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 19: Thought and Diction
It remains to speak of Diction and Thought, the other parts of Tragedy
having been already discussed. concerning Thought, we may assume what
is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly
belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced
by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation
of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion
of importance or its opposite. Now, it is evident that the dramatic
incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic
speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance,
or probability. The only difference is that the incidents should speak
for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in
should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.
For what were the business of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed
quite apart from what he says?
Next, as regards Diction. One branch of the inquiry treats of the
Modes of Utterance. But this province of knowledge belongs to the
art of Delivery and to the masters of that science. It includes, for
instance- what is a command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question,
an answer, and so forth. To know or not to know these things involves
no serious censure upon the poet’s art. For who can admit the fault
imputed to Homer by Protagoras- that in the words, ‘Sing, goddess,
of the wrath, he gives a command under the idea that he utters a prayer?
For to tell some one to do a thing or not to do it is, he says, a
command. We may, therefore, pass this over as an inquiry that belongs
to another art, not to poetry.
I may be taking a simplistic view here, but let me run with this and see what our Aristotelian experts have to say on Part XIX: Isn’t this simply Aristotle’s way of drawing a distinction between what screenwriters would call Dialogue and Action?
Dialogue: Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech [emphasis added].
Action: Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches [emphasis added].
Dialogue = Speech.
Action = Incidents.
Moreover, as in a screenplay, the impact Dialogue and Action may have on the plot is the same. Aristotle lists the “effects” as being proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. In other words, make something happen.
As to the observations about Diction, I’m thinking this is an implicit nod to the nature of ancient plays which were, I am supposing, heavily dialogue oriented. They are, after all, considered to be “poetry,” not some other “art.”
Of course with the advent of motion pictures, especially during the silent film era, the emphasis switched almost entirely to visual storytelling.
Motion. Pictures. Both visual words. To this day, movies are primarily a visual medium. As screenwriters, our scripts may very well have a “command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question, an answer, and so forth,” but whatever dialogue we write can be best served while maximizing the visual trappings of a scene.
In any event, the distinction between Dialogue and Action is an important one, reminding screenwriters to find a balance between the two, something that can differ genre to genre, story to story, but should always be a consideration in the writer’s consciousness.
Furthermore as Dialogue and Action occur in the physical realm of a movie, what we hear and what we see, there is an implied meaning in the psychological realm, what we interpret and intuit.
For Dialogue, we may call that Subtext. For Action, we may call that Intention.
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 19 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?
See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.