Readers of my blog know about my obsession with the classic form. Even if none of us had ever read the work of Aristotle, we know and understand the fundamentals of good drama when we discuss plot, characters and story. However, it took someone like Aristotle to explain exactly why great writers stokes audiences. Aristotle dissected the fundamentals of plays to discover the key principles of classic drama. Poetics freed writers to expand the classic form and this is why Aristotle’s principles of writing good drama continue to be of great significance today.
I studied Poetics because it was vital for me to have Aristotle’s key principles present in my work after I discovered that all the works that stoked me from childhood to adulthood originate from this form. Upon studying the work, I soon realised this classic form also exists in music and poetry I love. The problem for me is to be able to express Aristotle’s fundamental principles without it feeling contrived when you write. There is usually a flow which takes shape when this happens. I myself, am put off by contrived situations on screen and in print. I now realise the only way to avoid this is to practice until the the form becomes second nature in my work. Only then, will I be able to play with the form. I examined the work of Aristotle sometime ago but I now intend to return to the work again and I hope this is useful to other writers like me. Apologies if it is basic but I believe in starting from somewhere.
Aristotle, who lived between 384-322BC, wrote ‘Poetics’ but the work is not known to have been widely circulated or published in his lifetime. The discovery of Poetics years after Aristotle’s death has since influenced the dynamics of writing drama and poetry. The impact includes but is not limited to Poetics being properly translated in Italy during the Italian Renaissance and the time of Shakespeare in 1600. An Oriental version existed in 935AD. The classic form highlighted by Aristotle can be found in the works of Henrik Ibsen, Alfred Hitchcock, Arthur Miller, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon etc. The impact of Poetics has been considerable. I have written a short summary of Poetics but the original text, which is only 50 pages is a great read. It can be found at this url:
Poetics looks at the fundamentals of writing great tragedy. Aristotle believed the art of good dramatic tragedy was personified by the works of the Greek playwright Sophocles who was constantly voted as the most popular by audiences. Few of Sophocles plays now survive.
These are the fundamental principles of classic drama: –
Poetics considers tragedy to be the dramatisation of a sequence of events which cause a situation to go from good to bad in a logical but surprising way. The dramatic events must show not tell what actually happens and must function according to the laws of logical probability or necessity. The events must evoke strong emotions such as pity caused by the character facing ‘unmerited misfortune’ or fear caused by relating to the character facing adverse circumstances.
The plot should be an arrangement of events derived from an unbroken chain of cause and effect. The beginning, middle and end must have causal connections comprising a holistic whole to ensure audiences do not suffer from a suspension of disbelief or become disengaged from the plot. This is like looking at one’s own life, it is not split into dates but events which shape-shift into the life we have and know.
Aristotle acknowledged good characters must be complex, never stereotypes. The character like all human beings must have a flaw. This flaw must cause their situation to go from good to bad where they lose something of importance be it power, status or even risk their own lives or loved ones. Aristotle believed a good character has to be highly renowned and prosperous for the fall to be truly tragic.
The character’s speech or action must express their character and their personal motivations must support the plot and its overall holistic theme. There must be continuity.
The written character must be relevant to the role, provide a picture of their morality, be true to life and show consistency through necessity and probability. This realism must also show an otherness which shows the representation of perhaps what may be a greater capacity in all human beings. Today, we may describe this as human ideals but these attributes will be universally recognised in heroes and heroines. A great favourite of Hitchcock and Spielberg is where the ordinary person becomes extraordinary in particular circumstances.
Poetics is the basis of Western drama and is used by playwrights and screenwriters alike. Poetics is the standard text in Hollywood but some choose to digress from the classic form. Therefore, most of us know the classic structure of all drama but choose to watch drama at the cinema, TV or theatre rather than the amphitheatre.