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Reviewed: Poetics by Aristotle

“Poetics

by Aristotle.

Penguin. London, UK.

62 pages.

ISBN 014-04-4636-2

Amazon Price: US $7.88

THE INSPIRATION

The Dionysia was a religious festival held once a year in ancient Athens to honour the god Dionysus. Three days of the festival were devoted to the performance of tragic plays. Three playwrights performed three tragedies and one satyr play each – one set of plays per day – in the theatre of Dionysus. (Satyr plays were in the light, burlesque style, and usually contained themes of drinking and overt sexuality).

Judges watched the plays from the front row of the theatre, and on the final day chose the winners. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, sat in the audience and observed. Because each year the playwrights were given one theme or topic, Aristotle was able to make comparisons and seek general principles of good playwriting without the distraction of different subjects. The result is “Poetics”.

Aristotle was able to make comparisons and
seek general principles of good playwriting
without the distraction of different subjects.

“Poetics” is not a book that was prepared and polished for publication. That book, if it existed, has not survived. Instead it is a set of notes, possibly lecture notes, compiled for his own use or the use of his students. As “Poetics” was not designed for public consumption some aspects are difficult to understand. Aristotle was admired in the ancient world for his clarity and elegance of style. Unfortunately, the clarity and elegance are mostly in the missing works.

There are four reasons why the modern screenwriter should read “Poetics”.

  1. It is very short – only 46 pages. Unfortunately many screenwriters only make it to paragraph two, surrendering when they encounter the word “dithyrambic”.
  2. It shows how the essence of a good story has not changed in 2,500 years.
  3. It gives the screenwriter credibility. But a note of caution – when you are sipping a soy latte poolside in the home of a Hollywood starlet, never tell your hostess that you are reading Aristotle. Always say you are re-reading him, preferably in the original Greek.
  4. Modern screenwriting gurus love to refer to “Poetics”. They believe it gives them credibility, even though a number of them, Tierno and Kitchen, for example, have misread the text.

What does Aristotle believe the elements of a good story to be?

PLOT OVER CHARACTER

Plot, and the ability to create a powerful structure, are more important than character or dialogue. “…every drama alike has spectacle, character, plot, diction, song and reasoning. But the most important of them is the structure of the events.” He goes as far as to say that, “there could not be a tragedy without action, but there could be one without character.”

This seems a little strange, particularly when Aristotle gives examples of great characters in Greek tragedy – Oedipus, Menelaus, Achilles and Odysseus – who are famous twenty-five millennia after their stories were told. But are they famous for their characters, or are they famous for the stories in which they appear? Probably the latter, so maybe Aristotle is right.

The most important of them is the structure of the events.

A common misconception preached by many screenwriting gurus stems from this quotation – “a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude; for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of. Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end.”

This leads commentators to suggest that Aristotle invented the three act structure. They then go on to show how this influenced later writers such as Shakespeare (who unfortunately used a five act structure).

NOT ‘OUR’ THREE ACTS

But Aristotle does not really talk about three acts. Instead he suggests all great stories have two essential structural elements – the “complication” and the “denouement”. Complication in modern screenwriting roughly translates to the back story and everything that happens in Act I and Act II up to the mid point reversal. Denouement includes Act II from the mid point to the end of the story in Act III.

In Aristotle’s words, “By complication I mean everything from the beginning up to and including the section which immediately precedes the change to good fortune or bad fortune”; “by Denouement, all from the beginning of the change to the end”. Does this mean Aristotle is really a two act man, or are we trying to cram Aristotelian story elements into our modern concept of story structure?

It is best to read “Poetics” with an open mind, rather than regarding Aristotle as a Hollywood guru who was accidentally born in the Fourth Century BC. It is better to reflect on his ideas of drama, to see which have passed the test of time and which are applicable only to Ancient Greek theatre.

It is best to read “Poetics” with an open mind,
rather than regarding Aristotle as a Hollywood guru
who was accidentally born in the Fourth Century BC.

