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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.

Get…out…of…the…tub…NOW.

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.