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.

What arouses fear and pity in the reader? According to Aristotle, it cannot be a plot in which a virtuous person is brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us” (Poetics, chapter XIII).

Nor can it be the story of a “bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear” (ibid.).

Nor should the plot revolve around “the downfall of the utter villain… A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a [person] like ourselves” (ibid. my emphasis).

I highlighted the last sentence on purpose: pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a person like ourselves. That’s the key to plots that keep readers engaged. Hasn’t changed in 2,340 years.

So, to wrap up this post, here’s the summary in Aristotle’s own words: “A well constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue… The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse” (ibid.).

The next post will conclude the discussion of plot

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One thought on “What Mystery Writers can learn from Aristotle – Part 2

  1. Kathrin Lange

    Hey Michael,

    I finally found time to read this. Great thing! Do you mind if I show it to my writing class students here in Germany?

    All the best, Kathrin