Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 6(C): The 6 Parts of Tragedy, Part 2

July 7th, 2013 by

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 6(C): The 6 Parts of Tragedy, Part 2

Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its
quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Two
of the parts constitute the medium of imitation, one the manner, and three
the objects of imitation. And these complete the fist. These elements
have been employed, we may say, by the poets to a man; in fact, every play
contains Spectacular elements as well as Character, Plot, Diction, Song,
and Thought.

I will await our roving group of Aristotelians to weigh in with their much appreciated analysis, but in the meantime I’ll take a whack at it, digging deeper into a subject we first discussed two weeks ago here:

* The two parts that “constitute the medium of imitation” I would take to be Diction and Song. Song would musical components of the piece. Diction I figure has to do with the metrical structure of the written lines.

* The one part tied to “manner” would, I think, be Spectacle. And that I’m assuming is the set design, costumes, and what other elements of the play to make it appealing to the audience, primarily on a visual level.

* The three parts related to the “objects of imitation” would be Plot, Character, and Thought. Plot, as we have read last week, is the “imitation of the action… the arrangement of the incidents.” By Characters, I suspect Aristotle is referring not only to the “personal agents” whose actions are intimately involved in the “incidents” of the Plot, but also those aspects of personality we, as audience members, associate with individuals. And Thought? As suggested last week, “Thought pertains to the inner mind of a personal agent,” a reflection that in a story there is an External World of action and dialogue, and an Internal World of intention and subtext.

Now I’m going to embrace my inner Carl Jung and go all alchemist here by adapting meaning from each of these six that we, as contemporary screenwriters, might find more specific resonance in them for our craft:

* Plot: I think we can all pretty much live with the concept of it being “the arrangement of the incidents.”

* Character: Also the idea of “personal agents” can work within the context of a screenplay.

* Thought: We haven’t gotten there yet in “Poetics,” but I suspect Aristotle is going to suggest that a Character’s actions are closely tied to, even driven by their Thought, that is what is going on in their Inner Self [my words, not his]. And in my mind, this is absolutely critical in developing a story. Plot does not emerge in a vacuum, rather it derives from a specific collection of characters in a specific narrative context, each character of whom has their unique Wants, Needs, Conscious, Unconscious, Subconscious, and Backstory influences. I like the idea of Thought as a reference to all of that ‘stuff,’ although it does risk minimizing Feelings, Emotions, Passions, and the like which are equally, if not more powerful influences than mere ‘thought’. But if we look at Thought broadly as referring to the entirety of a Character’s internal workings, including the emotional aspects, it can be a helpful touch point.

Huge Note: Thought reminds us we cannot create a Plot without grounding it in Characters, and we cannot understand our Characters unless we immerse ourselves in the world of their Thoughts.

* Diction: Since screenplays do not have any formalized sense of meter, although screenwriters do (generally) cherish tight, lean writing, perhaps we can adapt Diction to mean what I call Narrative Voice, essentially the attitude of the writer toward the telling of the story as personified in the story’s invisible narrator. I even have a formula for it: Narrative Voice = Genre + Style. So Diction can refer to the distinctive ‘voice’ we bring to everything we write in a story — scene description, dialogue, scene construction, transitions — the personality of our Narrator as evidenced in the words we use to convey the story.

* Song: Again adapting the concept, what if we look at this as the Rhythm of the narrative? It’s pace, the balance between action scenes and interaction scenes, between night and day, outside and inside, the harmonies we create through the interplay of our scenes and sequences?

* Spectacle: Here we land on pretty solid ground as movies are primarily a visual medium and thus Spectacle would seem to best fit referring to the story’s cinematic potential. What is it about our screenplay that is going to capture the ‘eyes’ of the reader, and through that experience, their imagination? We must remember movies were once (and sometimes still are) called ‘motion pictures,’ each word spotlighting visuality. Motion. Picture. So Spectacle would seem to be a good reminder that we must always think first about the visual narrative, how to arouse a reader’s sense of what they can see.

Note: “Spectacles” historically referred to someone’s eyeglasses, so again the word steers us toward the idea of playing to a reader’s visual sensibilities.

Well, that was fun! As I say, I await the wisdom of our noble Aristotelians, but I’m comfortable appropriating these six concepts into a modern framework, hopefully in the spirit of their original intention.

A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times.

How about you? What do you take from Part 6(C) of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

For the entire series, go here.

5 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 6(C): The 6 Parts of Tragedy, Part 2

  1. pgronk says:

    Interesting and illuminating alchemy of Aristotle’s ideas written from the pov of a spectator-critic-philosopher to the pov of a writer putting words on the page.

    About the the alchemy of Song to screenwriting: “the balance between… action scenes and interaction scenes, between night and day, outside and inside, the harmonies we create through the interplay of our scenes and sequences…”

    I would add the balance of opposing characters, and the “harmony” of the conflict.

    By balance of opposing characters, I mean an protagonist who is a worthy match to a formidable antagonist. Maybe not at the start of the plot, but he/she has the potential for a strong, growth character arc. [See Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader]

    Ditto with the antagonist in relation to the protagonist. The antagonist is more than a convenient foil, a plot sock puppet; he/she is a serious threat to the protagonist goal and even the protagonist’s very life.

