Aristotle's Elements of Story

  • I was listening to Writing Excuses (podcast) today and they had a guest come on and talk about Aristotle's Elements of Story and how they still apply today. Here they are, in Aristotle's order of importance from greatest to least:

    • Plot (what happens externally)

    • Character (what happens internally)

    • Idea (settings, unique hooks, worldbuilding)

    • Dialogue (talkie talkie)

    • Music (Aristotle was talking about stage plays...)

    • Spectacle (visuals, art, maybe even description in a novel)

    Spectacle is placed as the least important element of a story. How do you folks all feel about that?

  • @Basil-Godevenos well, I've listened to that same podcast, and if I remember right, the writing excuses hosts did say that those elements shift around somewhat, depending on what you're doing.

    Also, you might think about it in terms of how much something calls attention to itself: does the illustration (or special effect or even music) serve the story or is there to show off the technical skill of the person who did it? Did all the money get poured into the visuals at the expense of the story?

    I mean, if you're talking animation, movies, eyc, you're going to want to have some visual interest going on, or the audience is going to get bored, but if the special effects call such a lot of attention to themselves that you miss the story, that might be an example of spectacle getting out of hand.

    On the other hand, there are productions where the whole point of what is done is the spectacle/visuals

  • Moderator

    Please please forgive me if I seem like I'm pontificating on a soapbox. I'm a theatre educator and I found this post incredibly interesting.

    I think one has to remember the context of Aristotle's writing. He was talking about theatre practices 100 years before his own time... Oedipus Rex, the play he analyzes, was over 100 years old when Aristotle wrote about it...

    Spectacle was very low on his Elements list because Greek theatre practice simply didn't have a lot of stage scenery or costuming in those days... They had masks that helped the vocal projection of the performers & maybe tall shoes called cothurni that helped their physical mass in the performance space ... But they didn't change scenery. Most of those classic Greek tragedies take place in one location. Most of the visual elements in the presentation came from the choreography of the chorus and their rhythmic delivery of their choral odes... And the plays themselves were re-tellings of classic stories the audiences would already know. The plot was by definition the most important, as the different playwright's interpretations of those stories were what the audiences were paying attention to.

    Aristotle's analysis has been both lauded and flat-out hated in various times throughout history. Derivations of it have resulted in government censorship (The French Academy's Unities), movements resulting in riots against its tenants (Victor Hugo's Hernani) and endless interpretations... His ideas have been wielded mercilessly as weapons in some eras, and resulted (in some cases) with plays being banned and authors being censured... In other times they were proudly ignored with the measure of success being how far one could get away from his theories.

    In the contemporary sense, Aristotle's Poetics isn't celebrated as much because we have a much more visually-oriented culture. As a result our brains have developed differently and therefore function differently. We naturally pay attention to and privilege different Elements in Aristotle's hierarchy in fundamentally distinct ways than people in his culture would have.

    Spectacle simply wasn't a tool they could use, or even thought of using. Even in Shakespeare's time they said one would go to "hear" a play, not "see" one like we would. It was a much different world than today.

    I think Aristotle's analysis is fun and useful as one type of frame one might use to compare/contrast/analyze one's work. But it doesn't always hold up for a huge swath of today's stuff... Poetics might be lionized in some circles, but even theatre education has corralled his ideas as simply one of many critical approaches that are no longer as sacrosanct or relevant as they have sometimes been regarded in the past. While certainly seminal to all theory and criticism that comes after it, in a lot of ways Aristotle's is a very dated perspective traditionally taken out of context because that's how it has always been used. Current thought is that "classic" approaches (which have almost all been postulated by dead white European males with a reverence that has been self-propagating and privileged over the centuries to the exclusion of others) are just tools in a worldwide historical toolbox of approaches...

  • @Coreyartus I like a good soapbox pontification!

    Thanks for bringing this into such clear context. When I was listening to the podcast, I was thinking of the list in terms of comics and graphic novels (because that's what I think I want to do with my writing and illustration). I'm a writer first, and have studied Blake Snyder, Joseph Campbell, etc. so I'm definitely coming at this question with a bit of a bias.

    That being said, I definitely have a hard time enjoying a comic as a reader if I don't love the art. Conversely, I've also found that no matter how good the art is, if the writing is bad, the turd won't polish, so to speak.

    While listening I jotted down the elements and their original order, then tried to think of where I could move spectacle up to. I found I couldn't budge it up the ladder past even dialogue (music, of course, is a non-entity in print).

    I think from a reader's perspective, the list of elements are less hierarchical, and more like nodes in a geodesic structure - each one as important as the next. But from a creator's perspective, I take Aristotle's order as gospel in terms of what you need to have nailed down before you can move to the next bit.

    Last minute thought: In illustrated texts, music could be translated as "atmosphere" in the art. The mood of a panel/page.

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