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(C): Story Length and Change of Fortune
The limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous
presentment is no part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule
for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would
have been regulated by the water-clock- as indeed we are told was
formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama
itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the
piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be
perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the
proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence
of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will
admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to
It seems that Aristotle’s point about story “length” reflects his previous comments about magnitude, that “the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size,” suggesting that – ahem – size does matter.
Then Aristotle adds this point: “…provided that the whole be perspicuous.” If that twenty five cent word throws you, basically it means intelligible. So it’s not enough for a plot to have merely a Beginning, Middle and End, or a random chain of events. Rather there has to be a coherence to the narrative, it has to convey meaning that is understandable to the audience.
It’s that last part that really grabs my attention: …that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad [emphasis added].
Change, either ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ must occur. And once again, we have a direct connection of Character, as in our current use of the term, or Personal Agents per Aristotle, to Plot. Because good fortune or bad fortune happens to Characters, it is their fates that change. Thus it would seem Aristotle assumes this narrative element to be an essential part of Plot.
Of course, this dovetails directly into Joseph Campbell’s perspective that the whole point of a Hero’s Journey is the transformation that happens to the Hero, their change. And in my view, that links up beautifully with Carl Jung’s notion of individuation, the process whereby an individual moves toward wholeness by engaging and understanding all aspects of their psyche. It confirms the approach I take in teaching Core I: Plot which combines Aristotle, Campbell, Jung and the Whammo Theory, all four combining to create a solid theoretical foundation for screenplay structure as well as one grounded in the pragmatic realities of working in Hollywood.
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(C) of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?
See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.
For the entire series, go here.