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,
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.