Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 7(A): Beginning, Middle, End

August 11th, 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 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
these principles.

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.

19 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 7(A): Beginning, Middle, End

  1. In Chapter IV there is a passage regarding the history of Drama, “It was not until late that the short plot was discarded for one of greater compass, …” Aristotle’s audience, at the time of the Poetics, was well aware of recent trends in their theater. They knew that Choral Competitions, which had been around for several hundred years at that point, gave rise to drama when singers stepped forward from the chorus and started to “act out” parts of the narrative they were singing. This lead to speeches, thusly parts of the narrative were dramatized in monologues. At first only the most dramatic moments at the end of the story were dramatized with everything else being handled in narrative song by the chorus. Over time more and more of the story was dramatized. Actors were beginning to take precedence over the chorus. The convention for nearly a century was to have only one actor on stage at a time. Then Aeschylus, he and Sophocles were writing 60-80 years before Aristotle, added a second actor to some scenes, thus creating what we would know as a true scene, but still using the convention of the chorus and songs. It was another ten or twenty years before Sophocles added a third actor to some scenes. This was the convention at the time of the Poetics. It was kind of the inverse of the American Musical: Songs interrupted by scenes, and the scenes could have only three speaking parts.

    Theater was presented at festivals and competitions, and was largely an amateur undertaking. There were some professionals, but they were the exceptions. This abundance of amateur work probably made for some dreadful theater. Combine that with most writers still adhering to the older convention of relying on choral song for the bulk of the narrative and just dramatizing the last couple scenes of the story, and it is easy to see why Sophocles won so many drama competitions.

    Aristotle admired the symmetry of a tragedy that had equally distributed scenes along with the choral songs and narration. That is why he thought that the plot, the spoken scenes, should be used throughout the tragedy and not just in a couple of spots.

    In my opinion Aristotle has been misread by people looking for a magic bullet to story structure.

  2. Pythagoras made an even simpler statement: “The beginning is a half of the whole.”

    The problem with these simple statements is, that they don’t really help you create your story. Of course, after you wrote it, everyone can use three act structure to analyze your story. But during the writing process, writers can become terribly depressed, because their mind is wandering in circles, not knowing how to work out the story.

    Most writers struggle with their second acts. They know how to set up and how to pay off their characters. They know how to create a gripping atmosphere and how to write witty dialogue, but they have no idea how to come up with enough plot between beginning and ending.

    After all those years, my biggest challenge is still finding out what “writing from character”, “rising complications” and “raising the stakes” means. :)

  3. pgronk says:

    In the epilogue of “Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell wrote: “There is no final system for the interpretation of myths, and there will never be any such thing. Mythology is like the god Proteus…” — the shapeshifter god of Greek mythology, who like the waters of the seas in which he lived, was infinitely changeable in shape but always the same in content.

    I think that could aptly apply to plot paradigms. There is no final system, no one size-fits-all paradigm. Aristotle’s tri-part division of Dionysian tragedy was the first plot paradigm. Later, the Roman poet Horace divided drama into 5 acts, a paradigm that was revived in the Renaissance, most famously by Shakespeare. Later, other dramatists used 4 acts, or 3, or 2, depending on the length and requirements of the story.

    And these days, “acts” are protean as dictated by the commerical requirements of the medium. On commercial TV, for example, an half hour can have a cold opener + 2-3 Acts + a tag. An hour drama may have a teaser + 4 acts.

    That said, I think Aristotle’s three part paradigm is still useful for discussing screenwriting at a certain level of theoretical abstraction. (I see no need to throw the baby out with the bath water as the two links suggest.) Rather, when it comes time to get down in the dirty details of writing, other paradigm tools may work better.

  4. Tracy Downey says:

    I think for me, when I’m creating the second act, I build up the tension by giving the protagonist just about everything he/she wants but at the same time, I give consequences to every decision he/she makes so by the third act, it’s about can they hold on to what they have or will their own choices, destroy everything? I just feel to preserve character, the flaws they have must be their downfall and the lesson by act three is to accept those shortcomings by learning from their mistakes…or not but I always give clues in the dialogue so the viewer never feels they’ve been cheated. I feel in hindsight, this is why David Chase was ridiculed by Sopranos fans. He never finished the ending-viewers hated that-writing peers applauded it. I think the trap is does Aristotle write for himself and his peers, or to the audience? In today’s society, I think the viewer needs beginning, middle and end to close the story in their mind. How long it takes for a story to get there is up to the writer/Hollyweird. A Series, 5 years for good, solid writing. A trilogy for novels and blockbusters-tragedies? 2hours.:) My MS-Swiss-cheese brain is enjoying this discussion. I haven’t read all of Aristotle’s work but Campbell’s I enjoy because it’s well thought out to me in a very simple way, at least for me.

