You know when you're watching a TV show or a movie, and you feel like you've just changed as a person or even gone through all the emotions at the hand? Afterward, you need a bit of a rest.

And we call that experience 'catharsis'. It can happen to you watching it, and it can happen to the characters on screen, as they take a moment after an emotional beat in the story.

Catharsis is a powerful tool that elevates screenwriting from mere entertainment to an emotionally transformative experience. When done well, it gives stories the potential to heal, inspire, linger with audiences, and resonate with the shared human condition.

But how can you use it in your own writing?

Let's dive in.

What is Catharsis?

Catharsis is a Greek word meaning "purification" or "cleansing" – is a powerful emotional experience felt by audiences when witnessing a story unfold. The concept dates back to ancient Greece and Aristotle's analysis of tragedy in his work Poetics.

While the original definition focused on purging pity and fear, modern interpretations apply catharsis to broader emotional responses.

In films and television, it's a profound release of pent-up feelings that can bring audiences a sense of transformation and even inner healing.

How Does Catharsis Work?

How Does Catharsis Work?

Breaking Bad


Compelling stories create a deep connection between the audience and the characters onscreen.

As we witness fictional struggles, achievements, losses, or moments of profound change, we begin to see reflections of our own lives within these narratives.

This powerful mirroring offers not just an escape but the possibility of facing our own emotions and experiences within a safe, fictional context.

Cathartic moments in screenwriting often occur at the resolution of a character's journey. This can manifest in several ways:

  • Triumph over adversity: When a protagonist overcomes insurmountable obstacles, the audience experiences a sense of vicarious victory along with the character. This surge of positive emotions can be incredibly cathartic.
  • Confronting a profound fear: Many characters embark on journeys that force them to confront their deepest fears. When that confrontation ultimately leads to personal growth or the resolving of inner conflicts, viewers can process their anxieties alongside the fictional journey.
  • Sacrifice and the greater good: A character sacrificing themselves or something deeply treasured for a greater cause can elicit intense emotional release. The audience experiences a sense of awe and a powerful reaffirmation of the ideals the character embodies.
  • Acknowledging and releasing grief: The processing of loss and grief is an essential part of the human experience. When stories allow characters to authentically grapple with grief, the audience is provided a space to acknowledge and connect with their own sadness.

Examples of Catharsis in Film and TV

Examples of Catharsis in Film and TV

Dead Poets Society


Catharsis happens all the time in movies and TV shows. I wanted to pick some epic moments that showed why we needed to slow down for a beat, but also ensured those slow beats were never boring.

Check them out.

  • The Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne's triumphant escape from prison and his reunion with his friend Red on the shores of Zihuatanejo provide an immensely cathartic moment of hope after witnessing years of wrongful imprisonment.
  • Good Will Hunting: When Will finally allows himself to be vulnerable and confronts the painful experiences of his past, we as the audience share in the release of his emotional burdens, leading to a sense of hope for his healing.
  • Dead Poets Society: While the film concludes tragically, the scene where the students stand upon their desks in defiance remains an iconic moment of cathartic rebellion and a tribute to their beloved teacher.
  • Breaking Bad: Walter White's final moments, although morally complex, provide a sense of resolution and a release of the destructive path he had forged, allowing for a complicated but cathartic understanding of a deeply flawed character.
  • Fleabag: The raw and honest portrayal of Fleabag's grief-stricken journey resonates deeply with viewers. As she gradually begins to heal, process trauma, and forge healthier relationships, we're granted a space to confront our own emotional complexities.

The Importance of Catharsis in Screenwriting

The Importance of Catharsis in Screenwriting

Good Will Hunting


Catharsis goes far beyond simply providing a strong emotional reaction in a viewer. It's a cornerstone of powerful storytelling for several key reasons:

  • Builds Deep Emotional Connection: When an audience experiences catharsis along with the characters in a story, it establishes a profound emotional bond. Viewers become deeply invested in the characters' struggles and victories. This connection makes a story more resonant and keeps audiences hooked long after the final scene.
  • Offers Release and Reflection: Our daily lives can be laden with difficult emotions. Stories provide a fictional setting where we can confront these emotions indirectly. Cathartic moments give us permission to feel and release pent-up fears, sorrows, anxieties, or frustrations, allowing us to return to our own lives with a sense of lightness and even renewed perspective.
  • Facilitates Healing and Understanding: Sometimes, catharsis can illuminate aspects of our own lives we hadn't fully realized. Witnessing fictional characters grapple with issues similar to our own fosters greater self-understanding. This can be tremendously therapeutic. As characters overcome challenges or make peace with their struggles, it can inspire a similar sense of hope within ourselves.
  • Increases the Lasting Impact of Storytelling: Stories that provide moments of catharsis are far more memorable. The emotional resonance lingers, sparking discussion, reflection, and even changes in our own perspective. This impact is what separates a merely entertaining story from one that truly has the potential to change viewers' lives.
  • Appeals to Universal Human Experience: At its core, catharsis taps into the shared emotional landscape of the human experience. We all grapple with joy, sorrow, triumph, fear, and loss. Stories that harness catharsis transcend cultural and individual differences, resonating within a wider audience and ensuring the story's timeless appeal.

How to Achieve Catharsis in Screenwriting

How to Achieve Catharsis in Screenwriting'Fleabag'CREDIT: Prime Video

Remember, catharsis is an art, not a formula. True emotional resonance is born out of an authentic connection to your characters' journeys and your own understanding of the human experience.

While the importance of catharsis is clear, achieving this emotional effect is a careful dance.

Here are some key considerations:

  • Complex and Relatable Characters: Flawed, multi-dimensional characters allow the audience to better see themselves reflected on screen. This relatability amplifies the potential for catharsis.
  • High Stakes and Emotional Conflict: Meaningful catharsis must be earned. The story needs to present significant obstacles that push characters to their emotional limits. These profound experiences lay the foundation for impactful release.
  • Authenticity of Emotion: Avoid manufactured melodrama. Cathartic moments should arise organically from the character's journey and feel true to the struggles faced.
  • The Resolution: Catharsis is often tied to the resolution of a character's arc. However, it doesn't have to be a conventional "happy ending." True emotional release can be found in moments of self-acceptance, sacrifice, or even defiance in the face of tragedy.

The power of catharsis in screenwriting lies in its ability to mirror back the complexities of the human emotional landscape.

By giving us fictional spaces to grapple with our hopes, fears, triumphs, and losses, stories offer a profound opportunity for reflection, release, and even a sense of transformation.

Now, go get writing!