What makes a memorable and compelling story? This question has been studied for over 2500 years. Aristotle, the renowned Greek philosopher, first laid down some of the “rules” for storytelling in Poetics, the earliest surviving work on dramatic theory. While the novel was not yet in existence, other popular forms of storytelling were, including plays. Aristotle examined the elements of what made one play more “liked” than others.
Through his studies, he came up with the five elements of storytelling: setting, character, plot, dialogue, and thought. Here we will focus on Aristotle’s analysis of the ideal plot.
According to Aristotle, “The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of a story is the Plot”. The plot is what drives the reader to turn the pages. Readers want a story. Aristotle puts the purpose of plot most succinctly: “The plot should be framed that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears them shall be filled with emotion at the incidents”. He saw the plot as an “arrangement of incidents” which causally follow each other.
He was the first to define the three-act structure: “A whole story is what has a beginning, a middle, and end,” where the beginning is “not posterior to another thing, whereas the middle is based on what has happened before, but after the end there is nothing else”. The beginning of the story is where the action or incidents start. The basic plot structure involves a change for a character from bad to good or, inversely, good to bad. He also believed that a great story contained elements of pity, fear, and catharsis. The first act shows us the character in their life before the inciting incident—whether tragic or happy, good or bad—the inciting incident occurs, and this propels the character and reader to the middle act.
Aristotle described the middle or second act as “that which follows something as some other thing follows it.” This is the action that drives the character toward a resolution, or the steps taken to rectify the inciting incident in the first act. Every plot point in the middle act should be propelling the character to the end. Writing the middle act can be one of the most difficult parts of the book, and many writers fall into the trap of the “sagging” middle. Keeping this basic rule in mind can help eliminate that sag.
The final act, the ending, is “that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity or as a rule, but has nothing following it”. Aristotle goes on to say that the ideal ending “is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect.” Think of some of your favourite books: they generally have satisfying endings. In Aristotle’s view, this would be something you didn’t expect but makes complete sense upon reflection. One of my favourite endings of all time was in Life of Pi by Yann Martel. When working on your ending, review the endings in your favourite books and see if Aristotle’s principles apply.
But what is a plot without strong characters? If a reader doesn’t connect to the character, do they care about what is happening in the story? We will look at Aristotle’s thoughts on character development next!
If you feel stuck in your plotting, consider a manuscript evaluation to see how your plot holds up to Aristotle’s standards.