Friday, August 14, 2009

Aristotle on 'Unified Action' and 'Scope'

“The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of a story, is the plot,” Aristotle wrote. So today I'll focus on 'plot,' especially Aristotle's notions of 'unified action' and 'the scope of the plot.'

UNIFIED ACTION: Of absolute importance in the structure of a plot is this: that it be unified, whole, and complete. It has a beginning, middle, and end – which sounds obvious – but it must begin in a way that nothing else is needed before it, and it must end in a way that nothing needs to follow it.

Some writers fail with beginnings because they tack on a prologue they think is needed to understand the opening action, when in fact this information probably needs to come later in dialog or a subtle flashback. Other writers fail with beginnings when they start with action but then quickly do a backstory dump, dropping in narrative background to explain what is going on. This puts the brakes on the story. Work in the backstory in pieces later.

The same thing happens to endings, especially in short stories. The writer goes on too long or tries to explain what happened in the story.

As for middles, the incidents must be so arranged that if any were placed differently or omitted, the sense of wholeness would be lost. If the presence or absence of anything makes no difference, cut it – it is not part of the whole. Aristotle’s science – especially medical/biological science – emphasized the necessary unity of constituent parts. All the parts that make up the whole must be necessary and connected. You don’t need to include everything about your character or things that happened to your character in the past – include only that which advances character and advances story at the same time.

The worst plots and actions, for Aristotle, are those that are ‘episodic.’ The episodes or incidents succeed one another without a necessary cause-and-effect sequence. The episodes are simply strung together. That might have worked for Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers,” and “Don Quixote” is an episodic novel, but if you want a story with surprise, wonder and emotional punch, every incident must necessarily lead toward the end.

SCOPE OF THE PLOT: Aristotle advises writers to write with the END in view. That way, the action leads to an inevitable but unpredictable end. The ‘plot’ is an arrangement of incidents that are in a natural and necessary consequence. Granted, there are more arrangements possible in modern fiction than the strictly chronological. But it still must make perfect sense. Even that which seems to be a coincidence or an accident should be perceived as part of a design. Aristotle doesn’t mind a coincidence or two (As far as I'm concerned, a coincidence is just God’s way of staying anonymous). What makes a plot ‘defective’ is when it lacks logic in the sequence, or adds unnecessary things – scenes, characters, narrative descriptions, whatever - to the sequence, and especially if the ending drags.

The writer will END when the work has achieved sufficient ‘magnitude,’ a size or length appropriate to the subject matter and giving a sense of unity and completeness. Oedipus Rex is just the right length, with a unity of time and space, performed in about an hour. But imagine if it was the length of the Iliad, Aristotle asks. It would lose its unity. Could the epic tale of the Iliad be told in a one-hour play? Hardly. In addition, in a long work like the Iliad or the Odyssey – or the modern novel, for that matter – each part of it has its own ‘magnitude,’ its own proper proportion. When you edit your book, consider the proportions of your scenes and sequences. Are some too long? Too abrupt?

These separate parts of a long piece, following several lines of action at the same time, enlarge the dimensions of the story, Aristotle observes. We watch Odysseus make his way home; we see what is happening in his home with Penelope, then back to Odysseus. It can play with time by presenting many events simultaneously, adding 'mass and grandeur' to the overall effect. And Aristotle recommends that the writer provide relief to the hearer (or reader), with varied episodes and varied pacing. While each part has its own unity of time and space and magnitude, they all work toward a satisfying sense of fullness for the entire piece at the end.

An ending Aristotle hates is when a character is rescued by a ‘god out of the machine,’ the deus ex machina, where a god or goddess is lowered onto the stage by a crane and resolves everyone’s problems or provides a way of escape, as when Medea is given a flying chariot by the gods at the end. Characters must solve their own problems and struggle through complications and obstacles on their own. That is the subject of the next posting: middles.

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