What are we looking for in a story? What makes a story good or bad for us? For some of us, we want to feel that a story moves us. That it brings out some kind of emotion, whether that’s sadness, joy, contentment, wonder, or even anger. The kind of emotion and the definition of what the emotion is matters less than the fact that the emotion is there. A story that works for us brings those emotions to the fore so they can be purged. This purging of emotion in the reader is called Catharsis.
Achieving catharsis also means we have achieved, for good or ill, a sense of empathy either with characters or circumstances. This is usually in conjunction with the characters also having an epiphany of their own, referred to as anagnorisis. This is when a character comes to understand the true nature of their own circumstances or has access to knowledge of the self and their relationship to the cosmos. When both catharsis of the viewer and anagnorisis of the character is in sync, we usually get an aesthetic reaction.
Empathy is the key here. This is the state of being that has evolved in higher mammalian life forms as a function of survival in tribal units. This empathy is what the storyteller is trying to elicit through their creation. They want you to feel what their character feels, to feel as sorry as the character, not sorry for the character. (Sympathy, although that can happen too.)
The storyteller does this through subtlety or indirection and aesthetics; of or pertaining to beauty. Thus, it behooves us to define what it is we are looking for when we read a story, that is:
Aesthetic Reaction: that emotional experience a perceiver undergoes when they intellectually recognize the degree of subtlety with which the elements of form interrelate in creating a theme in a work of art.
Corollary 1: the greater a perceiver’s capacity to intellectually recognize this degree of subtlety– the greater the potential for an aesthetic reaction.
Corollary 2: the greater the degree of subtlety with which the elements of form interrelate in creating a theme in a work of art– the more beautiful the work, the more aesthetically valuable the work.
That’s a lot to unpack there. There are also terms in that definition that we haven’t gone over yet, so don’t fret. We’ll get there.
Those terms are Elements of Form and Theme. We’ll get into those next time but for now, don’t let this definition of an Aesthetic Reaction confuse you. In the very act of going through the elements of form you will intrinsically understand the definition itself. This is part of the fun. Until next time…