Revisiting Aristotle on the art of plot (your continuing education credit for today)

During a running dialogue on the difference between the crafting of a novel and the crafting of a screenplay (which are really not as different as I thought), a friend reminded me that Aristotle laid down some very simple rules about plot in his Poetics. I remembered studying Poetics in college as a theatre major because much of it is taken up with the idea of imitation and drama, but revisiting Aristotle last night as a world-weary novelist a whole lot of years away from my idealistic artiste theatre days -- well, it rang bells all over the place.

"There should be copies on your desk and your night table and another one in your glove compartment," said my friend. "He wrote down what the rules of drama are. If something isn't working in a script, chances are it's because you're breaking one of those rules without realizing it. Figure out how you're breaking the rule and you can get the car moving again."

Quoth Aristotle:
The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait...

These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important thing in Tragedy.

Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been regulated by the water-clock- as indeed we are told was formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.

Click here to read Aristotle's complete Poetics courtesy of the MIT archives. C'mon. It's a quick read, and it'll make you feel almost as smart as an 18-year-old college kid.


Suzan Harden said…
Thanks, Joni! I knew I'd read this before, but I couldn't remember the author. I really needed this a couple of weeks ago during a "discussion" with other writers concerning what was more important - plot or character.

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