3 Tips on Plot from Aristotle

Ancient Ideas for Today's Stories

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.), one of Plato's students, is the author of the earliest extant work of literary theory in the Western tradition, the .

For Aristotle, plot is the single most important aspect of a dramatic work, above character or language or anything else. His reason for favoring plot, as he explains it, is that "[i]t is in their actions that men universally meet with success or failure." (Note: All quotations are taken from James Hutton's 1982 translation of Aristotle's Poetics, as published in The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 2002.)

Remarkably, Aristotle's Poetics offers advice about plot that still applies today. (His comments refer only to tragedy because the section of Poetics devoted to comedy has been lost.) Below, I've highlighted three of his observations that you can use to use to evaluate and improve your own plots.

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Plots should be complete and unified.

Image courtesy of Tilemahos Efthimiadis.

Aristotle posits -- and yes, I know it sounds obvious -- that a story should have "a beginning, a middle, and an end." A story should neither begin nor end at "some chance point," and a plot is not unified just because it centers on the sequential actions of a single character.

If you've ever taken a fiction writing class, you might be familiar with the informal rule against "alarm clock" stories that begin when a character wakes up and then move chronologically from there. Alarm clock stories seem to be exactly the thing Aristotle is warning against when he tells us that "there is a vast difference between following from and merely following after."

To test your own work for unity, look at the events and try to imagine what would happen if you rearranged them or even deleted one entirely. If they can be rearranged or removed too easily, your story might be more episodic than unified.

For an example of how subtle a unified plot can be, consider Flora, the goat in Alice Munro's "Runaway." When Flora is first mentioned, she hardly seems important (just another bit of rural Canadian color, right?). But she turns out to be critical to the plot, defusing the violent tension between Clark and Sylvia.

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Plots should incorporate reversals and recognitions.

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For Aristotle, complex plots feature two characteristics: first, a reversal, or "a change from one state of affairs to its exact opposite," and second, a recognition, or "a change from ignorance to knowledge." The best stories will feature both reversal and recognition.

Flannery O'Connor's story "The Turkey," for example, creates suspense through a series of reversals. At first, Ruller can't believe his good luck at finding the wounded turkey, and he savors all the glory he'll get when he brings it home. He's devastated when he loses sight of it, then elated once again -- this time convinced that God favors him -- when he sees it again.

Finally, when the turkey is stolen from him by the country boys, he experiences one last reversal (instead of going home to be praised, he'll be criticized for the state of his clothes and perhaps also for losing the turkey once his family hears about it). But at the same moment, he also experiences recognition: he realizes that God owes him nothing and that he is no more special than the country boys or the beggar woman.

If you find that your plots begin on a certain trajectory and stick with it no matter what, consider what would happen if you added a reversal. If you're revising a story that you've already written, you could even add a reversal before the current action. For instance, if your character is caught in a downward spiral, you might show how hopeful his or her prospects once seemed.

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Reversals should arise from mistakes.

Image courtesy of maha-online.

Though this idea comes up in Aristotle's discussion of plot, it's consistent with contemporary discussions of flawed characters. Aristotle thinks it's not interesting to see a completely depraved character encounter misfortune (because he so obviously deserves it) or to encounter prosperity (because he so obviously doesn't deserve it). Likewise, it isn't interesting to see a completely saintly character encounter misfortune or prosperity.

In your own stories, do characters encounter happiness or misfortune completely at random? How could you give them more responsibility for their situations?

In Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," Hulga experiences a reversal of fortune (she had expected to make a romantic escape with the salesman but instead finds herself trapped in the barn without her glasses and prosthetic leg) as well as a recognition (she's not as smart as she thought she was, and the salesman is not as simple as she thought he was). Both the reversal and the recognition come from her mistake of agreeing to meet with him, which in turn comes from her mistake of thinking she's smarter than everyone else.

W.W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw," is based on a series of errors in judgment. Every time the Whites make a wish, they get their hopes up that things will get better, but of course things always get worse. Their first mistake was simply in not taking the monkey's paw more seriously.

Finally, I want to apply Aristotle's ideas to a story that I consider a comedy not because it's funny (though it often is), but because it has a happy ending. One of the biggest mistakes made in George Saunders' "Tenth of December" is Don Eber's decision to "off himself." He is terminally ill, and nothing can reverse his physical misfortune. But the mistake of going into the woods does result in a recognition that fundamentally reverses his emotional fortune. Instead of giving up on life, he ends up asking himself, "Did he want it? Did he still want to live?" And the resounding answer is, "Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please."

Give It a Try

You might not agree with Aristotle that plot is the most important aspect of a story. Certainly some readers and writers would say that character drives action and not the other way around. And some writers purposely resist the idea of clear, unified plots. But next time you're writing a new story or trying to improve an old draft, put his rules to the test and see what they can do for you.