What Mystery Writers can learn from Aristotle – Part 2

Aristotle’s bust by Lysippos. Wikipedia

The last post highlighted the importance plot in Aristotle’s analysis of a tragedy. He distinguishes between simple and complex plots, but he ignores simple plots immediately and delves into complex plots.

What makes a plot complex? Reversal of the situation and recognition. The reversal is a change “by which the action veers round to its opposite” (Poetics, Chapter XI). He cites the example where a messenger comes to Oedipus to cheer him up and to alleviate his concerns about his mother by telling him who he really is. The effect is the exact opposite of the intent. In short, it is a change in fortune.

Recognition is moving from ignorance to knowledge. Not that having knowledge is necessarily a good thing. It can be quite damaging but is still preferable to ignorance. The “best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation” (ibid.). Finally, in addition to reversal and recognition, there must be suffering, a “destructive or painful action” (ibid.). So, to sum up, a good tragedy  is characterized by a complex plot with action that aims to arouse fear and pity.

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What Mystery Writers can learn from Aristotle – Part 1


When it comes to murder and mayhem, we have nothing on the ancient Greeks. Every trope in today’s crime fiction was first explored in one play or another. Aristotle’s Poetics is probably the first philosophical analysis of fiction. Why humans like it and what makes for a good story. I’ll explore some of his ideas in this and following blog posts.

Why do we like fiction? It’s all made up. Aristotle traces that, first, to the human instinct for imitation. We learn through imitation, we delight in the imitation of objects around us. “Thus the reason why [human beings] enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is [s/he]'” (Poetics, Chapter IV).

The second instinct Aristotle invokes is the instinct for harmony and rhythm. The meters of poetry are a prime example of this, but there’s also the overall rhythm of a story, the manner in which different story arcs converge to produce harmony.

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Literary Ashland Radio with Bobby Arellano.

Bobby ArellanoIn case you missed it last July, here’s the radio interview Ed Battistella and I did with Ashland writer Bobby Arellano. Bobby has written five novels all published by Akashic Press. The most recent was Curse the Names. Bobby reinvents the meaning of “noir.” To get a taste, check out these shorts: “Veinte-y-dos” and “Dinner at Omar’s.”


Cobra by Deon Meyer

Cobra CoverJust opening Deon Meyer’s latest thriller filled me with nostalgia. On the inside flap is a map of greater Cape Town and the surrounding Western Cape area in South Africa. That alone would have been enough, but the map also included the MetroRail commuter train stations all the way from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, Simonstown and beyond. In 1998 I rode MetroRail trains from Observatory in Cape Town to Bellville, to do research at the University of the Western Cape. As you can see, the book would have had to work hard for me to not like it. But it blew me away. With the deft pen of a master, Deon Meyer weaves together a complex tale that kept me reading.

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