I am Griswold.
Clark Griswold and I both love Christmas, but we can sometimes go too far. This year I actually had our writer’s Christmas party at the beginning of November, and the festivities haven’t stopped.
So when my writer’s group read the book The Emotional Craft of Fiction by literary agent Donald Maass, and I was struck by the lesson on catalyst and catharsis, I looked to Clark Griswold in the movie Christmas Vacation to be my example.
Here’s Donald’s definition of the idea: 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.
Here’s Clark in the midst of the storm: Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I’d like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless…
You get the idea.
Now when I was explaining this term to a writer’s group recently, one woman raised her hand and said, “I don’t buy it.” She doesn’t think we should encourage readers to lose their tempers.
Donald, Clark, and I are not encouraging such an explosion. Clark didn’t want to lose his temper. He tried to keep it all in. But his catalysts did not relent. The one thing that held him together was the belief that all of the hardships of the season would be made up for with the pool he’d planned to buy using his Christmas bonus. When he found out there would be no Christmas bonus, he lost it.
I’ve been there too. It’s not fun. But it’s real.
And that’s what Donald is encouraging. Writing real. In real life, our pent up emotions have to release sometime. I know mine do. In fact, I once bought China dishes from a thrift store just so I could throw them. It was going to be messy, so I went to a recycling station and smashed them into the glass bin. Then my best friend and I laughed like maniacs because it felt soo good to let out the anger.
That’s where we want to take our characters. To a feel good ending. But so often we are afraid of how messy their catharsis will be.
After reading Donald’s book, I went back to my manuscript for Finding Love in Eureka–to the part where life was pressing in on my character from both sides. I’d originally had her sidestep the pressure. But life is never that easy, is it? So I rewrote the scene.
Genevieve stayed. She lost her sanity a little bit. She made a poor choice. But when the smoke cleared, she was able to see things from an objective perspective. Which created a feel-good ending that was more relatable. More genuine. More powerful.
One other tip from Donald: Make the explosion public.
Not only did Clark to blow up, but his cousin kidnapped his boss as a Christmas gift then the S.W.A.T. team swung through the windows of his house. Could Christmas get any messier?
But here’s the thing. Clark’s explosion also changed his boss’s perspective. Because Clark was honest about his feelings, and life was as messy as it could get, this made it safe for others to be honest too. There was nothing left for them to lose at this point.
If you haven’t ever experienced a holiday like this, that’s great. Either way, I’m going to encourage you to look for other examples of catalyst and catharsis in your life as well as your favorite movies. Use them to take your own stories deeper.
In the words of Cousin Eddie: That’s the gift that keeps on giving!
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good rewrite!