Aristotle’s Timeless Advice for Writing Great Tragedy

“Poetry is the province either of one who is naturally clever, or one who is insane,” Aristotle says. “In the one case, a man can take the mold of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self.”

As some of you may know, I’m in the final stages of completing my first novel. I have maybe 50 more pages to write, and then I’ll be at the painstaking-review-of-what-I’ve-written stage, just prior to the sending-out-novel-to-qualified-readers-to critique phase.

Recently, I was able to focus on writing full-time, and I’m glorying in it. I know it’s not something most writers get, that time to just immerse themselves in fiction.

But the more I researched good writing, the more I felt I was reading a lot of contemporary how-to and getting very little of the timeless basics of how to produce outstanding writing. So I decided to go back to Aristotle’s Poetics to see what he has to say, and if contemporary writers can still learn from him.

Aristotle believed that unchanging universal laws underlie all literature. The Poetics focuses on tragic literature, but I think we can all learn from his tips for outstanding plot construction and character development.

For example, Aristotle says “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.” He’s talking about how to tell a good, tragic story audiences will respond to. That’s what fiction writers spend their lives learning to do.

So are the laws that Aristotle identified still valid today? Scholars argue it, but I think they are. We as writers can learn much about our craft from the Poetics. My goal here is to extract lessons we can take from the Poetics about how to write the highest quality tragic fiction. Because of the space constraints of a blog, I’ll focus on plot and character.

The Poetics

The earliest extant example of literary theory, Aristotle composed the Poetics around 330 BCE. You can read the Poetics and other Aristotelian works here (Project Gutenberg) or here (Tufts University) or in many other places on the web.

During his research into tragic literature, which involved reading and attending hundreds if not thousands of tragic plays, Aristotle relied on his scientific nature to identify patterns and draw conclusions, observing what elements of drama had the most powerful effect on audiences and analyzing why that was so.

In his analysis, the plot is by far the most important component. Second to plot comes characters, followed by thought, diction, melody (or song), and spectacle, like pyrotechnics on a stage or a movie’s special effects. The last two don’t really apply to fiction, so I won’t discuss them.

Thought has to do with the reasoning and universal truths brought out by the characters’ words. Although some scholars say diction has to do with how the actor delivers the lines, as I read Aristotle, he clearly seems to be saying it has to do with the flow of the language, which involves rhythm and harmony. This is discussed in much more detail in my much longer paper available simply by emailing me at the address below.

Elicit Pity and Fear

In the course of a tragic story, the author must elicit fear and pity, preferably include what Aristotle calls reversal and recognition, and provide a catharsis for the audience’s feelings. It should deal in universal and general truths and principles such as choice, fate, or the nature of being human.

As one scholar said, inspiring fear without pity produces a horror story, and eliciting pity without fear is essentially a tear-jerker. Both genres have a place in the continuum of literature, but if the goal is to write a good drama then pity and fear must both be present.

What we pity in others we fear for ourselves, Aristotle says. An audience will pity someone who doesn’t deserve to suffer, but when the characteristics of the hero are very similar to those of the audience, they will relate and, by relating, begin to fear: “if it could happen to him or her, it could happen to me.”

Identifying like this, taking on another’s suffering, results in insight (possibly at the point of catharsis, which I’ll discuss later)—into the human condition, into what we are and are not willing to lose, about ourselves. An outstanding tragedian will lift that moment of insight into an experience of wonder, Aristotle says. This insight and wonder are why we don’t leave an excellent tragic story feeling heavy-laden with sorrow, but rather uplifted and open-eyed.

Plot: A Plausible Sequence of Actions

Because Aristotle considered plot the most important component of a tragedy, he had a lot to say about it. I’ll have to really boil it down.

