Back when I was a freshman in college and thought I knew everything, I remember my English composition professor telling us about this Aristotle‘s poetics contained everything we needed to know to become great writers. This struck me as ridiculous knowing that Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived over 2000 years ago and people are obviously much wiser today. But when I later studied Greek and Latin and eventually became a professor of classics, I learned that Aristotle was a lot smarter than me at just about everything, including telling a story.
Aristotle is widely known as a brilliant philosopher and the inventor of practically every subject we study in universities today, but fewer people know that he wrote the first book of literary criticism known as The poetics. The title might lead you to believe it’s all about poetry, but since practically everything in ancient Greece was written in verse, it stems from stirring epics like the Iliad and Odyssey to obscene comedy, it’s actually about literature in general. And although the manuscript history of the poetics leaving the text somewhat garbled and abridged (the entire second half of the comedy is missing), it is a jewel of a handbook for the modern writer looking to publish a best-selling novel or Hollywood screenplay. You must read it yourself to discover the many lessons he has to teach, but consider just a few of the things Aristotle had to say.
A principle he begins with is that all forms of art, including storytelling, are some sort of imitation or reflection of the world around us. This makes sense, because if you, as a writer, want to reach an audience, you’d better tell a story they can relate to, rather than some abstract construct. This has serious implications for Aristotle, as it means that any good story must follow rules of logic. He condemns random plot changes, absurd twists and turns deus ex machina End up. You can write great fantasy stories, but you still have to ground them in the fundamental imperatives of the world we all live in.
Speaking of endings, Aristotle also says you better have one, along with a clear beginning and middle. This may sound obvious, but too many books and films start off strong and end up fizzled out because the author didn’t plan a clear and satisfying story climax. What makes the mysteries of Agatha Christie so entertaining is that for all their twists and surprises, they end up fitting together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Aristotle says so Oedipus rex by Sophocles (his favorite tragedy) is also a prime example of the requirement that all good stories have a clear beginning, a logical plot development in the middle, and a surprising but reasonable ending, even if (spoiler alert) the main character doesn’t kill his father and have sex with his own mother.
If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, film director, or television producer, Aristotle says you also want to make sure that the plot is central to your screenplay. This means that spectacle and special effects are always subordinate to the plot. You can still have car chases and lots of scary looking aliens invading Los Angeles, but you’d better make sure everything in your story serves the plot. That includes characters—which brings us to Aristotle’s most controversial rule, which says that the characters in your story are subordinate to the plot. Well, many very successful writers will disagree with Aristotle on this point, believing that characterization is the most important thing and what every good story is built on. But think about your favorite stories for a moment and see if you don’t think Aristotle is right. Imagine a story with fantastic characters and no decent plot (you don’t need to imagine too much as there are many movies like this). It’s fun for a while watching great actors play such characters, but after a while it gets boring as nothing really happens.
After all, Aristotle says that the best characters in a tragic story are basically good people (like you and me) who suffer a terrible downfall because of a weakness we can all understand. If you have a story about a bad person who triumphs in the end, you will have a very angry audience leaving the cinema. If your story is about a good man who triumphs in the end, you’ve essentially created a Disney cartoon, all of which is very beautiful but doesn’t tug at your heart and gives you the emotional workout of a gripping drama. For Aristotle, the very best stories inspire pity for a likable but flawed character and a fearful realization that the same could have happened to you.
Aristotle has so many great lessons to teach writers that are just as applicable today as they were two thousand years ago. Whether you’re honing your novel or writing the next great screenplay for Netflix, this ancient Greek philosopher has something to teach you.
Philip Freiman is Professor of Classics at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and author of How to tell a storya modern translation of Aristotle‘s poetics.