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Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Writing – fiction - Aristotle’s point of view

Aristotle’s analysis of tragic drama, epic poetry and stylistic devices such as metaphor has spoken to writers down the years, and still has relevance today. The following notes are based on his On the Art of Poetry; by poetry he means drama (tragedy and comedy) as well as lyrical poetry; my observations are in square brackets.

The word ‘drama’ means literally ‘a thing done’, ‘an action’ in effect; the writer aims at the representation of life. [Note, a ‘representation’ – that’s an impression, an approximation – hence eschewing all the uninvolving boring bits. Writers approximate life.]

Thought and character are the two natural causes of actions and it’s on them that all people depend for success or failure. The representation of the action is the plot of the tragedy; what Aristotle means by ‘plot’ is the ordered arrangement of the incidents. Character is what enables us to define the nature of the participants, and thought comes out in what they say when they’re proving a point or expressing an opinion – reacting, in other words.

His view is that the most important element is plot, since tragedy is a representation of action and life, of happiness and its reverse, bound up with the action. It is their characters that make people what they are but is by reason of their actions that they’re happy or not.

Incidents and the plot are the end aimed at in tragedy, and the end is everything. [Not every writer provides a satisfactory ending, I find; and some labour it instead of getting out of the story when the natural ‘end’ has been reached.]

Reversals and recognitions are the two most important means by which tragedy plays on our feelings, both being constituents of the plot.

The plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. Plots must be of a reasonable length, so that they may be easily held in the memory. [Sagas with multiple plot strands naturally break away from this injunction! The point is, don’t complicate or obfuscate or risk losing audience interest.]

Everything within a story – or plot – should be pertinent. The best way to test this is to ask if any aspect were be removed, would the effect of wholeness be seriously disrupted. If the presence or absence of something makes no apparent difference, it is no real part of the whole. Many writers are skilful in complicating their plots but clumsy in unravelling them; a constant mastery of both techniques is what is required.

Tragedy is the representation not only of a complete action, but also of incidents that awaken fear and pity, and effects of this kind are heightened when things happen unexpectedly as well as logically, for then they will be more remarkable than if they seem merely mechanical or accidental. [For example, cause and effect should stem from the world-view of the story, its characters’ motivations and also be as a result of their established traits.] The unravelling of the plot should arise from the circumstances of the plot itself, and not be brought about ex machina. [Don't fall for a contrived ending!]
Drama involves change of fortune – a reversal or discovery. Discovery is a change from ignorance to knowledge, and it leads either to love or to hatred between persons destined for good or ill fortune. These changes should develop out of the very structure of the plot, so that they’re the inevitable or probable consequence of what has gone before.
Besides the elements of reversal and discovery, there’s a third – suffering or calamity. Our pity is awakened by underserved misfortune, and our fear is generated by that of someone just like ourselves – in short, we empathise with the character.
There’s emphasis on making your characters lifelike, consistent and appropriate.

In putting together his plots and working out the kind of speech to go with them, the writer should as far as possible keep the scene before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything very vividly, as though he were himself an eyewitness to the events, he will find what is appropriate and will be least likely to overlook inconsistencies.

As for the stories, the writer should first plan in general outline, and then expand by working out appropriate episodes. [This is not the only method, of course, but it is one I advocate in my book Write a Western in 30 Days – with plenty of bullet points!]

Irrationality and depravity are rightly censured when there is no need for them and they are not properly used. [In other words, they have their place!]

The greatest virtue of diction is to be clear without being commonplace. [I wish modern movie directors paid attention to this instead of allowing their actors to mumble; of course, here he is also suggesting the avoidance of cliché; make sure too that the dialogue is clear and not abstruse.]

The most important thing to master is the use of metaphor. This is the one thing that cannot be learned from anyone else, and is the mark of great natural ability, for the ability to use metaphor well implies a perception of resemblances. [This often separates good story tellers from literary authors – the latter are recognisable by their use of metaphor.]

Hopefully this overview of an ancient work of literary criticism will ring a few significant bells regarding the modern approach to writing of fiction. These comments merely skim the surface and by dint of length omit considerable additional insights. Recommended.


Aristotle was born at Stagira in Macedonia 384BC; in 342 he was appointed by Philip of Macedon to tutor his son, later Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s untimely death, Aristotle fled to Chalcis in 322 where he died.

Apparently, the three Aristotelian rules – unities of time, place and action – were not propounded until a 1570 translation.
Aristotle does not advocate rigid rules but outlines the most effective practice of best dramatic writers. And even after all this time he still has many useful and relevant comments for writers of fiction of all types.
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