Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Aristotle's Secrets of Dramatic Storytelling

Why do we cry at movies? Or cheer? Why do thrillers put us on the edge of our seats? What is it about stories that pull such emotional reactions from us? Aristotle – who analyzed everything – wanted to know.

He didn’t write plays himself but noticed that successful plays had things in common. His analysis of what makes drama work, recorded in a little book called the Poetics, has defined the way writers talk about storytelling since. The book covers the art of tragedy; the book on comedy is lost. And while most writers today aren’t writing tragic plays, Aristotle’s principles apply across genres (and are particularly suited, I believe, to detective fiction, which involves tragic acts and surprising discoveries).

The book is actually a collection of notes taken by an astute student, which explains why the text sometimes feels disjointed and repetitive. Still, it is possible to lay out some principles in order – as Aristotle would have preferred. That is what I’ll be doing over the next several postings. I’ll begin with an overview of Aristotle’s 6 elements of drama in the next posting, and then I’ll re-visit each element in more detail.

Aristotle lists 6 elements in this order of importance: plot, character, “thought”, diction, song, and spectacle. We’ll go over these next time.

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