What Mystery Writers can learn from Aristotle – Part 4

Early Islamic Portrayal of Aristotle with Alexander the Great. Wikipedia

In this, the last blog post on Aristotle’s Poetics, I’ll focus on the remaining aspects of his treatise. The most important of those is character. And here, contemporary writers have to pick and choose with more care. Some of Aristotle’s points are straightforward, “any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good” (Poetics, chapter XV). As are his statements that characters must be true to life and consistent in their behavior and reactions.

But ancient Greece was a patriarchal and stratified society. One of the reasons its democracy worked was that slaves did all the work so the Greeks could engages in politics. The role of women was also seriously proscribed. So when he says, “Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless;” or “There is a type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness, is inappropriate;” we should actively disregard his advice (ibid.). Although our society has by no means rid itself of the kind of mindset represented by Aristotle, we as writers have a responsibility to nudge our readers toward a world where status, class, or gender are no more important than the color of one’s eyes.

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What Mystery Writers can learn from Aristotle – Part 3

Statue of Aristotle in Freiburg. Wikipedia

The last post ended with a summary of what makes a good plot–arouse fear and pity in the reader through reversals of fortune from good to bad caused by error or personal frailty rather than vice. But how is the writer supposed to achieve this?

Aristotle grants that fear and pity can be aroused through spectacular means, but he considers that the weaker form. “A superior poet” will achieve the same result through the structure of the plot itself. Or, to use a modern example, movies can achieve this effect through massive explosions and CGI, but it’s a weak substitute for an intricate series of events that cause the protagonist to act in ways that cause the reversal of fortunes. That’s the heart of Greek tragedy, the unfolding of individual actions that all seem logical on their own lead to the outcome that is disastrous. Of course that takes good writing. No wonder many films take the cheap way out.

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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

Aristotle

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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