Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 7(C): Story Length and Change of Fortune

August 25th, 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(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
bad.

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.

16 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 7(C): Story Length and Change of Fortune

  1. jcporter1 says:

    Yes, yes, character is essential and transformation as Campbell says, but it is the PROGRESSION that is what is vital. And in my opinion missing in modern storytelling. Where is the third act? Or if you will Part 2 of Act II. Missing or rushed all the damn time. Just watching World’s End, been waiting weeks for the opening, rush out first weekend,I am blown away by the opening 10 to 12 pages. We learn everything in a natural logical manner that is funny and delightful to watch. There is a great middle part, then it all unravels. (At least imho). They didn’t know what to do. OR else the editor butchered it OR an exec told them to speed it up and wrap under a certain time limit. To end with spoken exposition… No one connected with this film ever gets to mock Peter Jackson’s 20 minute dragged out ending of LOTRings.
    That saying, Freeman was so good I thought he was plastic!

    1. Scott says:

      I hear you, JC, how frustrating it is to see a story going along so well, then fall apart at the end [I have not seen World's End yet, so can't speak to that].

      One clue per Billy Wilder: “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” And often what that is about is the story doesn’t focus on the Protagonist’s state of Disunity. Both Campbell and Jung get into this in their own way [Jung psychologically, of course, I just extrapolate what he says and apply it to story characters], and the underlying truth is this: There is an implied narrative destiny for a Protagonist.

      In the Internal World or the psychological domain of the story, it can be seen as a transition from Disunity to Unity [in the traditional 'positive' arc stories that dominate mainstream movies].

      In a good movie, that gets played out in the External World or the physical domain of the story, building to some sort of Final Struggle whereby the Plotline and Themeline merge. And THAT should show a progression on both fronts, one that physicalizes the Protagonist’s transformation.

      This is all high rhetoric for a dynamic we recognize innately in movies as we see it over and over and over again. But as noted, if the ending isn’t a satisfactory one, oftentimes it’s because the filmmakers haven’t done a good job identifying the core essence of the Protagonist’s inner state of Disunity and how that can best be resolved.

      Note: There are other reasons, too, just not enough time to go into them here.

  2. pgronk says:

    If Aristotle is right that a well made plot has (at least one) reversal of fortune, is that sufficient to guarantee that there will also be a transformation in the Hero’s character?

    I have seen plenty of films that hit the time marks in terms of Act 1 reversals of fortune (from good to bad) and Act 3 reversals (from bad to good) with little or less meaningful character transformation.

    Can there be a transformation of the Hero’s character without an Aristotelian reversal of fortune? Perhaps, but it doesn’t make for compelling drama.

    The films I most enjoy are those that make good use of both reversal of fortune AND transformation. The two are inextricably interwoven such that each is alternately the cause and then the effect of the other.

  3. pgronk says:

    I have a tentative hypothesis (please refute): It is possible to have a successful movie (critically and commercially) where the 2 elements, reversal of fortune and character transformation are not the sole monopoly of the protagonist. They can be apportioned among the principal characters.

    By that I mean the most important reversal of fortune may happen to the protagonist, but the most meaningful arc of transformation may occur in another principal character.

    I’m scratching my brain pan to recall movies where the reverse obtains: that is, the protagonist has the biggest transformation while another principal undergoes the biggest reversal of fortune.

    It seems to be the general rule that the protagonist “owns” the most important reversal of fortune.

    Just like Aristotle said he/she should.

    1. Scott says:

      pgronk, I think we could spend a decent amount of time discussing the importance (or not) of reversal of fortune tied to transformation. Certainly seems like it is the line of least resistance as a writer because it implies yanking a character out of their safety zone (Home) and thrusting them into a New World where their old ways of being don’t apply. And it can be much more than that involving physical and psychological degradation and challenges, etc.

      As to your question, is it possible to parse out reversals and transformations to multiple characters, not just focus it on the Protagonist, sure. Indeed if you look at the classic Protagonist-Nemesis construct, the fact the P almost always defeats / overcomes the N leads to a major reversal for the N. And if the P is fighting for the benefit of others, that victory can lead to a reversal for those allied with the P.

