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.

Aristotle distinguishes between comedy and tragedy and, reading the Poetics, it seems clear that he values tragedies more than comedies. A tragedy is “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” (Poetics, Chapter VI). It should consists of six parts: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song.

Song? Really? Hang in there. Ancient Greek tragedies had songs. Aristotle considered them to be an important part of imitation. We’ll get to song in a little while. For now, let’s stick with plot.

Plot appears at the top of the list of required ingredients because without it there can be no tragedy. “For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality” (Poetics, Chapter VI).

Let’s look at his take on plot. A good plot, and this sounds like “Writing 101,” must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is an action that doesn’t have a necessary causal precursor. A fresh start, so to speak. The middle follows something (the beginning), and is followed by something else (the end). The end has to follow something by necessity but isn’t followed by anything else. Like I said, “Writing 101,” not rocket science. Aristotle didn’t like small plots (they weren’t important enough) or large sprawling plots (one couldn’t remember all that happened). He favored the “Goldilocks” approach to plotting, just right.

A bad plot is what he calls “epeisodic,” that is, a plot where the different acts follow each other without probability or necessity. A good plot, on the other hand, consists of events that inspire “fear or pity” (Poetics, chapter IX), and that is best achieved when the events follow as cause and effect.

More in my next post.

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