Catalyst and Catharsis

Hammonton Photography
Flickr Creative Commons: Hammonton Photography

A few twists of a wrench and the training wheels were gone, two metal and rubber relics on the cellar floor.  I scooped them up to carry them to recycling, but my six-year-old son stopped me.  “I want to keep them, Dad,” he said, “because I want to remember.”

Outside I prepared to run alongside his bike, holding the back of the seat while he got the hang of balancing while in motion and putting his feet down on stopping.  I didn’t get to.  As we hit the sidewalk outside our Brooklyn apartment building he hopped on his bike and took off.  In a few seconds he was at the end of the block, wheeling around and zooming back.

I pumped my arms in the air.  Woo-hoo!  The kid was a natural.  The training wheels were off as if they’d never been on.  I set up brightly colored rubber cones.  He wove through them and easily took the tight turn I’d made.  His face was radiant.  Big boy now!  I understood the meaning of the word pride as never before.  Upstairs he raced to report to Mom, who’d hidden ice cream bars in the freezer in anticipation of his triumph.

For most families that would be the end of the story, the highlight of an early summer day.  In ours a big accomplishment like that is followed by big acting out.  We braced for it.  Sure enough, by dinner time our kid was testing us in the extreme.  Mom shot me a look that said your turn (which it was) and got out of the way.  I ground through bath time with tight-lipped, barely in-check forbearance.


As I dried him off I somehow mentally stepped back.  “You know, kid,” I said, “you did something big today and got a lot of praise.  That can be scary, huh?”  He went limp in his towel.  “It can make you wonder what else could change.  Well, it doesn’t change anything.  We’re still a family and always will be.  The only difference is that now you can ride without training wheels.”

Tooth brushing, pajamas and bedtime books went smoothly after that.  Mom joined in for cuddle time and lights out.  “I’m sorry, Mom, that I was rude,” he said quietly, head on his pillow.  Mom kissed him on the forehead.  “I know, and I love you.”  Once he was asleep we rewarded ourselves with stiff drinks.  As adoptive parents we’ve been riding without training wheels for a while now.

So, in the story I just told you which was the catharsis and which was the catalyst?  Take a moment.  Got it?  You’re right: Riding without training wheels was the catalyst, the catharsis was the tantrum hour that followed.  What the catharsis released (again) was an adopted kid’s fear of being sent or taken away (again).  When the storm passed he was our sweet son again.

Catharsis is a storm followed by a release of something inside.  It is preceded by a catalyst, an event that causes the storm to break.  In your WIP, what is the catalyst event that causes the seething pot of your protagonist’s inner conflicts to boil over?  How does your protagonist act out?  What is released?  What change results?

Here are some prompts to help heighten these effects:

  • What frustrates your protagonist?  What inner need is constantly thwarted?  Find three new ways to increase the need and three new ways to hammer, defeat, deny and humiliate your protagonist for having that need at all.
  • Think about your protagonist and that inner need or conflict.  What defeat or denial would so shame or enrage your protagonist that he or she would pick up a gun?  Add that—though not necessarily the gun.
  • What’s the biggest way in which your protagonist can act out?  What can he or she symbolically wreck?  Whom can he or she attack?  What’s the worst—and most truthful—thing he or she can say?  Heedless of any cost, what can your protagonist destroy?  Destroy that.
  • Having spent himself or herself, what can your protagonist now do that he or she could not do before?  Show that.  Make it symbolic.

Many manuscripts lack a true catharsis.  What’s missing is both a cathartic event and the build up to it.  Is writing catharsis scary?  Authors tell me yes.  They fear that if they act out they will be sent away.  Actually, it’s the reverse.  Act out a catharsis on the page and your readers will keep your book open long after the lights should be turned off.

In real life catharsis happens all the time, in ways big and small.  We grow because of it.  How are you heightening the build-up, catalyst and catharsis in your WIP?  Share!



About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


  1. says

    It’s hard to write these things because ‘What if I get it wrong?’ goes through your head as much as the drive to write the scene.

    My main character wants something she isn’t allowed to want, and then, when her children are threatened, takes a stand – even though it means the very thing she craves is now forever impossible.

    One of the small underlying themes in Pride’s Children is that children matter – and as a parent you can appreciate the strength of that belief. Survival of the race is built into our genes – and its expression is precisely that: the very survival of OUR child, whatever the cost.

