Great advice for writing a good story, by some old guy

There are probably some great books on how to write good drama scripts, but I came across a reference to ‘The Poetics’ written by Aristotle in 330 BCE. I was curious how much story telling has changed over the years. I found it a surprisingly interesting read with concrete actionable advice. I might not have understood it all correctly, but here is my summary. (Note: I focus on what was interesting to me.)

My personal goal is to write scripts for comics or animation that are engaging and interesting to watch. I may over think things at times, I may never finish one, but I have watched enough anime to recognize shows that are just so weak in the plot I cannot keep watching.

Tragedy, Comedy, and Real-life

In tragedy, people are generally more noble, more extreme than real life. In comedy, people are less noble (more likely to make silly mistakes to get a laugh). And then you have real life where people are in between, like documentaries or historical stories.

This actually caught my attention as it feels that is the same today, 2350 years later! The heroes are larger than life, in comedies nobody is really that goofy all the time, and documentaries do their best to present people as they really are.

There is another style, epics. The difference between and epic and a tragedy is the scope and duration of time. A tragedy is typically all within a single year. An epic spans multiple years. Most of the points of tragedies cover epics as well.

Components of a Tragedy

A tragedy is composed of 6 parts, in order of importance.

  • The plot (the action sequence of the story)
  • The characters (including their moral purpose)
  • Thoughts (these are things triggered by speech rather than plot actions)
  • Diction (what words and phrases are used in speech, also includes command, prayer, statement, threat, question, etc)
  • Song (embellishments – I would expand maybe to background music today)
  • Spectacle (special effects, the richness of costumes)

That is, an impressive  production with a weak story line is less enjoyable that a lower grade production with a good plot.

This gives me hope for my hobby project. I don’t have the resources for a lavish production, but I can have a go at creating a good story.

The Plot

A tragedy is imitation of action and life (not people). Something has to happen. Just having good characters that talk is harder to make interesting. The action is also more important than how noble or deep the characters are. What they do is what makes a tragedy interesting, more so than why.

 A plot has 3 parts:

  • The beginning: Nothing should need to come before the beginning – no causal activity.
  • The ending: Should be caused by previous story, but no follow on is required.
  • The middle: should be caused by the beginning, must be the cause of the ending.

Okay, so the three act structure I hear about is not exactly a new concept!

Plots should be consistent and avoid content not related to the plot. Prune out filler that does not drive the story you are telling forwards.

Avoid plots where there is no reason for the order within the story. Have a story where each section drives the next section (as much as possible).

Later on Aristotle talked about 2 parts to a plot. The complication (everything up to the change in fortune) and the unraveling (the change in fortune and everything after it). I assume act 1 (the beginning) is mainly setting the scene for the complication, act 2 has the complication triggered causing the unraveling, with act 3 ending with everything resolved. I could not work out if the climax should occur in act 3 – maybe it does not matter exactly where. But other things I have read talk about anticipation, climax, and unwinding so the realization of what happens sinks in and the results of it.

Fear and Pity

Tragedy is more than imitation of action. It also includes events that inspire fear or pity. This has more impact when they are a surprise. The effect is heightened when it is cause and effect – there is a logic and flow to it. If it is accidental, try to make it feel like there is a dependence (it’s fate, he deserved it, karma, etc). It feels better to the watcher.

Simple and Complex Plots

In a simple plot, a change of fortune takes place without a reversal or recognition. A complex plot has a reversal or recognition (or even better, both). Complex plots are more enjoyable.

(Later two additional types are introduced briefly: ethical and pathetic (passion). These were only mentioned briefly.)

Reversals and Recognition

A reversal is where something is intended, but the opposite happens. From anime, a girl bakes cookies for a boy she likes, but they get dropped and she runs away.

Recognition is where someone changes from ignorance to understanding. From anime, a boy realizes that the girl likes him.

Combining, the cookies might get destroyed, the girl runs away in shame, and the boy realizes that the girl likes him. Reversal and recognition. Both should be triggered by a surprise.

There can also be scenes of suffering – where something bad happens to someone. For example they are injured or hurt.

Fear and Pity (part 2)

A good tragedy has a change of fortune from good to bad. It is less impactful going from bad to good or else there is no pity or fear. It must also fulfill some moral sense (some sacrifice or noble action).

Pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune. Fear is the result of misfortune of someone like ourselves (we feel empathic with it, we can imagine ourselves in the circumstance).

It is better for a reversal to be due to some error or mistake, for frailty, weakness, a mistake – not due to a vice.

In a comedy, you can have enemies leave the stage as friends. Not so in a tragedy – they should remain enemies.

Pity and fear are better caused by the plot, but they can be created by external factors (e.g. like a war going on). It is better however is the audience can see things happen (action) rather than just hearing about it (thought). It is more impactful.

Causes

Something tragic is more likely to occur between friends. (We are more easily hurt by friends as well.) It is less impactful if between people who are indifferent to each other. Between enemies is “right”, not misfortune.

Do not have a build up to some tragic event, then have the characters realize it and avoid it. The kills the mood as the tragedy is avoided. Carry it through.

Characters

A character is “good” if their purpose is good. Their speech should reflect their moral position. Aim for what makes sense in context. A man is generally meant to be valorous, a lady kind and gentle (okay, this might be considered sexist in modern times!), if someone is unreliable then they should be consistently unreliable. They should be consistent in character throughout the plot. Tragedy involves characters who are more noble (or evil) than in real life.

Recognition

The worst kind of recognition is from signs and wonders. “I found a 4 leaf clover! It must be my lucky day!” Or zodiac readings etc. It is better for recognition to be caused by the plot.

Second worst is when it is just made up by the writer with no logic visible to why recognition occurred. They just realized it by themselves.

Another form of recognition is from objects. “That painting makes me think of…”

Getting better is by a process of reasoning. The character thinks it through and works it out.

The best is when recognition is driven by the plot, by some action that makes it apparent. This is the most satisfying to the audience.

Evaluating a Plot

You may need filling to pad out a story. Try to make it relevant to the plot. You can evaluate the essential parts of a plot by trying to summarize it. When summarizing, how much can you leave out and still correctly represent the story? The better the plot, the harder it will be to leave out details and still get the story across.

Conclusion

I found “The Poetics” by Aristotle surprisingly practical and useful even today! It is worth reading yourself – it is not that long a read and I may have some of the above incorrect. I also left out parts that I either did not grasp or did not seem as relevant.

If nothing else, it is fascinating that some old dude 2350 years ago had good advice for writing engaging stories that is still just as relevant today. Maybe he was smart after all!

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