It is obviously true that Aristotle was not a screenwriter. He never sat over a keyboard clicking away with his fingers while pondering the cinematic screenwriting themes and structure for the next great tense thriller or tragic drama.
No, he was an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist — known as one of the greatest intellectual figures of all time. He was an intellectual master and authority of not only the sciences, but many of the arts well. He wrote papers and books on biology, botany, chemistry, ethics, history, logic, metaphysics, rhetoric, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, physics, poetics, political theory, psychology, and zoology.
But what stands out most for screenwriters — and all writers alike — are his six principles of storytelling.
Note: Past interpretations of his text listed seven principles (the extra being decor), but upon reviewing it, you’ll quickly discover that he only lists six.
His book Poetics delves into the analysis of tragedy and epic storytelling. Those were represented primarily in poetry and the stage — the storytelling platforms of his time.
Here we adapt and interpret his analysis into ways that writers can learn from and apply to their own stories.
Aristotle put plot as the first essential element of storytelling, referring to it as the life and soul of any story. He often referred to plot as action — the arrangement of incidents. Without action, there can be no character. Without action, there can be no implementation of an idea or concept.
“If you string together a set of speeches expressive of a character, and well finished in point of diction or thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect with a play which has a plot and artistically constructed incidents.”
What Aristotle is saying in that passage — and about the importance of plot over everything — is that a great character can not hold the weight of a story. That character must be forced to take some form of action, be it external or internal, in order for the story to come alive. And that action is a direct result of the plot that you, the writer, conjures in the form of conflict thrown at the character.
He further states that all plots must have a beginning, middle, and an end. This is likely the root of the three act structure writers know today.
The beginning of your story often isn’t the result of something that came before it. The complexities of character (see below) can surely point to previous moments in that character’s life not shown, but the beginning of the story is where the actions first begin to take place. You show the character’s world and then confront them with some form of conflict that they must take action on.
The middle of your story is “that which follows something as some other thing follows it.” That passage is a brilliant simplification of the second act. Some stories have a call to adventure while others merely present conflicts that characters must either act on or suffer the consequences. Regardless, the second act showcases the character following — or retreating from — whatever is presented at the end of the first act.
The end of your story is “that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity or as a rule, but has nothing following it.” A simple and obvious definition. But he goes on to say that the ending is everything — the most important element of the plot. Without a satisfying ending to your story, the audience that has invested their time and emotions will be left unsatisfied. And offering no closure to the characters and their arcs will leave them wanting more. While that notion is good for cliffhanger films that are building to a potential sequel, there still has to be some form of closure that defines the end. Where audiences can stop, knowing that the end presented “has nothing following it.”
Aristotle points out bad plotting as being “episodic” where episodes or acts succeed one another, but without probable or necessary sequence. He says that bad writers stretch the plot or story beyond capacity, breaking the natural continuity.
In short, plots shouldn’t be overly complicated. They can be complex in their themes, but not at the expense of the core plot and characters.
As a bonus, Aristotle offered three parts of possible plots that writers can either choose from when plotting out a story or combine them to create an even better one.
Reversal of Intention is a “change by which action veers round to its opposite.” This is essentially a turning point in a story. For example, you look at First Blood where we see John Rambo trying to reconnect with a fellow soldier from the Vietnam war.
He discovers that his last remaining brother-in-arms has died, leaving Rambo left standing alone. As he is clearly trying to move on from the horrors of that war, he is confronted with the turning point of being wrongfully arrested.
This leads to Rambo having to return to his warrior ways, as opposed to him trying to move on from them when the story began.
Recognition is a “change from ignorance to knowledge.” This change takes place within the character(s) of the story and can either lead to positive or negative results after the knowledge is attained. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his fellow hobbits have never stepped out of the Shire.
When they do, they are confronted by darkness and evil. They are forced to gain knowledge from those around them in order to survive.
Frodo in particular is taken on the greatest journey as he experiences the worst conditions and the worst evil while tasking himself to destroy the ring once and for all.
The Tragic Incident is a “destructive or painful action.” This is an event of large causalities, destructiveness, or overall danger that is ensued. Movies like Titanic, Patriots Day, The Towering Inferno, Deep Impact, and Independence Day are prime examples. Such stories can be based on true events — as is the case with Titanic and Patriots Day — or are fictional events which we now refer to as Disaster Movies. Characters are forced to deal with these tragic incidents and their character arcs are solely embedded within that framework.
Aristotle listed character as secondary to plot because “character determines man’s qualities, but it is by their action that they are happy or the reverse.” Thus, character comes in as subsidiary to the actions or plot.
Without a compelling plot, there is no action or reaction that will create a compelling character.
“Character is that which reveals moral purpose showing what kinds of things a man chooses or avoids.” Despite being listed as secondary to plot, characters are crucial to the development of the story. If readers and audiences aren’t compassionate for the main characters, the plot won’t matter. And if they’re not meant to be compassionate for them — which can be the case for biopics and anti-hero stories — they must still be engaged by the character. Either by intrigue, curiosity, or the pure entertainment of seeing a character do what normal humans can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t.