    Your prompts always make me think: I need to make the current scene even stronger – not wimp out. And still right up to the knife edge of implausible – and not one nanometer more.

    • says

      What if I get it wrong? Worse is for catharsis to be altogether missing.

      If you get it “wrong” (“ineffective” might be a better word) your critique group will tell you. Revise until it’s “right”. You’ll know when they comment, “Ooo! Loved that!”

  2. says

    Don, I’m not exactly clear on this, on the difference of how catalyst and catharsis works on the page in fiction. May I get specific? Let’s say a guy desires to kill his girlfriend, is the catalyst the driving events, the desires and needs, that lead up to his decision to kill her the catalyst? Or is the catalyst the act of killing her? And the catharsis is the emotional effect (results) of that act of killing: the guilt or the exuberance of the power he has performed by ending a life? Can you elaborate on this example? Thanks!

    • says


      Okay. First, a catharsis typically is a once-in-a-novel event. It is a grown-up tantrum resulting from long frustration. It releases suppressed emotions. It’s usually an explosive surprise. We don’t see it coming but once underway we understand why it happened.

      In the plot elements you cite, the man who wants to kill his girlfriend isn’t going to surprise us when he does. He’s planned it. We expect it. It might work as a catharsis, though, if he planned the opposite.

      For instance, suppose she’s belittled him for years but he loves her anyway. Suppose he’s bought a diamond ring. Suppose on the night he’s going to propose she confesses that she’s been cheating on him, gleefully. Suppose she says, “You’re going to get down on one knee tonight anyway, aren’t you? You’re pathetic.”

      If he then kills her that’s cathartic. Does that help?

  3. says

    I feel your pride Don. I remember watching my 6-yr-old boy teach my 4-yr-old girl to ride without training wheels. The next thing, hands-free riding … and now driving. You just helped me to understand both my kids and my characters a lot better. Thanks. It seems that self-sabotaging behavior is really about testing whether ‘I love you’ holds true.

    • says


      “It seems that self-sabotaging behavior is really about testing whether ‘I love you’ holds true.”

      In our case, definitely. Every day.

  4. says

    Don – This was such a perfect metaphor for me today. Your story made me look at catalysts and catharsis in a whole new light, and the new perspective provides a solution for me. In the manuscript I’m working on now (a “prequel” to my trilogy), I can see that the catalyst events and the catharses they lead to are all rooted in my protagonist’s submission to what he considers the inevitable, which is really only a “worst possible outcome.” But past experience, and his fear and dread, firmly entrench it as an inevitability in his mindset. And the exercises have me examining each of my WIPs. Lots to chew on here.

    Thank you, for the unique and valuable perspective, and for sharing.

  5. says

    What I’m working for is a steady build-up of frustration for my protagonist. What she wants has a physical component and also an emotional one. For her they go together and define her. When one is out of reach so is the other. As these things continue to slip through her fingers, she becomes more reckless, more willing to step on people or cut them lose until she’s ultimately on her own. My hope is that I’m laying out a path of mini catalyst/catharses that build to the big one.
    Your story moved me not only because of the beauty of what you do for your son, but because I saw myself in it. I still act out when I feel threatened. Plus I get to watch my 3 yr old granddaughter do it almost minute by minute. Hanging out with her is a lesson in drama. Thank you as always for the wisdom and the prompts.

  6. says

    Not trying to be mean, but I would say the catalyst was the adoption.

    Don, my best take is that the father and NOT the kid is the protagonist of this story (in this segment). First-person tends to direct the focus on the narrator as the character of interest. I really don’t get that the riding through the cones without training wheels was a catalyst for the little boy to act out. Saying that a big accomplishment would result in a tantrum… Well, okay, but since it is expected and anticipated…

    The really cool part of this is the catharsis discussion, of course. You nailed it and there’s lot to learn by considering your example and question.

    But here’s my clumsy weakness of thought: I don’t really think a catharsis has a single catalyst. Though one follows the other, I kind of, and very likely wrongly, think of a catalyst as spurring on something other than catharsis. Basically, what I read here is the father (protagonist) coming to terms with another, even poignant example of the kid accomplishing something “big” but still being a child. Dumbly thought out by me: if a catalyst directly results in a catharsis, it’s not really a catalyst… unless and until the catharsis (rather a moment of stasis, no?) results in an action change. Becoming calm after a tantrum… seems like more an emotional beat change for the scene. And up and down movement ~ with the little boy being adopted the catalyst for it all.

    Now perhaps I should change my thinking and accept the idea that a catharsis has a catalyst, a direct cause sort of thing. That would put me on board with your “analysis” of this terrific scene. But it’s difficult to do for me. I still see catalyst along the lines of inciting incident that may in the end result in a catharsis but not directly. It may be a matter of agreeing on terms, really. Anyway, the scene is outstanding and quite compelling, however one describes its function.

    Although in life, small catharses occur time and time again, I think in fiction it’s a bigger movement… And, again, perhaps I am just thinking of the word differently because I see it as the end culmination of a myriad of experiences building up as the story progresses, and not as something small that occurs over a

    • says


      Funny, my wife said the same thing: It’s the narrator’s story (mine) not his. Hmm. Dang those wives. Way too smart.

      Your chicken-or-egg discussion is good, and my example is truly more a scene than a novel-worthy event. That said, I hope it illustrates the nature of catharsis. It’s not only for Greek tragedy. It’s real, human and can happen any day.

      About the “catalyst”…you are quite right that a single thing cannot trigger a catharsis. In my story, then, the catalyst did indeed begin with the adoption or, truly, earlier than that with an abandonment. That’s why I emphasize the build up.

      That said, a cathartic tantrum doesn’t just happen one day for no reason. There’s a trigger, the straw on the camel’s back.

      The kid in California who went on a rampage recently posted several long You Tube rants before he did. They were a catalog of his complaints. It would be interesting to know what was the last perceived blow that he suffered. What tiny thing sent him over a big cliff?

  7. says

    I read it three times now, and I am coming around, Mr. Maass. Boy or boy, it is tough to ditch pre-conceived notions. I find the focus here by noting fear is the real heart of it. Accomplishing something causing the fear to surface… and the catharsis as the reckoning of the two. Yep. You have it right, after all. I had skimmed the fear element somehow and went straight to the keywords. My bad.

  8. says

    Thanks, Donald.
    It’s so easy to see the catalyst, catharsis, and catharsis released in the example you gave. And as a former English teacher, I should be thinking about those elements when I write, though I confess I haven’t always been that analytical. However, your post made me re-examine my own scenes–and the good news is the elements are there. But maybe I need to go back and hone these scenes based on your suggestions!

  9. says

    Aw and oh, and as the accomplishments get bigger the tantrums become more egregious. What a cool schematic for an entire novel that is! And, yes, the pattern works to create super-duper anticipation. The increase.. Wow.

  10. says

    The story you tell not only makes a point about catalyst and catharsis, or release, but it serves all by itself as a condensed writing lesson. Speed, compression, action leading to thoughtful understanding–it’s all there. The catharsis experienced vicariously by the reader through the narrator is just plain effective–and I am not paying empty compliments here. The father understands that his son’s triumph over training wheels causes the son to fear his success marks some end point, something being over that will end the stable home he has. The father grasps this in his son’s testing behavior after the triumph, and releases his son from the burden of fear. And you make the catharsis all the stronger by withholding until the end the fact that the boy is adopted.
    I am trying to apply what you say–how to create more impediments between my protagonist and an inner need. But the stakes involved in a successful woman’s angst at not having a happy relationship are very low compared to those in your story.

  11. says

    A wonderful, emotional post, thank you!

    And perfectly timed for me, as I revise and strengthen the lead-up to the black moment in my current story.

    The heroine discovers a hidden secret the man she’s fallen in love with never told her, feels he’s not the man she thought he was, is furious, and ends the relationship. As it is, her response seems over the top, excessive, almost verging on TSTL.

    But reading this, it’s clear that what I need to play up more is the fear underlying her reaction – that she risked herself to make the decision to love and trust him, and now that trust has been betrayed. Without that, the story makes no sense.

    Just like without the knowledge of your son’s adoption and deep fear of being “sent back”, your story loses its meaning and emotional power, too.

    Randy, I’m wondering if this was what you were also feeling, in your comment above.

    The catalyst is the trigger, but the underlying emotional state of the character, their fears and hopes and needs, all they define themselves by, all they least want to lose, that’s the gun. And the ammunition is loaded in it by them daring to trust, to hope, to think they have what they wanted, that’s the ammunition that loads the gun. The catalyst wouldn’t set of a reaction unless the character somehow thought they could get what they most wanted.

