every woman adores a fascist -- sylvia plath

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 5: Theme

Step 5:  Theme.   I don't know if you've noticed, but something very peculiar is going on in Aristotle's Poetics.  The audience brings a certain set of expectations about characters (certain people act a certain way) and the outcomes of actions (certain goals are achieved in a certain way).  These are all based on the audiences' set of precepts about life (we all have them).   Those act as the basis of the audiences' interpretation and expectations for the story.  The story depends on those precepts to be intelligible, as well as for the twist ending to work.  Remember, it's because of those precepts that the audience is surprised by the turn of events and reversal of fortune for the main character.  It's that surprise that makes them wonder (which is the goal of the tragedy).  The tragedy in order to work, must crush one or many of those precepts in order to be effective. The audiences' precepts about life are thus challenged by the story.  To this point, Oedipus, then, isn't just about some tyrant sleeping with his mom and killing his father.  It takes the audiences' belief that happiness is achieved by being a genius with absolute power and crushes it.  In some ways, it's a massive critique of the Ancient Greek (if not our own) take on life:  happiness is beyond you no matter how excellent your life is or seems.

Your story is an opportunity to comment on  life.  Your story is intelligible due to the audience bringing their precepts about life to it.  The tragedy turns those precepts on their head.   Given that the tragedy only works if our precepts of life are turned on their head, then it's your opportunity (and duty) as a writer to figure out which precepts of life are best turned on their head.   For example, in the story "Of Mice and Men' Steinbeck takes our precept of the American Dream and shows that it's really a fantasy:  it's something that does little more than keep us going through hard times.

When you design your story -- before you even write down a word of it -- start with determining your theme.  Figure out which precept of life you want to turn on its head and make a statement about it.  Maybe it's that the American Dream is a fantasy that keeps us going in the worst of times.  Maybe its how we treat the elderly and the despair we cause them.  Maybe its about fast food.  Whatever it may be, make it your honest revelation you've had about life and write about that.   Because when you write your tragedy and make your audience wonder about what happened, they're going to start wondering about the precept of life you just crushed, and then, maybe, they'll understand the revelation you've had about it and shared through your twist ending.

And then, maybe, you've successfully shared your revelation about life with the audience and made us all a little bit wiser.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 4: Beginning. Middle. (Twist). End.

Step 4:  Beginning.  Middle. (Twist).  End. 
  They're not arbitrary points in the story.   Remember, your story describes a single human action (the tragedy), made up of multiple characters influencing and creating that one action.  Human actions begin in certain ways, end in certain ways, and are attained (middle) in certain ways.  Human actions don't happen by virtue of gravitational pull, or the laws of thermodynamics.  They happen because people desire and want things.  Your beginning must express the situation the character is in and their desire for a certain end -- be it an object, a state of being, a solution to a problem, whatever.  That want is held by a person (or group of people) and impacts other people (the other characters).   The desires and wants of other characters impacts the main character's means (middle) to the end.  That the Tragic Hero does not know everything (the 'hamartia') is the basis of the twist ending -- as a new reality and set of circumstances is revealed to him or her, and the tragic reality is introduced.  And to that point, the middle of the story is precisely where those two different realities (the one perceived by the main characters at the beginning, and the true reality described in the twist) collide.  The middle is often described in terms of conflict and complications.  Those conflicts and complications are the clash of those two realities.  The middle thus "builds" to a crescendo of the revelation of the true reality and the reversal of fortune for the main character (the twist).


One of the worst interpretations of The Poetics involves the so-called "classical unities".  These "unities" state that the tragedy must be one action occuring in one place at one time.   This interpretation is derived by conflating action with motion.  It states, thus, that since all motion is understood by referencing absolute space and absolute time, all action can therefore only be understood in the same way.  Thus, the tragedy must occur in absolute space (one location) and absolute time (one day).  This conflation of action and motion is the basis of the bad interpretation.  Human action, however, is not the same as bodies in motion.  Human action involves intention, a goal, morality and character, unforeseen consequences, etc.  Bodies in motion, on the other hand, involve vectors through timespace (or, in Newtonian terms, a body moving though absolute time and absolute space).   The so-called "classical unities" is the horrible attempt to construct an "absolute time and space" through which the tragedy occurs.   The good news is that the so-called classical unities have largely been disregarded in practice.  The bad news is that for whatever reason, high school English teachers (and some college professors) croon over them like.. well, whatever it is they tend to croon about.  Ignore their crooning.  The classical unities don't exist, have never existed, and should not be used as "rules" of drama.  If a tragedy needs to occur in a darkened room with a bunch of people sitting in it, then by all means, have the tragedy occur that way.  But if your tragedy takes place in a variety of places, then so be it. The only "unity" you need to be concerned about is the unity of plot and the unity of character.  That's it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Aristotles Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 3: The Horror

Step 3:  The Horror.  The tragedy must be horrifying to the audience.   It must take the liked, well respected main character, and unexpectedly destroy them... but not completely.  The best tragedies are ones where the character avoids the tragic end, but it still lingers as a probable ending in their lives.  It's far more frightening to know that your violent painful death (or killing your child or whatever) can come unexpectedly at any time than to actually do it, or know when it will happen.  The actual tragedy is the constant potential fate of the character.  Yes, they avoid that tragic ending in your story, but only temporarily and not in a happy ending kind of way:  the don't defeat their fate.  Quite the opposite, the tragic ending is now known by the tragic hero and it now constantly lingers in the background of their life, waiting to strike at any moment.

When you design your story, your character's suffering should be something they are able to avoid but never defeat.