    By harmony of conflict, I have in mind what Charles Hampden-Turner points out in his excellent chapter on Greek drama in “Maps of the Mind”, “Greek drama… were celebrations of harmonia (harmony) and symphronasis (reconciliation and symphony)… Harmony was not some persistent harping on a single mean, but the play of the instrument around the mean. Similarly Greek tragedy shows scant respect for … temperaments… The ideal is both the attainment of heroic extremes and the realization that harmony requires one extreme to yield to its opposite, in the rhythm of verse, plot and music.”

    1. Scott says:

      pgronk, oh yes. Balance between characters. So true. Reminds me I should do my semi-annual character archetypes posts because there is a visual paradigm that is mindblowing, at least to me, in terms of its symmetry, not the least of which is because it resembles some of Jung’s mandalas… which I didn’t realize until after I’d come up with the paradigm. Long story.

      Anyhow if we look at a story as the journey of a Protagonist or Protagonists, responding to the Call To Adventure created by their unique Story Universe, then in a way everything that happens and all character relationships are grounded in that narrative pulse.

      Nemesis: The projection of the Protagonist’s shadow.
      Attractor: The character most distinctly tied to the Protagonist’s emotional growth.
      Mentor: The character most distinctly tied to the Protagonist’s intellectual growth.
      Trickster: Sometimes enemy, sometimes ally, tests the Protagonist’s will.

      The Protagonist-Nemesis relationship (imagine a vertical axis with P at the top and N at the bottom) is tied to the existential question posed by the story: Who is the Protagonist? The fundamental question of their self-identity.

      The Protagonist-Attractor-Mentor relationships (imagine a horizontal axis with A at the left and M at the right, bisecting the vertical P-N axis) is most directed connected to a behavioral question: How will the Protagonist act?

      Now imagine a circle around the two axes where the Trickster exists, donning whatever archetype mask s/he chooses to fit their own ego-needs, but in terms of the narrative tests the P again and again.

      What you get is something like this, taken from Jung’s “Red Book,” one of his many mandalas: North = P, South = N, West = Attractor, East = Mentor, Perimeter = Trickster.

      And that circle in the center? That’s where the narrative inevitably leads, where all of the characters converge leading to a confluence of interactions and events resulting in The Ending.

      Didn’t mean to blurt all that out, but to me, this represents a wholly different way of approaching screenwriting, a character-based process where the plot emerges FROM the characters, and… per your original comment… there is a balance between the characters and their interrelationships.

      I’ll try to carve out some time in the next few weeks to do a series of posts on the five primary character archetypes.

      1. pgronk says:

        Attractor & Mentor:
        They are not just cheerleaders and sidekicks; they balance and support the protagonist by providing something the protagonist really, really, really, really needs. The protagonist will fail without them, fail if what they bring to the story is rejected.

        Protagonist-Shadow relationship:
        I think it is useful to point out that Jung did not define the shadow as intrinsically evil. The shadow is merely the repressed, inferior, underdeveloped aspects of the personality (for better or worse).

        Applied to dramatic relationships means, it means there can be a secret symmetry between protagonist and antagonist such that not only is the antagonist the projection of the protagonist’s shadow, but conversely, the protagonist is the projection of the antagonist’s shadow.

        One of the clearest dramatizations of this is in the “Star Wars” epic. In “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”, as part of his training under Yoda, Luke Skywalker confronts his shadow: Darth Vader — what Luke could become if he chooses the dark side of the Force.

        But it is equally the case that onto Luke can be projected Darth Vader’s shadow — the inferior, undeveloped constructive, noble aspects of Darth’s personality — the hero Anakin Skywalker could have become if he hadn’t chosen the dark side.

        1. Scott says:

          Re shadow: Absolutely. I look at the Nemesis primarily from the perspective of their narrative function and that is to provide opposition to the Protagonist. So not necessarily evil, but rather – again – a projection of that which the Protagonist ‘opposes’ psychologically within him/herself through repression, suppression, avoidance, etc. Approaching a Nemesis this way is much more interesting and less apt to result in a caricature, one more intimately tied in an interesting way to the P.

          Re Empire Strikes Back: I use that scene all the time in exploring the shadow as it is straight out of Jung.

          Re Mentor and Attractor: Absolutely, which is why I much prefer these designations to Allies because there is a specificity to each’s purpose in a story. Head and Heart as metaphors.

          Character archetypes are such valuable tools that can lead to much richer, more textured characters.

  2. Oh, yes, I love this idea you & Pgronk just addressed about balancing the characters as necessary for the harmony of the conflict, and also, Scott, what you said, with regard to screenwriting, about how we always must think first of the visual narrative, what the viewer will see.
    And when I first read this section, Aristotle’s phrase, “Two of the parts constitute the medium of imitation” (in reference to plot & character, I think), I was reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s famous line, “The medium is the message.” I think plot and character, the two mediums of imitation, also must balance for the harmony of the narrative.

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