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 8: Unity
Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity
of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s
life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many
actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the
error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid,
a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles
was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer,
as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether from art
or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing
the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such
as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering
of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable
connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to center
round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore,
in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object
imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must
imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts
being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole
will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence
makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.
Well! We are clearly into some substantial ideas here, ones that relate to the very essence of ‘story’. Let me cull out some key parts:
* As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action… We must not assume that unity derives from a character, assuming that since they are a single individual, the narrative arising from them will be somehow unified. No, characters, reflecting as they do the lives of human beings, have multiple aspects to their persona, experience, personal history, and so forth. Rather unity derives from “one action” and the imitation of it as represented in a plot.
An obvious question to an outsider living in the modern age [read: me] is this: What does Aristotle mean by the term action? On the one hand, it reads like an inciting incident that sets into motion a plot, and I would assume that he means only one plot is possible to derive from that initial action. But doesn’t that depend upon where the writer stands in relation to the story? If I have typed FADE OUT / THE END, I can look back at the plot and perhaps say, “Yes, this narrative is the only possible way things could have gone.” However if I stand at the front of the plotting process, there are, in fact, an endless number of plot choices I could make. Even if I was to immerse myself in the lives of the characters, the fact is they, too, would have innumerable choices.
So then I’m led to think, by action does Aristotle mean the entire plot of a story? This must be more on target, yes? For again, if I stand at FADE OUT / THE END, I have a vantage point which allows me to see the unity of the plot, having worked out its details.
Of course, Aristotle never had to work with movie studios, producers, and talent who all have ideas about what the plot should be, and frankly how unified can a screenplay be if it is written and rewritten by multiple writers?
* …that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. This all writers ought to be able to understand. Whether we can assess a piece of material from a vaunted perspective of Unity or a more proletariat vantage point whereby this scene leads to that scene which leads to that scene, we get that there is a flow of events that if altered runs the risk of being disrupted and become ‘disunified.’
* For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole. We also should be able to grasp this: If a scene or character contributes nothing to the story, it is not an inherently valuable, beneficial, necessary or “organic” part of the whole.
Therefore the whole “unity” angle is something screenwriters know and struggle with in crafting a story. However I want some clarity on precisely what Aristotle means by “action”. Is it the inciting incident? The entire plot? Or does it describe something else?
Inquiring minds want to know. Hopefully our band of intrepid Aristotelians will be able to shed some light on the subject.
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 8 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?
See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.
For the entire series, go here.