    Okay, thinking out loud here and none of that probably makes any sense, but it does for me and my story! Thanks Don!

  12. says

    In my current wip, I have a 16 year-old female character (Juli) who has been the victim of sexual abuse since she was 10. When a friend of hers is assaulted, Juli literally picks up a gun and goes to confront the attacker. Of course, it’s not so easy once she’s face to face with him and things turn south. Now, I wasn’t thinking “this is Juli’s catalyst (attack of a friend), and this is her catharsis (confronting the jerk with a gun), but it seemed natural to use her backstory of sexual assault and have her respond dramatically to another woman’s problem. Juli, by the way, gets her own novel next. I can’t let her get away after a great supporting role. She’s much too interesting.

  13. Priya Gill says


    A lovely story. And you tell it so well. Always makes me wonder why you chose to be an agent and not an author of best selling fiction

    In my story, the protagonist has accidentally travelled through time from 1860 to 2009 while losing his memory. Latter looking at several pieces of evidence he is convinced that his name is Matt. But no one believes it and whatever he says or does he is unable to convince anyone. So his realization of his identity (even though he doesn’t remember who he is) is definitely his catalysis. But I don’t think I’ve built the catharisis very well in my WIP. And I struggle with that. Mainly because of my character. He is a very calm (one of his key strengths) and polite person from 1860. So even though I show his frustration as an internal struggle his personality doesn’t allow him to “act out”. Would you call his internal struggle to find his identity the catharisis?

    • says


      The catharsis will be what he does to release the long-suppressed, seething *whatever* (fear?) that this mild-mannered gentleman from another century is keeping down.

      • Priya Gill says

        Thanks Don.

        I have been a little stuck in my book as it is the point where the protagonist undergoes a major transformation in his personality (it would be unreal for the mild-mannered gentleman (as you so beautifully put it) not to, after being hurled into 2009) and I was struggling to bring about a smooth transformation. Having a cathartic event I think would be the way to go. Need to write it out and see how it feels though.

        Thank you for helping me get unstuck.

        Also thanks to James Scott Bell for tying true catharsis to the proof of transformation.

  14. says

    In Aristotelean Greek, catharsis connotes purification. That may be the key to finding it in fiction, yes? Rick’s catharsis comes when he sacrifices the thing he wants most in the world (Ilsa) an kills Major Strasser to ensure her escape with Lazlo. By those acts Rick is purified from his hatred and mistrust of the world. The whole of Act 2 is the build up to that moment, with wonderful sub-moments like Rick helping that young man win at roulette, and allowing the orchestra to play La Marseillaise.

    I think a true catharsis ought to be followed by proof of transformation. Rick walks off with Louis to begin “a beautiful friendship.”

    And your son apologized to Mom.

  15. says

    Thank you for sharing a slice of your life so beautifully. I’m struck by a number of thoughts after reading your piece. First of all, how lucky your son is to have you and your wife as parents. In one of my previous jobs, I worked as a school psychologist at the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg, where we saw a lot of adopted children, as those were the ones that tended to act out more in the classrooms than the others. I worked with their families who tried to understand their children’s outbursts. You have wisely stepped back and reframed what your son was doing and took time to understand what he was feeling.

    As for using this as a teaching tool re: catharsis and catalyst, it’s also a big help. It’s given me pause as I think about the novel I’m about to publish. I also think this notion of high stakes and explosions depends on the kind of story you’re writing, its genre. I’ve also enjoyed thoughtful pieces where what’s at stake is hidden or subdued, where the catalyst isn’t always clear, nor the catharsis that follows. But then, that’s life.

    • says


      As a former counselor I wonder if you find, as I do, that every one of us are engaged in a lifelong attempt to purge what has wounded us, often in inappropriate (ineffective?) settings like classrooms and adult relationships.

      Not, you know, that I’ve ever known any authors who acted out their childhood traumas through their writing or publishing careers. No, no. Only detached professionalism in this business, right? Right.

      • says

        Don, you are absolutely right. Each one of us tries to make sense of our past, the good and the bad. New relationships are opportunities to deal with the wounds of childhood. What we couldn’t deal with in our youth is often played out in our adult life, for better or for worse. It’s the juice of life. And as you say, it’s also the stuff of novels.

