I recently read the Penguin Classics version of Aristotle's Poetics
, and holy crap, why didn't anyone force me to sit down and read this sooner? In college I minored in Film Studies and English, and I thought I had a good introduction to deconstructing texts through those years of classes. Little did I know I've been missing a core way to think about stories.
A great book about giving presentations is Beyond Bullet Points
by Cliff Atkinson. (I've mentioned it here before: Public Speaking
.) Atkinson has a very useful system for telling a story via Powerpoint that's based on some of Aristotle's ideas in Poetics
. He mentions that a couple times in BBB. I've put together a few presentations using the advice in the book, and the ideas were very helpful. So I figured ad fontes
(I often think in Latin, heh), and picked up Poetics
. I also recently read Eco's Name of the Rose
, which tangentially featured Aristotle.
I know next to nothing about Artistotle beyond the fact that his books
are sort of teaching notes on various subjects, and only a few survive today. I'm also vaguely aware that Aristotle and Plato had two different ways of viewing the world that continue to split our collective psyche to this day. (Something about Plato's love of ideal forms vs. Aristotle's favored observation of the real world.) I guess this basic understanding kept me from reading Aristotle. Why would I want to read some half-finished ideas? I figured the ideas were probably so remote, abstract, and ancient that they wouldn't have much relevance to me. So I had low expectations going in. I figured I wouldn't even be able to understand it.
I read the introduction to Poetics
by Malcolm Heath, and I got quite a bit out of it. Of course it's very dry and academic, but it did help explain some sort of consensus of thinking about Aristotle, some of the issues raised in Poetics
that people have been struggling with, and some of the context in which Aristotle was writing. But the real value was Poetics
Aristotle shows how Greek tragic plays like Oedipus
are most effectively constructed. He contrasts tragedy
a bit, but Poetics is focused on tragic stories as a form. And he wasn't so concerned with plays as they are performed, but as they are written. So his thoughts translate well to any type of story.
The overriding idea I've been thinking about since reading this is that stories, art, any media we consume, is an imitation
of reality—and this imitation is trying to evoke an emotional response so we can identify with it. (And I've been thinking about this in relation to advertising, especially, which are really little stories that evoke emotions about products.) Aristotle says that tragedy should evoke fear
, and discusses the best way to evoke these emotions: by having normal characters go from good fortune to bad through no fault of their own.
Aristotle places quite a bit of emphasis on social status which is sort of taboo in our society. And it's a bit uncomfortable to read. But now that I've seen stories through Aristotle's eyes, I can't help but see changes in fortune and differences in status in stories everywhere. It's like seeing a fundamental building block of the content
I continually consume for the first time. And this is why I can't believe I haven't read it sooner. I know this sounds obvious, but character status, arc through the story, and emotions evoked should be the first step in analyzing a story. I've found it's very useful when watching a Youtube video, reading a blog, or looking at a billboard to think, "What emotion is this work trying to evoke?" This step back seems so clear that I should have been doing this all along. But analyzing for Aristotelian effectiveness is quite a bit different from "Hot or Not", Love/Hate decisions about stuff I consume.
Anyway, this is my attempt to sit you down and force you to read Poetics
, because I wish someone would have made me do it sooner. There's a lot more than what I've described to get out of it, and I think it will help you think about media in a new (old) way.