Aristotle on storytelling

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

The latest book in Princeton’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers is advice from Aristotle to poets and dramatists. Aristotle (384-322 BC) was Plato’s most brilliant student and tutor to Alexander the Great. He is one of the great ancient thinkers, whose ideas have permeated philosophy, science and art for two thousand years, although his ideas come down to us in fragmented and diluted form. This volume takes extracts from the Poetics, an important statement of ancient aesthetics. Aristotle described all literature (and storytelling) as based in mimesis. He set out the importance of appropriate length of a story and that stories must have a beginning, middle and end. Spectacle must be subordinate to plot. Plot takes precedence over character. Conflict between allies and inside family is more compelling than that between strangers. Tragedy comes from a great man undone by weakness.

Translator and editor of this volume, Philip Freeman of Pepperdine University, explains the difficulties with Aristotle’s texts. “The Greek text of the Poetics as Aristotle wrote it consists of unpolished lecture notes, not a finished literary work like the dialogues of his teacher Plato. The text also has missing words and sentences, with other parts annotated, rearranged, and in general jumbled by copyists over the centuries more than most manuscripts from the ancient world. The result is a book that will leave even the best classical scholars at times scratching their heads in confusion.”[i]  

Aristotle’s observations on fiction have been very influential and have become the rules that one must know, even if in order to subvert them. The idea that a story needs good and bad characters, acting to change a situation and a clear conclusion seems to be one thing that scriptwriters and financiers of Marvel and DC movies, and American television series, need to re-learn. The serial nature of high-budget cinematic and televisual drama has destroyed Aristotle’s recommendation and left us with a legacy of stories designed to be unended and ever ready for disappointing (but lucrative) prequels, sequels and reboots. In an age when scriptwriters do not believe in heroes and villains – except when they have politicians to champion or decry on Twitter – the power of essential elements of storytelling need to be reinforced. The terrible comic-book action-hero stories come from writers being ignorant (or defying) the advice to make a tragedy from “a serious error in a noble kind of person”[ii].

American comedy writers need reminding that “Comedy, as we have said, is an imitation of inferior people.”[iii] The most effective comedies explore the pitiful pathos and hubris of inferior people. Curb Your Enthusiasm presents the failings of a fictional Larry David character who cannot control his resentment, selfishness and worst instincts. The writers, directors and actors in that series are clear about the central character’s inferiority without sacrificing his humanity and relatability. In all failed comedies we find an unwillingness to expose weaknesses of character or to allow those characters to ultimately fail or remain disgraced. Aristotle warns us not to go too far. “Comic characters are not cruel or vicious, but laughable […] Being laughable is a shortcoming or disgrace that doesn’t involve serious pain or destruction.”

The comedy requires the incorporation of the morality tale and that means judging and being permitted to condemn flaws and types of person. In a mass-media world that fights shy of mocking oddity and absurdity – and refuses to accept traditional descriptions of sin and flaws as valid – the moral core of comedy becomes compromised or suppressed. It is regrettable that – contrary to his ideas on tragedy – Aristotle’s thoughts on comedy are mostly lost.

The tragedy is best when compact; the epic needs a greater space of time within the story. In some ways, Aristotle goes against the current fashion. Those brought up in an age of method acting will find foreign the observation, “[T]he goal of an actor on the stage is not to imitate character. Character is instead a by-product of action. Action and plot are what a tragedy is about.” We might differ on the need for characters to explicitly state their reasoning. This falls into the trap of exposition – telling not showing. It is often more stimulating and realistic for characters to conceal motivation or reveal it indirectly and against their will contra Aristotle’s assertion “speeches in a play in which the speaker doesn’t choose or make a clear choice do not express character”. The audience reading the subtext and inferring motivation is satisfying because it demands the audience use empathy, life experience and analysis rather than simply passively absorbing.

Other sections discussion language, grammar and speech and the Greek poetic metres. There is advise for writers and critics and comparisons between art and writing. The merits of epics and tragedies are weighed. The notes are thorough and informative. As usual in series, the introduction and notes are in English; the main text is in the original language (Greek) with parallel English translation. How to Tell a Story forms a worthy addition to Princeton’s classics library.

Aristotle, Philip Freeman (trans., introduction), How to Tell a Story, Princeton University Press, 2022, cloth spine hardback, 264pp, English/Greek text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 20527 4

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

To find links to my books and writings visit https://linktr.ee/alexanderadamsartist