  16. says

    I hate that the word “kindle” has become subverted by commercial interests, because it’s always been a favorite word of mine along with the imagery of light and learning. So this morning I’ll simply say thanks again for being the spark to the tinder I laid before arriving here this morning. I often know what my characters do before I understand the why. Now I get the motivation behind a critical scene–the last, as it happens for this WiP.

    As for your son, with how you’ve externalized the process for him, I suspect the day will arise when he’ll catch himself after catalyst and before catharsis, be able to discharge the energy through laughter with you. That’s the day he’ll ride a century.

    • says


      Oh, thank you for that lovely hope for my son. I hope so too. When he laughs the world is beautiful. And I have faith. He’s going to ride his far and high.

      Thank *you*.

  17. Denise Willson says

    Don, my daughter is about the same age as your son. If it helps to know, she has similar ‘overwhelmed’ feelings, and reacts at times. Adopted or not, our little angels have wings of their own, and they stretch them in oh so subtle ways, yet all different.

    And goodness, we love them, don’t we? :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  18. says

    What a beautiful story, Don. I find the contrast the most interesting: you have something positive and touching – fatherly pride – contrasted with the inevitable difficulty that follows. Overall, though, the dominant emotion is love and, based on what I take away from this story you told, the catalyst, and subsequent catharsis, is yet another way of appreciating another angle of the love that holds your family together. Touching – thank you for sharing.

    Practical me, though, likes your concrete exercises, ones, I notice, that relate to how we can raise the stakes; in this case it’s not just about heightening reader tension for the sake of being gripping – it’s about how we can ultimately use compelling storytelling to show the reader our protagonist’s vulnerable interior. I know as a reader I truly appreciate characters (especially so-called villains) when I can see their weakness. There is something beautiful beneath the writing then, something that takes me closer to that intangible question, “What is it that makes us human?”

    Of course, as a writer I want to give to readers what I as a reader seek. That’s hard work, but I find with the many wonderful resources available to us, via craft books and sharing ideas (this is a wonderful community to be a part of), it’s a doable task. I’ve written down your exercises and look forward to melding them into the ball of clay that is slowly becoming my novel.

  19. says


    “…it’s about how we can ultimately use compelling storytelling to show the reader our protagonist’s vulnerable interior.”

    Beautifully said.

  20. says

    Thanks for a great post, and a touching story.

    I love this aspect of writing. The two protagonists of my WIP (fantasy) are each other’s opposites emotionally, and I’m going to take the easy one here because I haven’t quite figured out the other character ‘s breaking point yet. (She’s the ultimate example of self-control). The “easy character” is unstable and traumatized, but the most powerful person in her country. Her magic cannot be tamed, although people have tried by constant humiliation and abuse. Worst of all, she cannot control her own magic, and she’s terrified of it because it’s already brought her so much pain and grief.

    It doesn’t take much to set her off, but I’ve just written a catharsis moment where she travels near the place where she was kept for ten years by her abusers. A new character she’s just met knows more about her father than she knows herself (her father gave her to the abusers) and an ignorant question of the other protagonist brings back too many memories, and she loses control. She runs off and destroys a whole village that she now knows helped her father in his evil deeds. And then she realizes that she’s not sorry she’s killed all these people, but that she even enjoyed using her full powers. After that she relapses in self-destructive behavior, but she cannont forget the feeling the joy of the full use of her powers.

    Is this sort of what you meant?

  21. says

    What a fantastic set-up! I love this story, especially the ending; you stopped more dramatic catharsis b/c you know your child so well. Instead of punishing, you chose to ask “why is he acting out?” and made him feel safe again. Great parenting lesson there.

    I struggle with this concept in my WIP b/c my protagonist receives news that makes her long for the missionary she once loved, but ditched before he ever came home. They never had a proper good-bye/closure. And now that she’s in the thick of real life, she remembers an easier and fairy tale version of life in the past. I know we’re supposed to think of the worst thing she could do. She could destroy her family by finding her first love and cheating (who happened to marry her best friend) – but my character would never cheat. She just can’t do it. I can’t write it b/c it doesn’t fit. And she has four kids that she would never purposely hurt…is the operative word here, “purposely”?

    Thanks so much. I love your posts.

    • says


      You might look at whether you’ve boxed your heroine in too much? Does she have enough room to act, to change, even to err? Just thinking aloud.

