Aristotle lists 6 elements of drama in this order of importance: plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle.
PLOT: This is the most important, being ‘imitation of action,’ which is what drama is in essence. Action (on the stage or on the page, in our case) is what is important, not what a person says he is or what he believes. What is important is what a character does, his actions. (That constitutes “Ethics” for Aristotle, too, where virtues are only real in actions that become habits that become a person’s character). All that we know come through the senses, Aristotle says. In drama, we see and hear action. By this, we infer character. This has come down to us as “Show, don’t tell.” When we see a man kicking the dog that brought him his slippers, we make a logical inference: the man is mean, or in a bad mood. When we see other acts of mean-ness, we conclude the man is mean. We don’t need someone calling from the side of the stage, “That man is mean,” just like we don’t need a writer to write “Joe was mean.” Show, don’t tell. Use action, not summary or author explanations. There can be more reflection and commentary in modern fiction, using a first-person narrator or an objective, omniscient narrator. But for Aristotle (and most genre fiction), it’s all about the action on stage.
While ‘plot’ and ‘action’ are most important to Aristotle, “character’ is a close second because characters make choices which result in actions and that constitutes the ‘plot.’ More on characters later.
“Thought” is the third element, a character’s reasoning process, his motivation, and the choices that result from these motives. Characters must be strongly motivated to act. Their motive, their ‘thought,’ is revealed in dialog or speeches. The dialog or speech always reveals something about the character’s motivation and shows what he wants, or what he wants to avoid, resulting in a decision that advances the action of the story – the ‘plot.’
What we end up with is this:
Action <-> Thought <-> Character
Start at either end you like. Action (which makes a plot) derives from the decisions that result from someone’s moral make-up, or ‘character.’
Or, in reverse: A person’s inner character leads to certain choices which result in actions taken that (looping back) affect the character. More simply: Characters are motivated to take actions. Whenever they do, the plot advances.
Aristotle’s emphasis on plot (or action) rankles many writers today who emphasize ‘character’ first and who – in a somewhat elitist way - make a distinction between ‘character-driven fiction’ and ‘plot-driven fiction,’ whereby ‘character-driven fiction’ is more subtle and ‘literary,’ and ‘plot-driven fiction’ is inferior, commercial entertainment. For Aristotle, such a distinction is irrelevant. Plot comes first, but plot is only possible with a strongly motivated character. The story is everything.
I hope some of this is making sense!
The other elements are embellishments, of a sort:
Diction is what we’d call ‘style,’ the effect of certain words in creating a mood, a tone, a voice, an attitude.
Song, which Aristotle identifies with the chorus as well as music, is not really a concern for you unless you sell the movie rights to your book. Even so, some writers like to imagine a soundtrack for certain scenes and listen to music as a way to get in the mood to write a particular scene.
Spectacle refers to special effects and is only the concern of the guy who works the crane that makes gods and goddesses fly around on stage, Aristotle says.
So let’s return to “plot.” “The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of a story, is the plot,” Aristotle wrote. That will be our focus next time.