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, all seemingly logical on their own, leading to an outcome that is disastrous. Of course that takes good writing. No wonder many films take the cheap way out.

What specifically causes fear or pity? The things people do to each other. But not just any people. Bad people doing things to other Bad people leave us cold. Sure, we might have a sense of the pain suffered, but on the whole we don’t really care. What gets us to the edge of our seat is “if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done—these are the situations to be looked for by the poet” (Poetics, chapter XIV).

Look for the final post on Aristotle coming up.

Share: Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrShare on FacebookPrint this page