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May 24, 2022

What Is Catharsis in Film?

If you want to write a great screenplay, you need to know how to create an emotional connection with your audience. Catharsis is one way you can achieve this. But what is catharsis? And how do we use catharsis in screenwriting? 

Let's get started. 

What is catharsis? 

Catharsis is the release of emotions, usually repressed and powerful, and is a Greek term meaning to cleanse or purify. Aristotle first coined this word in his Poetics

The term is used in medicine to denote the expulsion of liquid from the body during menstruation, and in psychology, it's linked to Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer. They used the term to express the releasing of buried trauma in the unconscious mind. Freud employed free association as a cathartic technique to release this trauma, whereas Breuer used hypnosis; however, both believed this was important for mental health. 

A picture of the philosopher Aristotle.
The Greek Philosopher Aristotle first defined catharsis in his manuscript Poetics.

The Aristotelian literary term was built upon by Plato to denote the soul's progression and its ascent to knowledge. 

In drama, the term refers to the suggestion that there should be emotional closure by the end of the narrative. 

What are the different ways you can create catharsis? 

Catharsis is not about the characters; it's about the emotional response they create in the audience. A great drama or, in general, a piece of art should invoke buried emotions. The audience's emotional connection to the characters is at the heart of catharsis.

It isn't easy to be able to put our finger on what exactly creates this emotional connection in literature. Your character arcs need to be strong throughout, as do your story arcs, as we feel for the characters when they embark on their journey and come up against personal strife.

However, some effects are more likely to generate catharsis in an audience. 

Montages 

Montages are the most obvious technique to create an emotional pull in your characters. 

The first episode of The Crown features a montage that envokes catharsis for Princess Elizabeth and Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Using super eight camera footage, we dive into Elizabeth and Philip's idyllic life in Malta. We see the birth of Prince Charles and Princess Anne and the fun the two of them have in their married life. Phillip is busy with the navy, while Princess Elizabeth leads a happy everyday life at home. 

Seeing their idyllic young lives makes it even more heart-wrenching when Elizabeth and Phillip are called back to London as her father, King George VI, undergoes emergency surgery. Their happy life has been abruptly brought to a halt, and we know that Elizabeth will shortly be called to the throne when King George dies. 

Another example of a montage is the one at the start of the film UP, where we watch the entire relationship between Carl and his wife Ellie play out in just 4 minutes.

As the film moves on and we see Carl lose his wife, we feel more emotionally connected with him; we understand his loss. This is far more powerful than if we were presented with the idea that he is a widow from the film's start. 

Visual emotions 

Films help us visualize emotions in a way that novels can't. As a result, we often see feelings expressed on screen more than in real life.

A great example of this is in Good Will Hunting when Will has a great moment where he can finally reveal his feelings to his friend and psychologist and breaks down in tears. The emotions of the character help unleash the emotions of the audience. The acting of Will Damon and the late Robin Williams make this scene unforgettable. 

Another great example is in Spiderman 2 when Peter sees Mary Jane after his birthday party in the back garden. As he takes out the trash, we feel the emotional connection, but Peter holds back. We know he can't reveal his feeling to Mary Jane because of his true identity as Spiderman. 

We understand his need to protect her, but we can empathize with the inability to tell her how he truly feels and the agony that Mary Jane is now dating someone else. This makes it even more compelling when Peter can finally express himself later in the film. 

Why use catharsis in film? 

Catharsis in film is necessary because it creates an emotional connection with the characters. Without this, we wouldn't care what happens to them as an audience, and it's harder to keep audiences hooked. 

Catharsis is the endpoint of a character's journey. It's the unraveling of the internal conflict built from the film's start. This plays out based on many factors, including the archetype your character fits into and your narrative's structure

Catharsis is particularly great if you are writing a series or if you want to write a prequel or sequel to your film. You can build on the emotional revelations released during the cathartic moments of your first film in your second film, continuing the emotional, internal narrative, and external plot points.

Catharsis in screenwriting is important 

What is catharsis? It's the emotional heart of your story. Without catharsis in screenwriting, you risk sidestepping the emotional connection between the characters and the audience, which is vital in making your film appeal to a broader audience. 

Write your character profiles and story arcs first. Then consider the critical emotional turning points and how you can visualize these on-screen. 

Don't just plan these for your protagonist. Consider your foils and your antagonists, too, especially if you plan to show your villain seeing the error of their ways after being defeated. If you’d like more tips on how to write cathartic character arcs, check out this blog.

Get writing your best script today!

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What Is Catharsis in Film?
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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