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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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Living the Story

I think all possible stories exist on a different plane, and we just somehow manage to slip our brains into that plane and see the stories. And some of us are compelled to write them down, maybe to try to save them or maybe to live them.

Does anybody else experience writing this way?

And, of course, the problems come in because the stories on that plane aren’t in written form. They’re in some kind of mind meld format, and as we try to translate them into writing we lose detail, like a really high resolution photograph that your outdated computer only sees as low res, and when you try to make it larger it pixelates (to use a really long metaphor). You color it in as well as you can, try to smooth the edges and fill in missing colors.

So the challenge is to see as much as possible about the story while you’re in that plane and then keep the memory vivid so you can refer to it when you’re not in that plane, because you can’t walk around immersed in it all the time and expect to keep your day job. I suppose an independently wealthy person or one whose books were earning plenty of money could be immersed in it 24/7, but then you’ve got a very unbalanced life, and isn’t it possible to have both the writing and the living?

But then writing is a kind of living, or should be. My problems come from the times I spend just watching in that plane and forgetting the details as soon as I emerge, so that the story’s really at my mercy out here in the real world. When I go there and step into the flow of the story, let it wash all over me—when I live it—that’s when I know the story well enough that later I can not just refer back to a photograph of a character but feel around in her pockets for all those critical details.

So the question is, as always, how do I not just get to that plane but let go of myself and feel the story happen?

I know it’s the same thing every writer thinks about, because it’s just not easy to do. Writing anything—a blog, for example, or a journal entry—helps me finger the edges of it, and sometimes I can slip in from that small hand-hold. But, I swear, other times I could use a jackhammer and get nowhere.

I know having the right food helps a lot of people, but it’s not enough. Music can help more, for me at least. Doing it in the middle of the night when everyone in the house is asleep helps a lot, especially when combined with a hot pot of coffee. But I have yet to find a sure-fire way to get there. I’d love to hear how other people manage it.

But even more than that, I want to know how people let go of themselves once they get there. My ability to do that is so fragile. The mere energy of another person awake in the house can destroy it. At the same time, sometimes the connection to the story is so strong that an actual interruption, like having to take the dog out, doesn’t weaken it. So, what do I do differently those times when it’s really strong and I’m fully there? I don’t have a clue.

Has anyone discovered the key to this? Or a lock pick? Credit card? Anything? How do you move beyond watching the story?


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What To Do With a Really Long Novel?

I’ve got a writing problem I’m hoping to get advice on.

I’m writing a novel, a psychological suspense novel, that is now 678 pages long (or 174,000 words). That, of course, is much too long. Although I haven’t started the necessary cutting process, I doubt that when I do I’ll cut more than a couple hundred pages. And the novel’s not finished yet. I’d guess I’ve got another 200 pages to go before I’m done. So I’m looking at a novel that, even when cut, will be 650 pages or so.

My question is, should I just cut the hell out of it, including things that seem to me to be important to plot and character development? Should I try to break it into two books (I already have a one-book sequel in mind, which would make it a trilogy)? The problem with the latter is that I can’t think of a good place to end the first book, where it seems to come to a natural end and I can wrap things up. It really just keeps building until the end.

I was told that a publisher will not consider a manuscript by a first-time novelist that’s more than about 350 pages long. That would decimate my novel to the point that it wouldn’t be my novel anymore. It wouldn’t be able to say the things I want to say.

I wonder, though, whether the reading public is more open to longer novels than publishers are. I know I’ve read my share of 1,000-page-long novels. So I’ve been thinking that maybe, if I get it extremely well edited, find someone who can create a stellar book cover, and do a bunch of research on how to go about it, this might be a novel that would do better as an ebook. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get an agent, much less a publisher, to even look at it at this length, and yet I think it’s a good book with an important message, if I do say so myself. I don’t like the idea of it just sitting, lonely and unself-actualized, on my computer for years on end until I get a subsequent (and shorter) book published, if that’s even possible these days with publishers severely limiting the number of new authors they take on board. If I did, and it sold well, maybe the publisher would consider publishing a longer novel of mine. Maybe. Maybe not.

Getting to that point would take years and years. I want to get my book into the hands of readers sooner rather than later. Does a book even exist if it’s never been read by anyone else? Unless you publish other books that become best sellers or classics, those unpublished novels will never see the light of day. I hate that thought, especially if it’s a good novel and the obstacle is some rule that manuscripts shouldn’t exceed a certain number of pages.

But on the other hand, would a person reading an ebook be willing to invest the time to read a 600- or 700-page novel, in this day of website blurbs and bullet point e-newsletters? Has our attention span dropped so much that we will no longer read long novels, no matter the format?

I know that e-publishing isn’t considered “real” publishing, but if it’s a way of getting books into the hands of readers, well, isn’t that what publishing is all about? So, is the prejudice against it really valid, or is it one of those “this is the way it’s always been done, so it must be the only right way” things?

People have a lot of strong opinions about indie publishing versus traditional publishing, but really I’m just trying to figure out what the right medium is for this particular book—this really long book that’s a psychological suspense, chick lit, slightly literary book with a touch of horror thrown in. I don’t know that it fits neatly into a category, which seems to be a big thing with publishers and agents (not that I’m an expert; I’m a complete newbie when it comes to publishing), and that’s another reason I think e-publishing might be the way to go. I know it would take a lot of work because I would have to do all of the marketing myself, but I can do that.

So…if you have any thoughts about what direction I should take this in, please advise away!


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The All-Important First Sentence

Joan Didion told the Paris Review in 1978, “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”

Hey, no pressure.

For me, writing first sentences begins with a state of paralysis and then becomes a creative joy. Once that first sentence forms out of the murkiness in my head, or wherever it is that writing takes place, honing it is a profound pleasure. But before that, when you know you’ve got a lot to say but you need to say it in a way that people will hear, which means the first sentence must capture the reader intellectually, emotionally, viscerally, or all of the above—that’s when I’m paralyzed.

Getting past that paralysis and forming the right first sentence, for me, requires sinking my mind down deep into my psyche and letting thoughts and images and colors all swirl around me until something begins to take shape.

An English professor once told me that the first sentence of a great novel lets the reader know what the novel is really about, underneath all those plot devices. That’s even truer of journalism, of course, and with technical writing; it’s just the writing style that differs.

I have to say, though: I just visited and read the first lines of a number of great novels, and while I can see that case being made for some of them—for example, in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Hazel Motes is on a train, not sure if he wants to jump out or lean forward into the journey—most of the others I checked had much more to do with setting the emotional scene of a lead character as he or she is at the beginning of the novel, or even just setting the physical scene.

In my own novel, Voices, I tried to do as my English professor taught—to encompass the most fundamental theme of the book in the first sentence. Maybe that’s a mistake; somebody said that the more education a writer has the worse his or her writing is.

Naturally, in journalism, especially with the shorter pieces, the first sentence must get the gist of the rest of the story into those first few words. In longer pieces, you can take more time; use an anecdote to illustrate what the piece is about. If that progression is followed, a novelist should have the whole first chapter to make the basic theme clear.

Unfortunately, readers today have shorter and shorter attention spans. They want the goods immediately, and they don’t want to have to work for them—or, at least, that’s my perception. That first sentence is even more crucial these days to hooking your reader than it was in days past.

So, how to write that perfect first sentence for today’s reading public? Sources on the web recommend being “short and snappy,” introducing a question that the reader will want answered, and including a shocking or surprising element.

Maybe a more important question is this: are you just out to “hook up” with your reader, or do you really want to make love to him or her? Maybe taking a little time to build a reader’s desire to move further into your world isn’t such a bad thing. Or maybe that’s a surefire way to not get published.

I’m wondering what tricks other writers use to come up with the best possible first sentence. Some people just start scribbling and then delete everything except what really resonates and develop the sentence from that. Some people stare into space for an hour or more waiting for inspiration to emerge from the depths like a wavering light slowly approaching on a foggy night. Some people just write any old thing and come back and agonize over it later, once they know exactly what the whole piece is going to say.

What do you do? What are your favorite first sentences and why? How do you formulate your own first sentences? How do you get past the paralysis, or do you experience that at all? I would be fascinated to hear from you.

Never stop writing,



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