He also lists four things that should be aimed at in regards to character. Mind you, upon review of his text, he does list some dated concepts which point to the inferiority of women and how female characters should be void of valor as it is “inappropriate.” Even the greatest minds have their own flaws — even if it was a sign of the times and culture. Two words — Wonder Woman.
Anyway, his four things to shoot for in character are…
It [the character] must be good. You could argue that not all main characters can be defined as good, but they must at least have some good traits for the audience to latch on to. He further states that “the character will be good if the purpose is good.” This notion is an excellent way for writers to find the center of their protagonists. If they are trying to do something good, that can and should reflect on their actions and reactions. You can also reverse that for antagonists and villains. If they are trying to do something bad, that can and should reflect their actions and reactions as well.
Propriety. Again, his dated feelings towards slaves and women should be discluded in the context of contemporary times, but the details or rules of behavior conventionally considered to be correct should reflect on whatever character that you choose to write. A police officer should do all he can to abide by the law. A lawyer should do all she can to adhere to the law and seek out justice. While this element can be bent and played with, the contemporary point is that writers should be true to the types of characters they choose to feature.
True to life. Similar to propriety, characters should be written in a realistic fashion that audiences can relate to. How many times have you watched a movie or television show and reacted to a character moment by saying or thinking, “Come on, no one would do that.” Exceptions to this rule would clearly be found in the horror genre where victims make questionable choices as far as where they go and what they do. Don’t answer the door!
Consistency. He muses that some characters should be consistently inconsistent, meaning that if you, the writer, commits to character flaws, those character flaws must be consistent throughout the story. Unless, of course, the character eventually gains knowledge to rectify those flaws. Regardless, characters must be consistent in their personalities, actions, and reactions in order to create a reliable vessel for the plot.
Aristotle defines Thought as “the faculty of saying what is possible or pertinent in given circumstances.” This is perhaps the most difficult element to interpret. Some point to it as theme. He goes on to say that “thought is found where something is proven to be or not to be.” One could argue that Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan questioned the theme of the glory of war that had been showcased in most World War II movies before it. His film clearly proved that no, there is no glory in war — just horror.
However, immense bravery and greatness can be found within the confines of that horror.
“The expression of the meaning in words; and its essence is the same in both verse and prose.”
Dialogue is an important element that can not be taken lightly. Too many scripts suffer from on-the-nose dialogue — words that are more interested in relaying information and exposition, as opposed to displaying the emotions, fears, struggles, and intentions of the character. The verse is the chunk of dialogue and the prose is the way it is written.
We’ve said before that there is no secret answer to great writing dialogue — but that doesn’t mean there is no place to find it. And the way you find great dialogue is by living through the characters that you write. What would they say? What would they not say? How would they say it? What would they gain from saying it? What would they gain from not saying it?
On a secondary note, verse and prose can be a vital part in scene description within a screenplay — or novel for you authors out there. The diction of your scene description can play a vital role in how the read of your material is experienced by the powers that be.
In both cases, pay particular attention to each and every line of dialogue or scene description. Ask yourself, “Does this need to be there? Am I saying the same thing twice or more? What repercussions are there for my character saying that line and am I ready to go down that road with them? Does the reader need this much detail or can I say more with less and let them fill in the rest?”
Because Aristotle’s text was written in reference to plays, the music played a key part in the storytelling. For screenwriters, you never want to dictate particular song choices — or more specific, you never want to build your entire story around a specific set of songs. Why? Because if you put so much story stock into certain songs, what happens when it goes to a studio that doesn’t have the rights to those songs? It’s okay to mention a song in passing and it’s certainly okay to listen to songs for inspiration, but as soon as you incorporate them into your work, it’s a battle not worth embarking on if you luck out and your script garners attention.
That said, music itself can play a vital part of your conceptual process as you begin your visualization of the story. Listening to and creating temp soundtracks taken from the musical scores of other films can give writers emotional context and atmosphere while writing. Much like the music from a play or silent film. So consider incorporating musical scores into your process. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
Aristotle lists spectacle as the least important element of storytelling.
“Spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” That is an amazing line to read considering the text was written thousands of years ago — but it rings true today, doesn’t it? How many special effects-driven studio tent poles have failed at the box office — and why did they fail?” Because they are void of the principles listed above.
The spectacle can be intriguing and certainly does draw in a certain audience, but it should never prioritized above any of the other principles. It doesn’t matter what great action, horror, or comedic sequences you can conjure. If the story is void of plot, character, thought, diction, and yes, even some music — wink wink — the spectacle doesn’t matter.
To read Aristotle’s full text from Poetics, CLICK HERE. There are many different interpretations that you can make and there are also additional pages devoted to his further thoughts on plot.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies