In my journey as a writer of science fiction, I’ve read many books on writing, taken writing classes, and all around really immersed myself in the writing life. Science fiction, like all stories, must follow a certain set of ground rules in order to be successful. This got me thinking about the structure and nature of stories in general. If I want to know about science fiction, I must start with the basics, which are applicable to all stories.
I think one of first texts about writing is Aristotle’s Poetics, dated to 335 BC. So I thought I’d give it a read to see what the man himself had to say about stories and their successful construction.
“It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood…And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation…The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind.” — Poetics 1448b5-15
In the Poetics, Aristotle writes in detail about the nature of tragedies (as opposed to comedies), plot, character, diction, and more. Let’s look at a few of these separately.
What Is a Tragedy?
“A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” — Poetics 1449b24-28
For Aristotle, tragedies must arouse fear and pity in the reader or audience, and they must also be complete, by which he means they must have a beginning, middle, and end. This might seem basic but just think about how many stories out there don’t have an ending, for example, and how they just abruptly stop, leaving us feeling jilted and without resolution.
For a story to be complete it must include the problems the characters find themselves in, as well as a proper dénouement, which is the part of the story that comes after the climax.
Regarding plot, Aristotle writes:
“The action is represented in the play by the plot. The plot, in our present sense of the term, is simply this, the combination of the incidents, or things done in the story…” — Poetics 1450a1-4
He then goes even deeper, advising on the best structure of a tragedy:
“As a rough general formula, a length which allows of the hero passing by a series of probable or necessary stages from bad fortune to good, or from good to bad, may suffice as a limit for the magnitude of the story.” — Poetics 1451a12-15
So we must have a reversal of some sort, otherwise why are we bearing witness to this particular point in the characters’ lives?
And I absolutely love that he also comments on the necessity of plot points. In any kind of a story, the incidents in each scene must follow directly from those preceding it. Stories must build their events logically so that we can believe that this is a series of events that might actually happen and so that it can have the desired emotional effect on us. In addition, every part of a story must be necessar.
“In poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposition or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.” — Poetics 1451a31-35
Finally, he too tells us that plot stems from character, that character drives the plot forward:
“The perfect plot, accordingly, must have a single, and not (as some tell us) a double issue; the change in the subject’s fortunes must be not from bad fortune to good, but on the contrary from good to bad; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great fault on his part…” — Poetics 1453a10-15
What Aristotle describes here is a character-driven storyline, which we can find in 19th- and early 20th-century literature, for example in the Mad Scientist Narrative Arc. Our modern stories tend to be more plot-driven, so they don’t rely on a “great fault” of the character, but rather on an unexpected situation they find themselves in.
Regarding character, Aristotle writes that everything characters say or do must be a result of, well, their character.
“The right thing, however, is in the characters just as in the incidents of the play to seek after the necessary or the probable; so that whenever such-and-such a personage says or does such-and-such a thing, it shall be the necessary or probable outcome of his character; and whenever this incident follows on that, it shall be the necessary or the probable consequence of it.” — Poetics 1453b30-35
And linking character back to plot, I think it’s important for the characters to change as well. In the Poetics, Aristotle writes that characters should be good men for the most part, and while I agree with this, I think it’s also important for characters to come out of the story changed in some way. Otherwise, again, why are we bearing witness to the events of the story if they don’t have some significance? And characters must be good at least in some way, or have some redeeming qualities, in order for us to sympathize with them and care enough to follow them on their story journey.
So there you have it, a quick and dirty rundown of the Poetics. It’s not that long if you want to give it a read yourself. Aristotle goes into great detail about storytelling in it, but I included what I thought were the main points in this post.
It was an interesting exercise to go waaaay back and check out some of the “original guidelines” as it were of storytelling, the fundamentals of which were known even in Aristotle’s time. As a writer, I find a lot of comfort in that.
It’s not about being original, it’s just about telling a good story.
The Complete Workes of Aristotle: Volume II. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984.