Monday, August 31, 2009

Bohemian Matinee

That was his track name, but he's been called "Bobby" for a couple of years in a home that has to give him up. So we're taking this quiet, friendly 7-year-old brindle greyhound to live with us. He's housebroken and accustomed to stairs, so there will be less training than is otherwise needed with an adopted retired racer. We have pillows and bowls and coats and other gear from our previous grey, so we're ready for him. When we met him at the rescue kennel, he cozied right up to us, including our other dog, a rescued mutt. So as the saying goes, you don't pick the hound, the hound picks you. Pretty soon we'll see the other common saying come true: Gain a hound, lose a couch. They're couch-potatoes and love to curl up on soft spots for hours.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Simple and Complex Plots

In Aristotle's categories, “Simple” plots involve a change in fortune where there is no recognition or reversal. “Complex” plots include a recognition and a reversal that turns on surprise. The “Complex” plot is superior – in tragedy, anyway.

It’s possible to get too complex, however. Novelists can get into a problem when they have too many characters, too many incidents, too many recognitions and reversals, just too much happening. Aristotle’s antidote: create a pitch. Come up with a compelling three-sentence summary of your story that’ll make an editor cry. Well, he actually says this:

“The plot should be so framed that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears the account of them shall be filled with emotion at the incidents.”

So think about how to describe your story to a friend in 30 seconds, in just a few sentences. This will clarify the story in your own mind. It might help to identify any clutter you should cut. And it will prepare you to pitch the book to agents and editors later.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Complication and crisis

This is a continuation of a discussion about Aristotle's theory of drama.

For Aristotle, “Man IS his desire.” A story is built on what a character wants, or wishes to avoid. If you figure out what your character desires and what he fears, you’re on your way. Plot arises out of the character acting on those desires – to achieve something, or to avoid something. To attain a goal, or escape the worst. But you cannot make it easy. If it’s easy, you have no story. Jimmy desperately wants the red bike in the window but it is expensive. Grandpa comes to visit and buys it for him. End of story. Instead, we need Mom to say, “I don’t have the money. You’ll have to earn it.” So Jimmy becomes a paperboy. After a while he earns enough and he buys the bike. Still no story. What needs to happen? Someone has to steal his papers, or swipe the money left out for him by customers, or he gets mugged on his way to the store, or when he gets to the store the bike is sold. These are ‘complications.’ “Complications” are obstacles to achieving a ‘want’ or an incident that brings the feared thing closer to happening. Things must get harder for your character, things must get worse every time he takes an action to attain the goal. There is always a gap between what the character expects as a result of a decision and what he actually gets. These complications, these setbacks, these new directions build toward a ‘crisis.

A ‘crisis’ is a moment of change where nothing is as it was before. The complications have led up to this change, this crisis, inevitably. This ‘change’ or ‘crisis’ is characterized by a major recognition and reversal.

RECOGNITION AND REVERSAL: or ‘a discovery and peripety’:
Good plots always have a major recognition and reversal near the end arising from all the action that has preceded it. Immediately following a startling recognition, an astonishing realization, a surprising revelation, there is a reversal – a change from one state of affairs to another. Aristotle’s favorite play and the best example of this is Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus recognizes who he really is and what he has truly done – murdered his father and married his mother – with an immediate and stunning reversal of fortunes into misery. The recognition and the reversal happen simultaneously. But this can happen in all kinds of stories, not just a tragedy. In a mystery, there is often a surprising recognition of who the real killer is and that you, the sleuth, have been chasing the wrong one all along – or your chief suspect has just been killed - and the killer is sitting next to you – recognizing that you are realizing the truth. This results in a reversal of your attitude toward the person and a change in your next action.

You’ll probably have smaller recognitions and reversals earlier in the book, occurring at every major turning point or ‘plot point.’ In a mystery, that could be the discovery of a clue, a recognition of a false alibi, a revelation of someone’s real identity – and each of these causes a reversal of some kind: a changed relationship, a changed plan, a changed suspect list.

Discoveries can occur without reversals – a narrator learns something about her past. Reversals can happen without some recognition involved – a happy wedding reception is spoiled by a shooting. But emotional power in a story comes from a recognition accompanied by a reversal.

Does your story have an interesting discovery or two, and is there a reversal as a result within the character, in a relationship, in the direction of the action?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

BLEEDER released today!

Today is the official release date for "BLEEDER: a mystery" (Sophia Institute Press)! It is available at and will be in bookstores soon.

A stigmatic priest bleeds to death on Good Friday in front of horrified parishioners. A miracle? Or bloody murder? Aristotle professor Reed Stubblefield needs to know. After all, police say he's the prime suspect.


ISBN 781933-184-562-51495

trade paperback

272 pages


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.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

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.

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.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Aristotle on the Art of Storytelling

Last week I spoke at the Catholic Writers Guild Conference LIVE! in New Jersey on two subjects: plotting and character development. For "Plotting," I outlined Aristotle's principles of drama as found in his little book, the Poetics. Since a number of people could not attend but expressed interest in this talk, I'll post the transcript here in small, digestible bits over the next several days. It is similar to the presentation I give in my college creative writing class, sans exercises.

Last I heard, EWTN Radio was considering broadcasting the recording of this talk. If you hear it on the radio, please let me know so that I can send an appropriate 'thank-you' note.

So stay tuned, dust off your college copy of the Poetics, and take good notes. Aristotle's little book, after all, is actually a bundle of notes collected by an astute student of his, which explains why the book seems to be a bit disorganized and repetitive here and there.

Monday, August 10, 2009

BLEEDER at Amazon

BLEEDER is now listed at for pre-orders. The official release date is August 15.

I'll be interviewed on WTBQ FM 99.1 Warwick NY (covers NYC area) Wednesday, August 12, at 7:15 Eastern.