  22. says

    Don, thanks yet again for giving us a personal story that so stirringly illustrates something instructive about writing. And not so much instructive as something that makes us feel the pulse of a piece of writing, its accelerations, shudders and steady beats. I have multiple cathartic moments for three main characters in a recent novel, but your post makes me re-think whether the catalysts are too staged, or formulaic. (And whether the catharses too might have their legs caught under the staging—not even ranking for a Deus ex Machina, but more a Top Ramen ex Machina.)

    Sometimes writers can provide such a deep psychological perspective on what it means to be human—not with a prescriptive analysis like a therapist, but as keen observers of behavior and emotion, of connections made and broken. Thanks for giving us some of your own insights, steeped in an emotional context.

    And watch out when that kid gets his Harley—you’ll have to get one too to keep up.

    • says


      No to the Harley. N. O. Did some volunteer work years ago that showed me what brain damage looks like, and how often in young people that’s tied to motorcycle accidents.

      Now, old rich guys like Malcolm Forbes living out their fantasies…that’s perhaps different.

  23. says

    Ron – As always, lots to chew on here. Love the story of your son! That’s great that you were able to articulate his feelings for him. You are teaching him. Mine is only 10 months but he is already very spirited. :-) isn’t it weird how even when they push our buttons and test us, we love them even more? Parenting has given me newfound and deep appreciation for my own parents.

    Thinking of my wip… What I don’t know is how to maximize that cathartic moment. Almost done with my first draft, so I’ll be going back to revise soon. (The goal is to approach agents in January 2015).

    But as of right now, I’ve got two protagonists and their moments of catharsis will mirror the others (each willing to sacrifice their lives for the other).the part I’m struggling with most is what their unique catalysts are. Does a moment of catharsis need to be an acting out moment. And is it the same as the climax?

    Thanks again!

    • says


      Good question. I’d say that, generally speaking, in a character driven novel a catharsis may well serve as the climactic turning that brings about change. Hard to say in your case without knowing more of your story, but still.

  24. says

    I remembering studying catharsis and catalyst in a literature class once (professor used Of Mice and Men), but I had forgot what an important element it is to a story.

    One of my WIP has a character who is rather intense, and I will admit, it is scary to think how readers might respond to her. She isn’t exactly lovable by any means and her catalyst causes a rather violent catharsis. After reading your suggestions, I realized her catharsis ends up being the catalyst for another character. Neither pick up guns, but she does destroy what matters most to her.

    Thanks for the great article–now I’m off to brainstorm using the checklist!

  25. Poeticus says

    Most every, if not all, writing principle has dual, or more, properties. One property at least delves into depth and implication readers consciously or otherwise infer, that engages readers’ intellects and imaginations, that engages rederas, period.

    This catalyst and catharis principle is no exception. Note that a catalyst is an added item in a crisis moment, motif in the case of narrative, that causes change that otherwise would not occur and is itself unchanged by the reaction. The unchanged catalyst is the implication motif; that is, the underlying catalyst remains open for further change influences.

    Catharsis is a change reaction, though one of stepped transistion. A surface catharsis follows an immediate proximity change cause, though a product of a chain of several identifiable or inferrable prior causes: depth. A catharsis implication motif is the signal of maturation growth: inspired change at a personal cost much admired and worthy of healthy pride on the part of the person transformatively changed, most of all, and the external influences– persons in this case–that catalyzed the change. Not to overlook the depth as well of the influence persons were changed by the transformation. The epic, larger-than-life unchanging catalyst–the maturation impetus toward responsible and empowered adulthood–for a coming-of-age step on life’s journey.

    For the case on point, an implication is the new, more accomplished maturation stage is one with privileges not allowed beforehand, new boundaries, new territory to explore, new situation to fit into and belong to: own. New empowerment duties notwithstanding–they develop from trial and error trials.

    I interpret a subtext of a child’s liberation from training wheels as a step toward equal footing with guardians, play that imitates adulthood mobility freedoms. “Acting out” is a trial and error expression of newfound freedoms and testing of those newfound territory boundaries. Equal footing has not yet been fully realized. You have much more catalyst and catharis to endure, my young apprentice, before you earn equal footing.

      • Poeticus says

        See Noah Lukeman’s 2006 A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation for insights into sophisticated punctuation use that reflects life-of-the-mind, stream-of-consciousness, and absent-minded-intellectual aesthetics.