His discussions of completeness, defective plots, astonishment, reversal, recognition, suffering and universality hold true today. But other aspects of “Poetics” relate to devises that are seldom used in modern works. The chorus is a good example, although when used in modern screenplays (the troubadours in “There’s Something about Mary” are a truncated chorus) can add freshness and surprise. Of course, Bollywood still uses the chorus to great effect, as do the great Hollywood musicals.

SUBPLOTS ARE OKAY

Aristotle has been misinterpreted by many screenwriting teachers. Michael Tierno, for example, believes that Aristotle’s suggestion that “The perfect plot, accordingly, must have a single, and not (as some tell us) a double issue” means subplots are a weakness and Hollywood screenplays must follow one storyline only. This is not the case.

The quotation comes from Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy, merely one form of story. When he contrasts tragedy and epic he states, “One should also remember what has been said more than once, and not write a tragedy on an epic body of incident (i.e. one with a plurality of stories in it), by attempting to dramatise, for instance, the entire story of the Iliad. In the epic owing to its scale every part is treated at proper length; with a drama, however, on the same story the result is very disappointing. This is shown by the fact that all who have dramatised the fall of Ilium in its entirety, and not part by part, like Euripides, or the whole of the Niobe story, instead of a portion, like Aeschylus, either fail utterly or have but ill success on the stage; for that and that alone was enough to ruin a play by Agathon.”

Far from being a universal principle, the ban on multiple stories and subplots is genre specific. Aristotle is telling us not to use multiple themes in tragedy; save them for the epic.

ART VS. POPULIST

It is the epic, with its multiple stories, not the tragedy with its single story that gets the tick of approval from the non-vulgar.

“The question may be raised whether the epic or the tragic is the higher form of imitation. It may be argued that, if the less vulgar is the higher, and the less vulgar is always that which addresses the better public, an art addressing any and every one is of a very vulgar order. It is a belief that their public cannot see the meaning, unless they add something themselves, that causes the perpetual movements of the performers—bad flute-players, for instance, rolling about, if quoit-throwing is to be represented, and pulling at the conductor, if Scylla is the subject of the piece…. The one, accordingly, is said to address a cultivated audience, which does not need the accompaniment of gesture; the other, an uncultivated one. If, therefore, Tragedy is a vulgar art, it must clearly be lower than the Epic.”

Another screenwriting guru who has misinterpreted Aristotle is Jeff Kitchen. In “Writing a Great Movie” he has an excellent dissertation on dilemma, and how it enhances and enriches a screen story. Unfortunately he unnecessarily attempts to give his thesis more credibility by suggesting that “dilemma” was one of the elements expounded by Aristotle. It wasn’t.

CONCLUSION

As a screenwriter you should read Aristotle’s “Poetics”. It will help you discover universal story telling principles that have stood the test of time, it will enhance your credibility as an intellectual artist and, if you completely misinterpret the text, very few people will notice.

– Jack Brislee

Jack Brislee is a business broker and property developer by day and a screenwriter by night.
He has written 12 scripts, one in pre-production in the
UK and one in pre-production in South Africa.

He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.

About the Author

Jack Brislee

Comments 2

  1. Hi Jack,

    I’m glad that your review is not another repetition of the same old themes that are often put forward.

    You’re right that many people misread Aristotle’s Poetics.
    Sometimes this is due to reading a particular translation and placing great emphasis on the specific wording. Although, since english versions are translated, this clinging to specific wording is often unhelpful. There are also some very major differences between translations. Some are minor word choice issues but some convey entirely different meanings of key features of the book.
    Often, people will also pay more attention to secondary commentary (often based on a translation) than to the original and perpetuate popular misreadings or exaggerations.

    I think Poetics is a good book, but many people could also benefit from thinking about how Aristotle came to write it (I’ve also seen a lecture from Yale in which a professor claimed that his students wrote it based on their lecture notes but I don’t know if that claim is based on convincing evidence): he watched a lot of plays and arrived at decisions on what he considered to work or not work and wrote about it. This is something that anyone can do now, without worrying about what other people say about how storytelling is or should be done. Abstract theory is only useful to the extent that it is an accurate description of what actually happens in practice, and a description can only ever be partial. Real understanding of stories is gained from having experience of real stories.

  2. Pingback: Poetics by Aristotle | Jim Bob

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