    1. The inconclusive ending of The Sopranos was a way of saying “and things continue as they always have.” It was both a new spin on and a literal treatment of the nature of serialized story telling. No moral or larger meaning to this story. Life simply goes on. For Chase to have chosen one of the usual options — Tony is killed (tragic ending), Tony is transformed (redemptive ending) — would have been inconsistent with the original premise of the series: the irony of a modern-day mob boss with panic attacks having to see a therapist. Psychotherapy doesn’t cast judgement, so neither did David Chase.

      1. pgronk says:

        Like “Inception”, the ending of “The Sopranos” is also a great gimmick to inspire endless speculation and argument.

      2. hobbs001 says:

        It’s very obvious from the final few minutes of “The Sopranos”, not to mention the entire trajectory of the episodes leading up to the final one, that Tony was shot. I was under the impression David Chase had practically admitted as much, and was bemused that some viewers had apparently wanted to see Tony’s brains all over the restaurant. I thought it was an excellent ending but not at all inconclusive.

  5. Was just wondering how to reconcile the somewhat more modern writing edict to begin stories “in medias res” with Aristotle’s description of the beginning as “that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity. . .” – would anyone else also interpret this description of Aristotle’s as squaring with the idea of beginning the story at the point of occurence of the precipitating event(s)of the story being told?

    1. pgronk says:

      “In media res” was also coined by the Roman poet Horace. As Aristotle praised Homer’s Iliad for unity of action, Horace praised Homer for beginning the epic “in the middle of things”, to be exact, in the last year of the ten year war.

      (And the Iliad does not cover the climactic events of how the war ends, although the end is not in doubt by the conclusion.)

      Homer could have pegged the inciting incident nine years earlier with the abduction of Helen.

      Or even earlier when the Trojan prince Paris was called upon to judge a beauty contest of 3 goddesses, Hera, Aphrodite or Athena, was the fairest. (He chose Aphrodite; Hera and Athena never forgave him; they conspired to set up Paris to abduct Helen which triggered the Trojan War.)

      Or even earlier with the snub of Eris, goddess of discord, who was not invited to a wedding feast and set up events leading to the beauty contest…

      IOW: there was a long chain of causation in Greek mythology for Homer to work with. He made the brilliant artistic choice to begin the story as late as possible, in the last year of the war, and to build the plot around one character, Achilles.

    2. These two ideas are consistent. “In media res” is another way of saying, Get right to the story. Don’t waste time on preliminaries or extraneous fluff. It’s the same as saying, begin with “that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity.” Keyword here is necessity.

      This points to how drama has evolved over time. One of the things we have learned by trial and error is that you can bring the viewer into the story at a later and later point and they will still be able to “get it” and feel oriented to what’s going on. We now know that the point that does not follow anything by causal necessity can be much later in the objective chronology of events than earlier dramatists realized.

      1. pgronk says:

        Yep.

        There are 15,693 lines in the Iliad. The first one is:

        “Rage– Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’s son, Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses”—

        And the story is off and running.

        1. Cool! And the above also seems like a good argument for being leery of/sparing with bringing in back story (if at all) – thanks, you guys. . .

          1. pgronk says:

            The Iliad doesn’t even mention the backstory, the beauty contest that caused the war until the very last chapter of the epic!

            Homer didn’t have to start out with the backstory. Neither did Sophocles in writing Aristotle’s model tragedy, “Oedipus The King”. The ancient Greeks grew up on the backstory — what we call mythology was the warp and woof of their religion.

            So they had a cultural advantage that we don’t. Even so…

          2. Ah, Pgronk, I always have envied the ancient Greeks their cultural advantage – much more than the Romans their Empire – but maybe am a bit biased there; my dad, a big history buff, was inordinately proud that our Scottish ancestors’ own ancestors, those fierce northern tribes, ran so wild that the Roman pussies had to build a wall or two, just to keep them all at bay. . . :)

  6. Certainly, the number three is ripe with meaning. One you left out is the three dimensions of space. Another is the structural stability of the three-legged stool. Film is a medium based in time, not space. What is the minimum number of structural points needed for time-based stability? Aristotle identified three: a beginning, a middle and an end. This should be self-evident. A story with a beginning and a middle but no end is . . . well . . . not over yet. A middle and end with no beginning? That’s when you misjudge the number of trailers beforehand and come in late to the movie.