  • Plot falls into two major parts: the complication, during which a plausible sequence of actions resembles tying an intricate knot culminating in the climax, and the denouement that logically unravels the knot until the conclusion.
  • Action supersedes narration, and the actions must follow one another through necessity or at least probability. Aristotle says a plot is most effective when the actions are both unexpected and logical. So, show, don’t tell, and don’t throw in a bunch of easy-outs like chance and coincidence, unless you’re making the coincidence part of a grand scheme, like illustrating fate’s hand.
  • Achieve unity of plot, meaning that the action must revolve around a central theme. If an element of your plot can be removed without greatly affecting the rest of the story, remove it; it’s not essential to the unity of the plot.
  • At least one major scene of suffering should be included, probably at the climax, since suffering is an essential part of a tragic story. The scene should again be action based, showing a destructive or painful event. Some translations say that the hero’s suffering should arise from a mistake, character flaw, frailty, or tragic deed done or left undone, whether intentionally or through ignorance. Other scholars say Aristotle didn’t mean that, so take it for what you will.
  • The climax should be logical but unexpected, casting a whole new light on the story, and clarifying the universal truth central to it.
  • Moments of “reversal” and “recognition” should be closely tied into the climax. Reversal means the point in a story when things go from good to bad or vice versa. Recognition is when a character is suddenly recognized, or identifies for the first time something important about him-or herself. Both turn upon the element of surprise, and they can work together in one set of actions. One scholar says the proper order is to have a reversal that leads directly to a recognition that immediately leads to the climax, which should be the final scene of suffering.
  • Catharsis offers release to an emotionally pent-up audience. Catharsis, which happens during the denouement, though important, isn’t the goal of the story. The goal is to make real its “mythos,” leading us to new ideas and truths. Catharsis is discussed in more detail in my paper.
  • Aristotle’s favorite plots included those in which something awful almost happens but is averted, as when a character figures out a mistake and avoids it. His next favorite involves an event that is truly horrific and yet wasn’t done maliciously.
  • Check out Freytag’s Triangle, which illustrates Aristotle’s ideal plot structure. A diagram of Oedipus (Plot of Oedipus the King) uses the play to illustrate how it works.

Character Creation

Creating believable characters is the second most important element of writing a good tragedy, according to Aristotle.

The hero should be an average person—neither good nor evil—who goes from prosperity to adversity. His or her behavior should be necessary to the plot. Characters’ decisions, behaviors, actions, motivations should seem inevitable and move the story forward.

Authentic human nature must be evident in each character for him or her to be believable. Further, characters should have realistic flaws that, though blameworthy, are understandable due to mitigating factors. Errors of judgment or understanding; flaws that the character compensators for, or hides or runs away from—these eventually catch up with him or her.

And just as with plot, authors should strive for a unity of character, where each has a central theme or purpose and all decisions, behaviors, actions, and so forth must arise naturally from it. That doesn’t mean characters can’t develop and change over the course of the story, but those changes must spring from who the character is.

This has been a really down-and-dirty summary of Aristotle’s Poetics, but writers can glean much more from the treatise than what appears here. For more detail on Aristotle’s Poetics and what lessons today’s writers can draw from it, email for a free nine-page paper that will add considerable clarity, particularly on “thought” and “catharsis” as well as a list of additional writing tips from Aristotle. Or just read the Poetics; you’ll find it all over the Web.

Here’s to our continual improvement in our craft!



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12 responses to “Aristotle’s Timeless Advice for Writing Great Tragedy

  1. Pingback: Killing Your Darlings | How To Deal With Character Deaths | Writer's Blog

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  3. I’m really glad I stumbled across this post, as I’m working on a novel which is in its beginning stages and this has been really helpful. I’ve begun to seriously consider making it a tragedy, but I wasn’t sure whether or not my ideas fit the model for a tragic story. Upon reading your post, I am both reassured and better educated on which parts of my story will lead to it becoming a tragedy. So thank you so much for this, Kathleen 🙂

  4. “What we pity in others we fear for ourselves, Aristotle says. An audience will pity someone who doesn’t deserve to suffer, but when the characteristics of the hero are very similar to those of the audience, they will relate and, by relating, begin to fear: ‘if it could happen to him or her, it could happen to me.’”

    Great synthesis of what it takes to make a great tragedy. Thanks for this reminder!

    Also, I know this comment is probably out of nowhere, but the Reddit page r/writing redirected me here during a discussion on tragedy.

    • Thanks, Josh! You know, I figured no one would even finish reading this particular post, but it’s turned out to have the longest life of any of them. 🙂 That makes me very happy.

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  6. Kathleen,

    Perhaps when you finish your novel, you’ll write a modern how-to write book based on age-old wisdom.

    Also check out Horace’s dictum that art should be both “useful and sweet.”

    Janet Riehl

  7. Great summary, Kathleen. I’m looking forward to reading your book knowing that you’ve probably eaten and slept Aristotle’s Poetics. I do think the great masters still have much to teach us. Thanks for the insights and reminders.

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