        Not to mention, the spice timely, judicious emphases dashes, colons, and semicolons–their parenthetical asides and sentence variation potentials–add to otherwise monochrome commas, periods, and question marks. And the proper and artful usages of ellipsis points and syndeton rhetoric.

        So that imitating my “style” and developing one’s own mastery from it is reproducible and appealing.

    • says


      > You have much more catalyst and catharis to endure, my young apprentice, before you earn equal footing.

      Should we ever meet in person (are you going to the Un-Conference?) I’ll share with you more of the cathartic journey in which I find myself a player.

      • Poeticus says

        Mr. Maass, regretably, the upcoming Un-Conference is outside my current comfort zone. I look forward to hearing your cathartic journey adventures in person at some future time, though.

  26. says

    I knew from the title this piece was by you, Donald.

    I think you tap into something a lot of writers miss: It isn’t just frustration of the pursuit of the outer objective (“the desire line”) that needs to be focused on. That desire line speaks to an “inner need” — what I call the yearning — and it’s the frustration of this that causes the profound cathartic reaction and the impetus to real change.

    My students can often create surface conflict, but it’s the connection to this deeper yearning that reveals the true stakes, and why the object of desire can’t be simply put aside or forsaken.

    Also, the ways your character responds to frustration reveals what I refer to adaptations or defense mechanisms (Anna Freud’s terminology) — and what Elizabeth George colorfully refers to as “pathological maneuvers.”

    The character will often begin the story with a practiced and habitual but dysfunctional manner of responding to stress, frustration — conflict. Denial, avoidance, intellectualization, compulsive behavior (smoking, drinking, eating) or even projection and hallucination.

    But through the course of the story, by having to deal with this kind of frustration over and over and on increasingly deeper levels, the characters has to rise to a more mature, adaptive way of handling these things, or that cathartic explosion will be destructive rather than instructive.

    Put another way, every story involves a problem, an insight, and a decision. You can’t have an insight until the catharsis clears away the various barriers to truth and honest emotion that have bound the character in the past.

    Lovely story about your son. Sounds like he’s lucky to have a dad like you.


    • says


      To be discussed at greater length when at last we sit down over beer…hopefully with John Vorhaus and your fellow L.A. denizens Jim Bell, Chris Vogler and Lisa Cron. What a time that would be!

      • Jim Snell says

        I’d love to hear some of that discussion – especially Chris and Lisa, since she’s such a fan of his.

  27. says

    Haha, sound like you have a gear turning, fearless (or courageous) son who thinks outside of the circle. I’m sure the apple doesn’t fall to far from the tree. It’s interesting enough with one puzzle solving parent who thinks outside of the circle, but two, buahaha.

    The Making of an Outlier by Donald Maass and Lisa Rector.

    Hmm- Catharsis, I’m picking up what you’re putting down. The build up is going to be the challenge, though. Huh, I can think of three characters in the night angel trilogy who experienced cathartic events. No problem, I can afford to do some more studying in the shadows.

    Thanks for the enlightenment Jedi Master Don Yoda

  28. CK Wallis says

    Mr. Maas…I read this yesterday morning, but a bad head cold sent me back to bed instead of writing a comment. I don’t know if you still read these comments a day or so later, (and it’s no big deal if you don’t) but I just wanted you to know…I got it! I got it! I got it!

    While I was physically feeling miserable, emotionally and intellectually I was so excited and happy I could hardly wait to get back to my wip to start re-working it. After reading your post, I realized my story had turned into little more than a more sophisticated version of a child’s “and then this happened, and then that…,etc.,” because instead of writing through the scary stuff, I keep pulling back, trying to find a way around it. And, now I see–I know, I understand–what I’m doing wrong, or rather, what I’m not doing at all. I have lots of catalysts, with no catharsis. No wonder my story feels dead and my my characters read like a bunch of zombies! As the storyteller, I have to breathe the life into the story, and that breath has to come from my own experience of life.

    When I started this, I expected that it would be hard at times, but, honestly, I never thought I couldn’t do it, or that I’d write some of the sophmoric crap I’ve managed convince myself was worth days of my time. I know a lousy story when I read one, and I know that my story is lousy. But, now I think I can fix it. So, here I am, in the middle of the night (I rarely write at night), with a box of tissues, ready to get back to work. And, I just wanted you to know that, and say, Thank you, thank you, thank you. I know I still have a long way to go and more to learn, but what a relief.