    Don’t overlook the repeated use of the word “whole” in this passage. One of Aristotle’s big concerns was to determine what creates cohesion in a dramatic work. He was posing the notion of a beginning, middle and end as a starting point for making sure a story has “wholeness.” He then ventures a definition of each that relies on the use of cause and effect. He is saying a story starts with a cause (that is not the effect of some other thing before it), and ends with an effect (that is not the cause of some other thing to happen next). In between there is a series of causes and effects, constructed in such a way that they gradually lead to that final effect at the end.

    This is his elaboration on what is necessary for cohesion — not only that there must be clearly marked boundaries of beginning and ending, but that everything in the middle needs to proceed one to the next in a logical manner. Again, a fairly fundamental idea. And a rather liberating one, if you can manage to separate it from the “Structure Wars” that seem to persist among screenwriting pundits these days. This passage says: Fulfill these minimum requirements and the rest is up to you.

    This is also about as specific as he ever gets about what happens between the beginning and the ending, except for Chapter 12 where he lays out the five conventions of Greek drama: Prologue, Parados, Stasimon, Episode and Exode. But these are simply the conventions of his time, just as what we call “Three Act Structure” is the convention of our time.

  7. pgronk says:

    Re:
    >>Freud suggested that psyche was divided into three parts: Ego, Super-Ego, Id

    And Jung favored quaternaries in his psycho-paradigms such that opposites (optimally) counterbalanced each other. Go figure.

  8. CydM says:

    The number 3 gets even more interesting when taken with Sven Eric’s mention of Pythagoras and seen as the Golden Mean. Everything spins out from the Golden Mean, and Campbell was on that, too. FLW has been referenced several times in relation to plot as an example of the basic requirements of architecture. FLW constructed most of his buildings on the Golden Mean. It’s everywhere.

    You’ve put this three part structure, which seems obvious, on the four elements of screenwriting. Interesting. In one of Campbell’s lectures I had on audiocassette, he mentioned coming across the number 436,000 over and over again in his studies. Reference to the number 436 was all over the web but now hard to find since somebody made a movie with that title (figures). So here we’ve got the three part structure, the four elements, and waiting for the number 6 to come into play, as it most likely will sooner or later. There just seems to be a natural order to things, and mathematics seems to be the language that tells it best.

    You forgot Goldilocks and The Three Bears. Not only are there three bears, but there are the chair, the bed, the food (three things), and each is either too + or too – before reaching just right. There’s also Little Red Riding Hood with Red, the wolf, and grandma. And “We three kings of Orient are…”

    With that much evidence around, best not to tempt fate and mess with beginning, middle, and end :-)

  9. Scott says:

    I am on the road and unable to respond at this time to each of your responses – all great.

    I concur with this point: There is no right way to write, no one system, no single approach. Stories are organic and deserve to be treated that way. Each story is different. Each writer is different. So anyone who says, “I have the magic formula,” run away from them as fast as you can.

    I do feel an affinity for three movements in a story and as noted in multiple screenplay elements from macro (overall narrative) to micro (scenes).

    But agree we can benefit by breaking down story into smaller increments or sequences.

    As noted, Act Two can be a bear to write, and it – especially – benefits from this type of incremental work.

    Re Jung and quatemaries: While my Plotline is three movements, I look at Themeline — the psychological realm of a story as being in four [generally]: Disunity, Deconstruction, Reconstruction, Unity.

    This latter construct is utterly malleable, reversible, invertible, and not a rule, just one articulation of the traditional positive transformation we see in movie protagonists.

    Much more to discuss, I encourage everyone to keep at it while I deal with spotty wifi.

    Onward!

  10. Daniel Cossu says:

    Scott, can you elaborate a bit on “Every scene should have a Beginning – Middle – End”? In particular what you mean by “End.” We are taught (and I know you agree) that scenes shouldn’t exactly end, as in feel final, but should propel the story forward by leaving the audience wanting more, ask questions and wonder what will happen next.

    The way I think of scenes is that they should have a trajectory. Meaning, start somewhere and go somewhere else, but not ending.

    I also think of it as “landing.” I want to avoid landing at the end of a scene to keep the story in the air, so to speak, in order to keep the story moving forward. I land the story on important beats and hopefully that will make the audience feel comfortable enough to exhale and reflect for a moment before we take off again.

Leave a Reply

Connect with: