What are the most cathartic movie scenes and how do such scenes transform your screenplay into something even better?
Have you ever watched a movie or read a screenplay that stayed with you afterward? You walk out of the theater or close that script and feel truly changed or affected somehow.
That’s catharsis. And it is the most important element of screenwriting.
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Catharsis is a term that is very prevalent in Hollywood today. You can even find it as a grading category in film and television industry script coverage.
When a script or scene is so well written that you somehow felt placed within the shoes of the protagonist and felt their own catharsis by the end of the film as they either achieved what they had been striving for against all odds or felt some relief from their struggles amidst tragedy — you’ve accomplished something great.
That’s the magic of an amazing screenplay or movie, leaving the reader or the audience truly touched, affected, and sometimes changed — catharsis.
That is what you want to try to accomplish with as many scenes as you possibly can within your screenplays.
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A majority of spec screenplays — screenplays written under speculation that they will sell — lack in the catharsis category. The scripts and the writers are so obsessed with plotting that they forget to ensure that the reader and eventual audience is moved in some way, shape, or form. This results in boring screenplays and boring movies.
Every screenwriter should be focused on one thing — moving the reader and the audience and offering them that cathartic feeling when they put the script down or walk out of that theater.
How do you create such cathartic moments?
You start by looking inward and finding what moves you.
Beyond that, it’s a lesson that has no defining rules and no formula. It’s all about emotion. You need to be the puppeteer that pulls on the emotional strings of your audience.
So for some inspiration on how you can unlock such emotions, here we feature nineteen of the most cathartic moments in cinematic history.
Spoiler Warning! Some scenes may divulge specific story and plot elements.
1. The Pursuit of Happyness
Logline: A struggling salesman takes custody of his son as he’s poised to begin a life-changing professional career.
Moment: Chris has spent the whole film struggling to achieve his dream of attaining a well-paying job so he can support him and his son — both of which are homeless. After his unpaid internship as a stockbroker ends, with slim chances for advancement to a paid position, he’s asked into the office of his boss.
2. Chariots of Fire
Logline: Two British track athletes, one a determined Jew, and the other, a devout Christian, compete in the 1924 Olympics.
Moment: Eric Liddell, the devout Christian, is the fastest man alive in 1924. During each of his runs, at the final leg, his head always goes back, pointed towards the skies. This is where he somehow becomes even faster than he already is. In this cathartic moment towards the end of the film, we finally learn the meaning behind this action.
Logline: Rudy has always been told that he was too small to play college football. But he is determined to overcome the odds and fulfill his dream of playing for Notre Dame.
Moment: Throughout the opening act of the film, and into the second as well, Rudy has been struggling to raise his grades to move from Junior College to the college of his dreams, Notre Dame. He is rejected semester after semester…
… until his final semester of eligibility.
4. Mr. Holland’s Opus
Logline: A frustrated composer finds fulfillment as a high school music teacher.
Moment: Glen Holland, a musician that put his dreams of being a composer aside as he raised a family and taught music classes at a high school, took a job he didn’t want but learned to love. He continued to write his own symphony as he worked the day job. Year after year and decade after decade. Never once seeing his dream come true. Until…
5. The Shawshank Redemption
Logline: Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.
Moment: After spending the entire movie witnessing the injustice of Andy’s imprisonment, we finally see him receive the justice that he so deserved.
6. Dead Poets Society
Logline: English teacher John Keating inspires his students to look at poetry with a different perspective of authentic knowledge and feelings.
Moment: Keating has been fired from his teaching job due to the recent suicide of one of his students. The school puts and the student’s parents put the blame on Keating’s teachings and influence, forcing his other devoted students to sign a document that puts the blame on him. As Keating is gathering his things during a class, this cathartic moment happens.
7. Good Will Hunting
Logline: Will Hunting, a janitor at M.I.T., has a gift for mathematics but needs help from a psychologist to find direction in his life.
Moment: After opening up to Sean and making some progress in life, Sean confronts Will after their last session, hoping to finally break through to the young man who has led a violent life as a result of physical abuse he experienced as a child.
Logline: Seventy-eight year old Carl Fredricksen travels to Paradise Falls in his home equipped with balloons, inadvertently taking a young stowaway.
Moment: After a young Carl meets Ellie, we see their marriage progress throughout the years, leading to the inevitable truth that we all will have to deal with at one time during our life — the loss of the ones we love.
9. The Green Mile
Logline: The lives of guards on Death Row are affected by one of their charges: a black man accused of child murder and rape, yet who has a mysterious gift.
Moment: We’ve learned that John is innocent of his crimes. Yet it can’t be proven to the courts. His execution has to go through, despite the fact that the prison guards know that they are killing an innocent man — and one that has touched their lives in so many different ways.
10. Cast Away
Logline: A FedEx executive undergoes a physical and emotional transformation after crash landing on a deserted island.
Moment: After years on the island, with only a volleyball — Wilson — keeping his sanity, Chuck constructs a boat and escapes the tidal pull of the island. While drifting through the ocean, all hope lost, Chuck awakens to realize that Wilson has fallen off of the boat and is floating away. He must now make a choice — safe himself or try to save Wilson and likely die in the process.
11. I Am Legend
Logline: Years after a plague kills most of humanity and transforms the rest into monsters, the sole survivor in New York City struggles valiantly to find a cure.
Moment: Through the first act of the film, Robert has had his trusty dog at his side. A pup that has been with him since the beginning of the plague. Until one fateful moment where she is defending Robert and gets bit.
12. Manchester by the Sea
Logline: A depressed uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.
Moment: After the death of his children as a result of a home fire that was his fault during a night of drinking, Lee is being questioned by the police. As he leaves, grief-stricken, he tries to take his own life after grabbing a police officer’s gun.
13. The Elephant Man
Logline: A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous façade, there is revealed a person of intelligence and sensitivity.
Moment: John is chased through the streets as curious and horrified onlookers look on. When he is cornered in a bathroom and surrounded by people just wanting to get a look at the strange man, John screams in desperation, “I am not an animal. I am a human being.”
14. Sophie’s Choice
Logline: Sophie is the survivor of Nazi concentration camps, who has found a reason to live with Nathan, a sparkling if unsteady American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust.
Moment: In the closing moments of the film, it’s revealed that Sophie was forced to choose which child of hers is taken to their death.
15. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Logline: A troubled child summons the courage to help a friendly alien escape Earth and return to his home world.
Moment: E.T. has finally phoned home and they have arrived to pick him up after the climactic chase sequence. He’s forced to say goodbye to his friend Elliott.
Logline: The youngest son of an alcoholic former boxer returns home, where he’s trained by his father for competition in a mixed martial arts tournament — a path that puts the fighter on a collision course with his estranged, older brother.
Moment: Brother vs. brother. Each deserves to win. Each of them needs to win. But only one can.
Logline: A team of explorers travels through a wormhole in space in an attempt to ensure humanity’s survival.
Moment: Cooper receives messages from his children throughout the years he’s been gone, realizing the ramifications of his decision to go on the mission.
18. Field of Dreams
Logline: An Iowa corn farmer, hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields; he does, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox come.
Moment: Ray realizes that all that he’s done wasn’t for Shoeless Joe. It was to reunite with his father and make amends for the time they wasted before his death.
19. Toy Story 3
Logline: The toys are mistakenly delivered to a day-care center instead of the attic right before Andy leaves for college, and it’s up to Woody to convince the other toys that they weren’t abandoned and to return home.
Moment: After years together, they cling onto each other as they fall towards certain doom.
Which ones did we miss? On Facebook and Twitter, copy and paste links to the cathartic scenes that you think should be on this list!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies