A polymath is a person with knowledge in a wide range of topics. Polymaths go far beyond the Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none level of understanding and experience. These are experts in multiple fields. We often think of the Renaissance when we think of polymaths, Leonardo DaVinci being among the most famous. But there have been several throughout history. And Aristotle was one of them.
We tend to think of him as a philosopher. But among his many fields of expertise were arts, sciences, economics, politics, and metaphysics.
As this is a writing site, we’re going to talk about Aristotle’s contributions to literature. Not his work itself, but his defining of the terms comedy and tragedy.
In an Aristotelian comedy, the main character experiences setbacks until, at the end, he or she sets in motion a course of events reversing his or her trajectory and resulting in an end state better than the beginning state.
In an Aristotelian tragedy, the main character experiences what he or she perceives as windfalls until, at the end, he or she acts in such as way as to bring about a negative outcome.
There are three points of note to take away from Aristotle’s definitions.
- A comedy does not have to be what we consider funny. In fact, many dramas fit his definition of comedies. The protagonist merely has to end up in a better place than he or she started. A good example of a non-humorous comedy is Titanic. (Yes, Jack dies. A lot of people die. But remember, the story started with Rose wanting to die and ended with her not only living, but looking forward to what life has to offer.)
- A tragedy can happen in stories where it looks like the protagonist wins. These are harder to spot because they look like character successes. But remember, it’s not always about the character getting what he or she seems to want, but rather what they actually want. A good example of this is The Social Network. Sure, Zuckerberg starts Facebook and wins all his battles to become the sole owner of the platform. It looks like a win. But what he really wanted was popularity, and at the end, he’s lost his friends and his love.
- The resolution, comedy or tragedy, has to be a direct result of actions taken by the protagonist. The result can’t be something done to him or her; the protagonist has to be responsible for his or her own fate.
You might be wondering why I’ve taken the time to discuss these terms. Unless you’re studying for a literature degree, you probably don’t care about the terms or definitions. You just want to write a good story and probably only consider genre and the three-act structure.
Well, I’m telling you this because I found a new method for plotting a story that has me excited to try it.
I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos on craft lately, and I stumbled on a series with Jill Chamberlain, a screenwriting coach. (A much sought after and highly regarded screenwriting coach.) Before you say you write novels, not screenplays, let me assure you the concepts are transferrable. The video series is long and sometimes hard to follow, but I liked what I heard so much, I bought into the method. And I bought the book.
Chamberlain said 99% of the screenplays she critiques are not stories; they’re situations. You can follow three-act structure and hit all the pinch points and plot points at the right time, but if the elements in your story aren’t interdependent and don’t intersect at the right places, you may have fabulous characters doing extraordinary things, but you will only have a situation, not a story. The elements she focuses on are:
- set-up want
- point of no return
- climactic choice
- final step
I found her Nutshell method fascinating. And my next posts will go deeper into her theory, covering her concepts in more detail. By the time we’re done, I suspect even pantsers will want to take the time to nail these few touchstones before writing.
Here are a few other popular methods for fiction plotting, which I find very different from the Nutshell method (and very prescriptive):
- Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method
- Syd Field’s three-act structure method
- Karen Wiesner’s 30-Day, method
- Gustav Freytag’s five-step method
- James Scott Bell’s middle method
- Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey method
Do you use one of those? Something else? Plotters, are you interested in trying something new? Pantsers, can you imagine defining a few key points (like Chamberlain) before you write? Let’s talk about it.