In his Poetics, Aristotle examines what makes a story work.
The theme of Aristotle’s Poetics is not poetry as we now conceive of it, but the imitative arts. The first book treats especially of tragedy and epic poetry. Because the second book addressed comedy, it was less likely to be recopied in the monasteries and came to be lost. What remains, Book 1, is the oldest extant work of dramatic and literary theory, and could also have been entitled, What Makes a Story Work or, How to Write a Good Story.
Fittingly or not, Aristotle approached poetry in the same scientific manner that he approached biology or physics, gathering, analyzing, and categorizing a ream of data. From this digested data, he attempted to abstract the deep psychological principles that underlie the best stories. Although he examined many plays, he kept on returning to the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, which he upheld as a paradigm of tragedy.
One might wonder why a great logician such as Aristotle turned his mind to the imitative arts. In Islamic scholarship, the Rhetoric and Poetics came to be appended to the compilation of Aristotle’s logical works, or Organon, and it is true that the three books lie on a spectrum: whereas the Organon is about uncovering the truth, the Rhetoric and Poetics are about instilling it in less philosophical types.
For all that, Aristotle does not look down on poetry, and, in fact, regards it more highly than history. Poetry, he says, ‘is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular…’
Although Aristotle himself is not nearly so prescriptive, the Poetics inspired the three classical unities of action, place, and time, according to which a tragedy should consist of a single action that unfolds in a single place over the course of a single day. These rules held sway from the sixteenth century for three centuries and were rigidly observed especially by French playwrights such as Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine.
How to write the perfect story
1. Ultimately, a story should be about people. Aristotle makes the point that even for abstract forms of imitation such as dancing and flute-playing, the objects of imitation are men. In tragedy and epic poetry, people are represented as better than in real life, in comedy, as worse. The inferior characters of comedy should not be bad in the full sense but merely ridiculous.
2. The hero should be illustrious, and better than average without being virtuous. The hero should be neither extremely good nor extremely bad. But although not virtuous, he should be illustrious, like Oedipus, Thyestes, and their ilk. The hero should never be worse than the average person and is often significantly better.
3. The hero’s character should be consistent. Actions should succeed one another with necessity or probability to provide insight into general principles of conduct. Consistency of character ensures that the plot’s unravelling arises out of the plot itself and not from improbable actions or divine intervention. The poet should go so far as to put herself into the shoes of her characters, enact their actions, and feel their emotions. To be able to do this, the poet must have a special gift, or else a strain of madness.
4. But there should also be room for surprise. Tragedy is most effective at arousing feelings of fear and pity if actions, although credible, come as something of a surprise. The outright fantastical ought to be avoided but might be justified if it makes the work more striking—in which case a probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility.
5. The story should be plot-driven. Although a story should be about people, it is not character but actions that determine failure and success. Life consists in action, and the end of life is not a quality but a mode of action. This cryptic remark reflects Aristotle’s view that the end of life is happiness, and that happiness is not a state but an activity.
6. Plot should consist of three parts. The poet should outline the plot before filling its episodes. The outline of the Odyssey could fit into just three sentences. Plot should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since beauty depends on magnitude as well as order, each of these parts must be of a certain magnitude. Plot should be long enough for the main character to transition from fortune to misfortune or vice versa, but not so long as to lose the audience. Pity and fear should be inspired by the plot itself, not by mere spectacle. Actions that most inspire pity and fear are those that take place between intimates, rather than between strangers or enemies.
7. Plot should consist of a single narrative. Unity of action does not imply unity of the main character. For instance, the Odyssey does not include every adventure that Odysseus ever embarked upon, but only those that form part of a single, if broad, narrative. Plotting should be tight. If a thing’s presence or absence makes no difference, that thing is not an organic part of the whole and ought to be left out.
8. Ideally, reversal of fortune should coincide with recognition. The plot of a perfect tragedy is complex and imitates actions that inspire pity and fear. In a complex plot, transition occurs through reversal of fortune [peripeteia] or recognition [anagnorisis]. The best transition combines peripeteia and anagnorisis, as when Oedipus finds out who he is. A third plot element is the scene of suffering, which involves a destructive or painful action such as murder or mutilation.
9. Reversal of fortune should not be caused by vice, but by error or frailty. Peripeteia should not involve a good person passing from prosperity to adversity, since this inspires shock more than pity and fear. Nor should it involve a bad person passing from adversity to prosperity, since there is no tragedy in that. Nor again should it involve the downfall of an utter rogue, which although satisfying, does not inspire pity and fear, for pity is inspired by unmerited misfortune, and fear by the misfortune of one who is our similar. Instead, it should involve a person who is neither particularly good nor bad, and whose misfortune is brought about by some great error or frailty [hamartia].
10. Style is also important, although less so than character and plot. Style ought to be clear without being mean. Language can be elevated by the judicious use of strange words, compounded words, and, above all, metaphor. The poet should speak of herself as little as possible.
Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle