Aristotle in the Writers’ Room

From The Wall Street Journal:

The whole world is story mad. Pundits invoke the political “narrative”; passing news items become breathless podcasts; restaurant menus portentously recount “Our Story.” In the corporate world, storytelling has become a résumé bullet point. Microsoft, which generally eschews the smarmy job titles issued by tech rivals, has employed a “chief storyteller,” and for $497, an online course will teach you “the MOST important skill in the 21st century.”

Screenwriters have long mined Aristotle’s “Poetics” for craft tips, but at last someone has thought to update it for the civilian raconteur. “How to Tell a Story: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Storytelling for Writers and Readers,” by Pepperdine professor Philip Freeman, is a lively new translation geared for maximum utility, featuring a short introduction, pithy but invented section titles (“A Brief Note on Bad Plots”) and basic endnotes.

Aristotle’s original text comprised close studies of both tragedy and comedy, with asides on the “Iliad,” “Odyssey” and other examples of epic poetry (a form he judged inferior to tragedy). The section on comedy has sadly been lost, but the extant half contains, among much else, Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy. It is a genre, he writes, intended to elicit pity and fear, and thereby produce a (somewhat mysterious) catharsis.

Plot is the most important component of a good story, he continues; a story has a right size, neither too long nor too short; and every story has a beginning, middle and end. Tragedy depicts characters who are better than we are—but not so much as to be unrelatable—whereas comedy is about those worse than we are. This definition would exclude comedies featuring lovable naifs such as Buster Keaton; it’s not always easy to tell when Aristotle is asserting his own taste and when he’s simply being historically blinkered.

The how-to framing isn’t an imposition by Mr. Freeman, to be clear. Written in the fourth century B.C., the “Poetics” was meant to be prescriptive as well as analytical: This works best, Aristotle says repeatedly, for these reasons, with his characteristically empirical approach. (For a project on government, he and his students analyzed the constitutions of 158 different states, and his zoological studies were accurate enough to impress Darwin.) He supports his arguments by citing not only particular authors and plays but even individual verses—which means that it helps for readers to be familiar with works such as Euripides’ “Medea” and Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.”

Certainly the attraction of the “Poetics” isn’t the prose. The text, like all of Aristotle’s surviving works, is most likely some version of lecture notes. Transitions and conclusions are omitted in some places, repeated in others, perhaps reflecting the serial revisions of a practicing teacher. The style is always plain and often abrupt. Reading Aristotle, the 18th-century poet Thomas Gray wrote, is like eating “chopped hay.”

Mr. Freeman does his best to find some still-sharp needles in the stack. “A plot should be structured,” Aristotle urges, “so that if any of its episodes were rearranged or removed, the whole story would be disturbed and dislocated.” A good tragedy, he stresses, will inspire fear and pity even with a simple summary of its events; acting and staging are secondary. A carefully devised plot, that is, is almost mechanically effective, regardless of style (or lack thereof).

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

3 thoughts on “Aristotle in the Writers’ Room”

  1. Well, you know, he’s right about a good plot’s effectiveness. Think of the abbreviated versions of stories told around a campfire, and the consensus of prior hearers that “you’re telling it wrong!”

    Think of the children’s versions of traditional fairy tales — as comprehensible to the children as they are to the original adult tellers.

    Storytelling is primal to humans. Any story (gossip about the tribe or fiction) must present the events and the motivations in an intelligible form, and there are only so many choices for that (literary fiction experiments to the contrary).

    • Good points, K.

      There are more than a few histories that talk about man, the tool-maker or tools, the man-maker, but perhaps man, the story-teller and vice-versa is a more applicable description.

  2. I was a history major in college (fortunately, I minored in science and dabbled in computer programming, so was able to make a living). As a result,I read military histories from all over the world, in a range of time periods.
    ALL military histories are the story of:
    How I, along with my fellow soldiers (the greatest, bravest, and most loyal men on the planet), managed to win The Big War (the war is always big, when it’s your neck on the line).
    Oh, and a LOT of description of arms, munitions, tactics and strategy, and other such thing of wars.

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