Aristotle Gave Us More than Philosophy

Comedy TragedyCiao, SEers. Have you ever heard the term polymath? I had to dig deep into my college days to remember the definition. (We won’t discuss how long ago that was.)

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.

Aristotelian Comedy
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.

Aristotelian Tragedy
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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  • protagonist
    • flaw
    • strength
  • set-up want
  • point of no return
  • catch
  • crisis
  • triumph
  • 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.

Staci Troilo Bio

53 thoughts on “Aristotle Gave Us More than Philosophy

  1. Aristotle’s Poetics is so fascinating. Aaron Sorkin said it should be the screenwriter’s Bible. I’m not so sure about that. But it absolutely provided me with different ways of viewing storytelling in general. Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The first writing class I took was Screenwriting. And yes, all the methods and theories transfer seamlessly into writing a novel or a song. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to more from Jill Chamberlain. She is quite the expert!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A nutshell anything appeals to me. Not sure whether it is my ADD or what? Very interesting post. I see why I start a story with the ending in mind since it fits the nutshell outline you describe. I am looking forward to learning more since I’m the panster’s panster.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    An absolutely wonderful post today on Story Empire from Staci Troilo, regarding Aristotle and the true definitions of Comedy vs Tragedy. Hint: it isn’t necessarily what you think. Do yourself a favor and check it out, then if you would, please consider passing it along so others can, too. Thanks and thanks to Staci for teaching me something brand new today! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. As a new writer, I’ve never taken a class or actually studied the craft, and have been “winging” it so far, based mostly on the fact that I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of books over many years. I have an idea of how a book should be structured, I think, but that’s very different from truly understanding the best way to go about it and why. I know if I’d started writing much younger, I’d have sought out this kind of information in order to improve my work. I don’t have the luxury of decades ahead of me now, BUT, that doesn’t mean I can’t keep learning. This post has really made me think, Staci! (Uh-oh. Be afraid. Be verrry afraid. 😀 )

    Seriously, I am going to investigate this in more depth, and try to utilize some of these points in my very next book. No reason I can’t get better as I go, right?

    Now all I want to know is, where do I find Aristotle’s podcasts? 😀

    Thanks for a great post! Sharing this one, for sure! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • If Aristotle was alive today, his would be one of the few podcasts I’d listen to.

      I’m really glad you found this information useful. There’s a lot more detailed info out there, but I am going to give a general breakdown of these points in the coming weeks. And I’m always happy to have a discussion about any of this. (What? Me? Talk? No…. lol) Thanks, Marcia.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Staci, for this excellent post. When I read through the terms and the examples, I realized how little I know about writing, and you’ve inspired me to stretch my limited horizon. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This is an interesting insight, Staci. Thank you.
    A good reminder that what the main character thinks she wants at the start of the story is not necessarily what she wants or needs.
    Also a good reminder of Aristotle’s ideas on story arc and character development. I must have known this at some time but forgot, because I found it refreshing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It was a take I’d never heard before, and I didn’t think that was possible. I would have sworn I’d seen it all in some version already. It’s a pretty interesting method. Glad you’re interested in it, too.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I think I’ve read (and own) all of James Scott Bell’s craft books. I know I don’t write from the middle, but that was an interesting concept for me, too. I’m excited to try this new take on a few standalones I’ll be writing next year. It’s not a step-by-step method; rather, it tells you what you need to consider as you conceive the story and roughly where some of those things fall. How you get to the rest of those elements is all up to your creative process. It seems both freeing and wonderfully specific, if you can believe it.

      Liked by 2 people

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