Catharsis. It’s a weird word; fun to say, difficult to define, and oftentimes it is hard to execute in a way that isn’t too “wrapped up” at the end. I learned this word first at college in a freshman level psychology class, and then it popped up again in my Advanced Writing of Fiction course. (It’s also mentioned in Inception, in case anyone wanted to know.) Dictionary.com defines it as “the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.” Well, that’sa whole lot clearer. From what I could gather, catharsis is a sort of emotional release upon the close of a certain situation. In writing, this means that at the end of your story, the reader is left feeling satisfied, even if the protagonist’s life is still a royal mess. It’s the need for catharsis that makes reading good novels so addicting; we crave the release of our tensions and hopes for a character, and even if their life isn’t completely mended by the end of the book, we’re happy if they end up winning in some way, shape or form.

The sequel? Pepper. Movie cover image from imdb.com

Let me see if I can clear this up a bit. I’ll use an illustration that I came across lately: the new action movie Salt. Now, running the risk of evoking the wrath of those who loved this movie, the movie ending really disappointed me. The movie itself was okay, by my standards. But that’s about it. There really was no resolution whatsoever, and while I’m not saying that it should have been fixed in one night, it just felt like it was… missing something. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t complete.

In the same way, ending a story can present the same sort of challenges. I tend to gravitate towards pulling all the strings together into a pretty bow at the end of a story. Not only is this boring, but it’s unrealistic. The catharsis, or release of tension, might be high, but it’s too neat. On the other hand, if story isn’t given sufficient closure, the cathartic release won’t be strong enough to satisfy your readers. One of the best ways I’ve found to help find this division is to have other people read my work. (Gasp! I know, one of the deepest fears of most writers.) Having someone tell me that the ending is too contrived is a good indication that I have HES: happy ending syndrome. It’s where you ooze melodrama and glitter until your reader is drowning in it. Pretty disgusting. I’ve especially found Christian writers to be chronic sufferers of HES. No wonder none of them are really known outside of the Christian literature bubble. They all live happily ever after, except for those who received just retribution.

But readers will appreciate an ending that achieves some of their hopes. Not all, just some. For the sake of movie lovers like me, I’ll give an example of what I think is a good, cathartic ending. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Sorry to all you Pirates lovers, but I would have been very happy had they left the whole series at film 1. Seriously. You know Jack’s going to be hunted by the law, Will and Elizabeth still have to overcome social qualms and her wishy-washy father, but yet you’re happy. You didn’t necessarily want more in that movie. It was beautiful. It had an ending (unlike the next film; gag).

When working on your ending, make sure that you don’t wrap up too much of the story in a cute package. Let the reader think on the character’s years to come. That’s how you make a story stick in the mind of your reader. Give them a glimpse of hope, and let them dwell on how the rest could be resolved. It’s catchy, and if you don’t write a sequel, each reader will (hopefully), in his or her mind.

Do you have any other suggestions when it comes to bringing a good ending into being? How do you know you have reached the end of your tale? Do you tend to leave your story unfinished, or do you have chronic HES? Has anyone else come across an instance of powerful catharsis, in movies, books, or everyday life?

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