      But on a personal level, the movie that sprang to mind per your observation is The Shawshank Redemption. Andy suffers a massive reversal of fortune by being committed to prison for two murders he did not commit. But arguably, the biggest personal transformation occurs with Red, who evolves from a near fatal place of hopelessness to making a life-changing decision to embrace hope when he commits to fulfilling a promise he made to “an old friend,” of course Andy.

      Andy does go through a change of sorts, starting out as a “cold” man and demonstrating his human side over and over through his acts of generosity with his prison compatriots, but largely his is a journey of steadfastness, clinging to his ideals about beauty, music, and humanity, all wound up in his relentless clinging to hope. Indeed the 19 years it took him to tunnel his way out of his cell is a testament to that hope, every night acting on it.

      Andy’s hope fans the tiny embers that barely exist within Red, Andy’s influence keeping them alive long enough so that Red DOES change (witness the 3rd pardon hearing compared to the first two). And most notably, he rejects the path Brooks took (suicide) and opts for the one Andy promotes: Mexico as the physicalization of hope. Indeed the last two words of the movie are Red saying, “I hope.”

      But it’s all set up with the massive reversal of fortune: Andy being incarcerated.

      I feel like we’ve hit on something important here, the distinction between change of fortune and transformation. Looks like a blog post in the making…

      1. pgronk says:

        Scott:

        “Shawshank Redemption” is a good example. I think another good example of transformation and reversal, character and plot working in tandem is “The Godfather”. First the plot drives the protagonist, Michael Corleone, forces him to change through the reversal of his father being shot (and a subsequent attempt). By the end of the movie, Michael (because of the transformation forced by his family’s enemies) is driving the plot: he initiates a preemptive strike and takes out all his enemies.

        As we will encounter Aristotle on plot reversal again in The Poetics (it’s a central concept of his dramatic theory) I hope we can explore the relationship of reversal to transformation further. Including movies where there’s plenty of plot reversal — but little or no transformation of the protagonist. For example, the super-hero franchises– after the first film of the franchise, that is. In the origins episode there is always a big transformation. But after that…

        1. Scott says:

          pgronk, let’s definitely keep this subject on the front burner. It goes beyond relevance to Poetics as we have touched on here in this thread.

  4. So it sounds as if the reversal – or reversals – of fortune (as pgronk notes, there may be more than one) must serve the arc of character transformation directly, as well as help the plot progress? And that the work must be of adequate length/size to allow both to unfold with logical clarity (at least according to the story’s own internal logic)?

    1. Scott says:

      Melanie, I’m reminded of that old adage about getting a character up a tree, then throw rocks at him/her. Yes, there is tremendous value in making the Protagonist’s path one filled with obstructions. In fact, I’ve written about this before using three types: Complications, Roadblocks, and… well, I’ll be darned… Reversals.

      Complications: A complication is an event or circumstance which slows the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.

      Roadblocks: A roadblock is an event or circumstance which stops the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.

      Reversals: A reversal is an event or circumstance which reverses the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.

      What these three represent are degrees of difficulty for the Protagonist character: Complication the easiest to overcome, Roadblock a harder development, and Reversal the most difficult.

      The events happen in the physical world (Plotline) and that causes characters to absorb the experiences as catalysts for change in the psychological world (Themeline). That’s a theoretical way of articulating what we experience organically when we watch a movie, how a character goes through a transformation, this constant interplay of Cause (Event) and Effect (Change).

      It’s why when we look at events in our plots, we should always be on the lookout for elements that are tied to the character’s transformation. That is especially important when it comes to endings. Here’s an example:

      It’s a Wonderful Life: Why is the Big Event when Billy loses the $8,000? George Bailey has been living on nickels and dimes his whole life, forced by circumstances to run the Bailey Building and Loan, in essence sacrificing his dreams for others. Losing that money and being threatened with jail leads him to conclude he wishes he’d never been born. So on a personal level, he goes through a journey with Clarence to see what that would really be like. Then in a broader context, the crisis instigates the massive act of faith and gratitude on the part of the citizens of Bedford Falls. In other words, the loss of that money is PRECISELY what needed to happen in order for George to fulfill his own narrative destiny and emerge a transformed individual.

