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 7(A): Beginning, Middle, End
These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper
structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important
thing in Tragedy.
Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action
that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there
may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which
has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does
not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something
naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which
itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or
as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows
something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot,
therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to
Okay, here we go. Arguably this second paragraph is the foundation stone of what we have come to know as Three Act Structure:
Beginning = Act One
Middle = Act Two
End = Act Three
Three parts. Three movements. The number “3” is an interesting one.
- Three is first odd prime number and the second smallest prime
- There are three types of galaxies: elliptical, spirals, and irregulars
- Three basic Earth divisions: Igneous- Metamorphic- Sedimentary
- Freud suggested that psyche was divided into three parts: Ego, Super-Ego, Id
- Holy Trinity: Father – Son – Holy Ghost
- The three R’s: Reading – ‘Riting – ‘Rithmetic
There is an inherent sense of structure to the number 3: a triangle of three points; three pitches in a triad, the most basic form of a chord.
There is also a sense of finality upon experiencing that third part: third’s a charm; three strikes and you’re out.
Furthermore there are innate cycles in the physical universe that reflect three movements: Sunrise – Day – Sunset; Departure – Journey – Return; Birth – Life – Death.
So, too, in the world of ideas: Hegel’s dialectic of Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis; classical music’s sonata form of Exposition – Development – Recapitulation.
The idea of these three movements is so fundamental to the human experience, it is little wonder that story structure evolved to Beginning, Middle and End. Nor I guess that Aristotle should land on this articulation as well.
Indeed directly related to screenwriting, these three movements of Beginning, Middle, and End undergird all elements of script structure:
- Every scene should have a Beginning – Middle – End.
- Every sequence should have a Beginning – Middle – End.
- Every subplot should have a Beginning – Middle – End.
- Every screenplay should have a Beginning – Middle – End.
There are those nowadays who claim Three Act Structure in relation to a screenplay is a “myth,” such as here and here. In my view, they do so at their peril. Does each act have a substructure? Certainly. May we divide each act into smaller sequences? Yes. But almost invariably, those smaller components can be interpreted as comprising an act or acts, and the overall narrative of a screenplay will more than likely have three overarching movements.
Beginning. Middle. End. The foundation of a “well constructed plot.”
A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.
How about you? What do you take from Part 7(A) of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?
See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.
For the entire series, go here.