone who failed the innocent man, but it's nothing definite and others can just as validly argue that there isn't any. So with a lack of a definite answer given to the story on all three elements, catharsis doesn't happen.
Sometimes like I said in the previous article, that is the way it should be for a story that seeks to make a point. But I would recommend to neglect including catharsis in a story unless you know exactly why you're omitting it.
How do you use catharsis in your stories?
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Nov. 18, 2023
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