      Also note the reversal of fortune at work in Wonderful Life.

      Do other movie examples come to mind?

      1. A recent movie that I really enjoyed just came to mind – in Tamara Drewe (screenplay by Moira Buffini), when the the title character, a young reporter, goes back to her hometown, her return acts as a catalyst setting several arcs in motion, and my favorite reversal of fortune is that of the novelist’s wife – she goes from being a neglected spouse to a widow (with a new love interest on the horizon), while the husband’s reversal is his downfall from the perch of “renowned novelist” (spoiler alert, he literally goes to ground, since he’s trampled to death by cows).

      2. pgronk says:

        >>What these three represent are degrees of difficulty for the Protagonist character: Complication the easiest to overcome, Roadblock a harder development, and Reversal the most difficult.

        And the “worst” is saved for last: a big reversal is what usually triggers the “all is lost” moment at the end of Act 2.

        1. Scott says:

          Absolutely, hence the very idea of “all is lost” at the end of Act Two. Essentially it acts as a pivotal moment: Do I go ahead in what looks to be a task with insurmountable odds or do I turn back? Almost always the Protagonist summons some heretofore hidden reserves of will, courage, strength, etc, and forges ahead. Raises an existential question: Has the P learned enough along the way, incorporated the intellectual wisdom of the Mentor and the emotional wisdom of the Attractor, and gotten in touch with their Core Essence, making that the foundation of their potential New Self, so that they can take on the Nemesis / Final Struggle and succeed, and in so doing move them toward Unity?

          Again high language for something we know intuitively about stories.

  5. This is one of those passages in The Poetics that is exasperatingly vague. The longer a piece is, the more beautiful it will be by virtue of its being so long? What, in practical matters of dramatic structure, does that mean? The proper length is that which allows the hero to plausibly move from bad to good or from good to bad? Yeah, sure, but exactly how do you make that progression plausible?

    Having made the radical (for his time) statement that a drama must have a structure, and then having very aptly outlined the basic parameters of that structure as including a beginning, middle and end with events proceeding according to the laws of cause and effect, here he is casting about to elaborate further on what constitutes a good structure by focusing on the matter of length. But saying that the length of a drama should be determined by the needs of the story, rather than the needs of the performance venue, is not saying much. That a drama should be long enough to be comprehensible to the audience is similarly self-evident. Finally, he gets around to what actually happens in the story, pointing out that there needs to be a believable progression from beginning to end. But all that bad-to-good/good-to-bad stuff is only saying a drama has to be long enough for something of significance to happen in the course of it.

    I see this paragraph as a diatribe in response to some contemporary cultural discussion on length that we will never be privy to, as if he’s talking to the impresarios of his time more than the artists.

    1. I’ll bet you’re right about the discussion we cannot ever be privy to (& also, thank goodness we no longer have to worry about being regulated by the water-clock!).

    2. Scott says:

      Jennie, I’ll bet you’re right. Having done considerable academic work with some of Paul’s epistles and the Gospels in the New Testament, that was always an issue, speculating about what the context was for the writing, responding to what particular social, cultural and religious context? Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, particularly with Paul where he would lay out this problem or that situation in the religious community in Corinth, Ephesus, etc, sometimes not clear at all.

      I suppose another angle to interpret it is to connect it to the previous paragraph, specifically this:

      Hence a very small animal organism cannot
      be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen
      in an almost imperceptible moment of time.

      Could Aristotle be focusing on length to drive home the point that a story CANNOT be a story if it’s too short, it must be long? But even there one feels like that is part of some specific debate or discussion at the time unknown to us.

  6. Everything in drama seems to come down to change. To quote William Victor(www.creative-writing-now.com): “The story is how you get to the happy ending. Or how it turns sour.” According to Aristotle, this means either comedy or tragedy.

    Plot is the change in the life of the main characters. Every step in a good plot is connected by a “but” or a “therefore”. It creates a clean line of action. Developing plot with a scene list becomes much easier if you just think about what change occurs in every scene.

    The reason why Aristotle considered plot more important than character is that if you don’t have those changes, your characters are static and meaningless.

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