every woman adores a fascist -- sylvia plath

Monday, June 25, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 1: Wonder

M.C. Escher's Waterfall
Step 1:  Wonder.   The key to a great tragedy is to excite wonder  in your audience after they've experienced your story.  They must want to understand what happened and why.


I know, I know, you're saying "What about the tragedy, Aaron?  What about the incest and accidental father beheadings?"  We'll get to that.  But don't make the mistake that your tragedy must only be organized around a mom sleeping with a son, or something.  Sure, that's shocking, but that's not the entire point.  Such things are simply the means to the end of creating wonder in the audience.  The audience must want to know what happened to the main character and why it happened after experiencing your story.  Shocking things alone are a part of it, but not enough by themselves to prompt the question "why?" for the audience.  Since wonder is best caused by something unexpectedly happening, the audience must expect one thing to happen, and then experience another -- something paradoxical.   (Aristotle uses the term "para ten doxein", from which we derive the word "paradox" to describe this twist.)  On that note, anyone who has read Aristotle's Poetics probably knows that his work  has confused many readers by expressing two goals with tragedy:  both creating wonder in the audience, and also the main character's horrible downfall.  The reason why people get confused by this is because they think he's talking about the same goal. It's not the same goal.   One goal (the character's downfall) is subordinate to the other (exciting wonder in the audience).  The character's horrible downfall excites wonder in the audience by happening completely unexpectedly. 

So why that?  Why must the tragedian rely on the unexpected downfall of a character to excite wonder in the audience?   That will be answered in our next Easy Step.  

Next up --  Step 2:  The Tragic Hero.