How to Use Aristotle’s Poetics for Fiction, Plays, and Screenplays

If you are a writer of narratives (novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenplay writer) you’ve probably heard of Aristotle, and are curious about how Aristotle’s theories can help contemporary writers like you! 

In his work titled Poetics, Aristotle focuses mainly on tragedy, but we can interpret that a little more broadly today that he intended in 335 BCE, when it was written. I think we can make use of Aristotle’s observations on tragedy to help us write all contemporary drama, or all sadish stories! 

Poetics is widely regarded as the first piece of literary criticism in the Western tradition, and it’s certainly one of the most widely respected and debated as well. It was lost to scholars for a long time, before the text was reintroduced to the West in the Middle Ages through a Latin translation of an Arabic version written by Averroes.

Let’s get right into some of the key terms, what they mean, and how they can help us write better stories. The translation I use below can be found here: 

Reversal of Fortune

Aristotle says that tragedies involve a reversal of fortune, and he defines this pretty clearly in the quote below. 

It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change, of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that 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. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. 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 man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes,—that of a man who is not eminently good and just,-yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous,—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.

Lots of the key concepts are contained in this quote. Aristotle says that good tragedies (or sad stories) involve a reversal of fortune for a person who is ‘like ourselves’. It must be ‘unmerited misfortune’ and caused by a error or frailty. 

Pity and Fear 

Above Aristotle has mentioned pity and fear as the two main emotions generated by tragedy. He writes that when the audience experiences these very strongly, they are purged, and ‘catharsis’ has occurred. The audience therefore experiences a diminishment of these emotions after the story is concluded. 

Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity.

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus.

Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or the intention,—except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another—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.

Fatal Flaw or Error

You may have noticed that Aristotle refers a lot to an error or frailty that causes the reversal of fortune. This term is much debated, and sometimes referred to as ‘the fatal flaw’. In Macbeth, for instance, it’s widely agreed that the central flaw of Macbeth is ‘ambition’. It leads to his reversal of fortune. In this way the flaw can be seen as the moral of the tragedy

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.

Moment of Recognition, Scene of Suffering

Aristotle discusses in Poetics that there is generally a moment of recognition in the protagonist, as they realise the error they have made (but of course this occurs too late). This is followed by a scene of suffering. Think King Lear realising how badly he has buggered things up at the end. 

The parts also, with the exception of song and spectacle, are the same; for it requires Reversals of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering. 

Beginning, Middle, and End

Aristotle hilariously tries to define what is meant by beginning, middle, and end. What do you think? 

A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

Character Must be Good

Aristotle identifies that for the effects of tragedy to be produced on the audience (the generation of pity and fear) the character must be ‘good’, and that the audience will regard the character as good if the character’s intention is good. Basically, give your protagonist an objective that is morally good and that the audience wants them to achieve. 

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now 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.

Deus ex Machina

Back in ye olde olde olde times characters would get lowered onto the stage using a crane, dressed as Gods and angels, and they would bring an unearned resolution to the plot. ‘Fear not, for I shall resolve this dispute.’ The way to overcome the audience feeling cheated by elements involved in your ending is to foreshadow all the import bits. Like if the character falls through the ice and dies, you have to establish that the ice is thin and dangerous far earlier in the plot. 

It is therefore evident that the unravelling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the ‘Deus ex Machina’—as in the Medea, or in the Return of the Greeks in the Iliad. The ‘Deus ex Machina’ should be employed only for events external to the drama,—for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things.

Complication followed by Unravelling and Denouement

Aristotle reckons that in tragedies (or sad stories) first you get a complication (that begins the reversal of fortune) and then you get unravelling for the rest of the plot, ending in the destruction of the tragic hero. For instance, King Lear divides up his kingdom, but two of his daughters don’t respect or love him anymore after he’s given them their inheritance. That’s the complication. Then he really, really, really unravels a lot for the rest of the plot. 

Every tragedy falls into two parts,—Complication and Unravelling or Denouement. Incidents extraneous to the action are frequently combined with a portion of the action proper, to form the Complication; the rest is the Unravelling. By the Complication I mean all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which marks the turning-point to good or bad fortune. The Unravelling is that which extends from the beginning of the change to the end.

I hope this was helpful. As mentioned above the full text is available at the link below, and I encourage you to check it out and form your own opinion! Scholars have been arguing about this text for thousands of years!