ARISTOTLE'S POETICS AND RHETORIC: 10 TIPS FOR STORYTELLERS

August 11, 2016

I prefer reading Plato (The guy pointing up), but decided it was time to break into Aristotle's Poetics and Rhetoric and was surprised by some of the gems I uncovered there. If I had read this important work sooner I could have avoided a few of the missteps I've taken in my earlier writings. Below is a list of some of the great advice I found within.*

 

1. ACTION IS WHERE THE STORY IS


 "Again, Tragedy is the imitation of action...and on actions again all success or failure depends."

 

No matter how well you flesh out your characters, make them unique, even base them all around a single theme creating an elaborate character web, if your characters don't ACT, we will never know who they are or what they stand for. When our characters take action we see their true nature, no matter what they may say or look like. Actions speak louder than words, and in the case of a compelling story, the action is EVERYTHING. 

 

2. PLOT IS MOST IMPORTANT (sort of)


"But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of man, but of action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not quality." 

 

Aristotle claims that character is less important than structure, or that the order of a character's actions are more revealing than a list of attributes. I believe when Aristotle uses the word character he really means characterization. Even if you disagree with A. on this one, there is no denying that the only way your audience will be able to see into the nature of your characters is through their actions.

 

3. SPECTACLE WILL NOT SAVE A BAD STORY


"The Spectacle...is the least artistic, and is connected least with the art of poetry."

 

This is fairly obvious. I don't care how many explosions or scantily clad bodies you put in your story, if your story sucks, your film/book/ will suck. Sure, eye candy makes money, but it will never stand the test of time. 

 

4. DON'T "SUPER-SIZE" YOUR STORY (No matter how good it tastes)


"The proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity will admit a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad."

 

If you can't see the forest for all the trees, you'll need to cut some down. I admit, you'll have a very small forest, BUT stories aren't real life! They're just imitations. "The right size for a beautiful object is the right size relative to human powers of perception. A [story] is the right size if it can be experienced and understood as a whole." -Eugene Garver 

 

5. MAKE YOUR STORY ORGANIC (No GMOs**)


"As...the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the imitated is one... the structural union of the parts being such that if any one of them is displaced or removed the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the story."

 

I love how A. brings together story and biology. Suppose you have an organism and it's fully functional, you can take it in at one glance and it's beautiful. It's not too big that you can't take it all in and it's not too small that you need special equipment. But, suddenly it grows a stick for an appendage. You freak out and remove a part of the creature, but you fail to remove the stick and instead you remove a vital organ. Now it's dead, you're a murderer and you've helped create a monster. Story is similar, except you have to start from scratch. 

 

Every single incident in your story MUST rely on and support the other incidents. Everything must be essential, and nothing inessential. When you craft a beautiful story it is alive like an organism, each part important with no unnecessary parts, because you're the creator forcing rapid macroevolution by adding and removing until the story can survive on its own. 

 

6. LIMIT YOUR STORY TO ONE ACTION


"The plot...must imitate one action."
"Homer... did not include all of the adventures of Odysseus... but, he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to centre round an action that in our sense of the word is one." 

 

Every great story is based on one major plan of action: revenge, escape, justice, returning home, getting the girl, etc. Think back to the organism analogy. If you're creating a dog, you don't want to mix in cat DNA or you'll end up with something hideous, or if you're lucky, just a cat and a dog, but then you'll have two separate organisms when you set out to only make one. When writing, make every scene serve that one action your hero is predestined to take, remembering to keep it essential, nothing more or less. 

 

7. STORY ISN'T REAL LIFE, IT'S AN IMITATION


"While reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness that is true to life, and yet, more beautiful."

 

A lot of early writers try to make their stories resemble "real life" by writing "down to earth" dialogue or "day in the life" moments. Let me tell you a secret: Real life is BORING! If you want "real life" go sit in a restaurant and eavesdrop, you'll discover that most everybody is passively moving through life talking about nothing, often complaining, and never satisfied. The majority of life is depressing, boring and inessential. If life was just as exciting, action packed, and essential to the whole as stories are, then we wouldn't need stories, to begin with!

 

A. refers to the art of painting each time he makes his point about imitating life by making it beautiful, making it MEAN something. A painter is not a photographer. Certain painters strive for ideals that evoke emotions, that bring greater meaning through symbols and composition. Painters are more interested in their PERCEPTION of life than ACTUAL life. because actual life kinda sucks. 

 

8. NO STORY IS PERFECT OR FINISHED, ONLY ABANDONED

 

Aristotle is a ruthless critic. He points out flaws in the work of Homer and Euripides. These are storytellers that academia holds in high regard and Aristotle points out their flaws. Doesn't he realize how important these guys are going to be?! *sigh* Whatever.

 

No matter how much of a Homer or a Shakespeare you are, your story will never be perfect, there will always be flaws. No, I'm not giving you permission to write your second best. I'm just telling you that no matter how many drops of blood pour from your forehead, you will NEVER write a flawless story. That's okay. You can still make something beautiful. 

 

9. WRITE LIKE A LAWYER

 

Story is about a single line of action and contains the argument and the counter-argument for that action. To write a powerful story you need a strong argument for both sides, no matter whose side you're on. The theme of your story usually involves arguments from all directions. This is where your character web comes into play. Aristotle's Rhetoric is a beginner's guide for developing persuasive arguments based on what stance you take and the resources you have. If you're considering becoming a lawyer, or need to beef up your antagonist's counterpoint, read Rhetoric. 

 

10. FANCY TALK


"In speech we need dignity and the power of taking the hearer out of his ordinary self."

 

Towards the end of Rhetoric, A. talks about prose composition, or how to talk rhythmically.  Although this is for speech makers, I don't see why it couldn't be applied to dialogue, just don't over-do it. 

 

"Prose, then, is to be rhythmical, but not metrical, or it will become not prose but verse."

 

Basically, your starting phrase should end on a three syllable word, and your ending phrase should end on one syllable giving closure.  Here are some examples. 

 

DEFENCE LAWYER:
"After considering the evidence (3), and unraveling this unfortunate plot (1). We no longer see a prostitute(3), but a suffering girl(1). A victim of circumstance(3), a pinioned bird ensnared in an insidious trap(1)." 

 

Fancy, right? but it doesn't have to be. It just needs rhythm, like music, like Sorkin***. 

 

 INSANE MAN: 
"Blah de dadada(3). Da Ganga boo ba(1). Be nopan opa gogogo(3). La lee la la pamochee ka(1)."

 

I think this is how it works, and you don't have to end every sentence on a single syllable either, just the end of a thought. I have yet to try it in my own writing. Feel free to experiment yourself.

 

* There is so much more to learn from Poetics and Rhetoric that you are doing yourself a disservice if you don't read it. Find a good translation with plenty of notes to help you navigate the text. 

 

** Technically we're all Genetically Modified Organisms. Don't buy into the fear mongering and save a life: GMOs

 

*** "I play the orchestra(3), and you're a good musician(3), you sit right there(1), you're the best in your row(1)." (Steve Jobs)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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