Jasmine's pond of dreams

Jasmine's pond of dreams

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Was Aristotle wrong? Storyteller's Log 12-4-2012

Aristotle was an ancient greek who wrote one of the first books on storytelling circa 300 BC. He wrote a book called the Poetics. I bet he never dreamed that 2000 years later you could buy it over the internet. Well, Aristotle's Poetics is still affecting writers everywhere.

Aristotle gave us the three act structure- a beginning, a middle and an ending. He also suggested that we map the involvement of the audience over the time of the play. His chart looked like this.

This can be helpful in ways that Aristotle never imagined. We can use it to help our pacing. Watch what happens when we vary his structure. Start with a bang! We can start with something that gets the audience involved right away. After we have their attention, we can calm it down and build our story.

Another pacing issue structure is to provide a calm before the storm. Give the audience a change to rest before the big crisis and climax. Have you ever been in a museum and you get museum fatigue? Oh, another Matisse. Yawn. At a certain point you get saturated and can't take anymore in. You need to rest. Some action movies can be notorious for not giving the spectator a change to catch their breath. Ironically, instead of making the action bigger, it deadens us to the action through burnout. This calm period also provides a contrast in pacing. The calm before the storm creates tension with the audience waiting for the storm to hit.

The other thing I found useful with Aristotle's map was what happens when you vary the ending. Sometimes structural flaws can still be successful movies. Take this quiz and see how you do. 

What movie starts with a bang like this?

What movie looks like this camel back?

What movie looks like a receding mountain range? It's not Snow White and the Seven Drawfs.

What movie looks like a sand dune that was blown away?

What movie looks like a shark fin?

No, it is not Jaws.

So there is your quiz. The answers are below. But first I have some more thought about Aristotle. I think what happened is that with Aristotle we got into a rut that over time became a freeway that every writer rides along without thinking that there's no other way. In some ways he's like the philosopher, Descartes. You know, the,  "I think, therefore I am" guy. Well, we've been suffering with the cartesian subject ever since. He split reality into mind and matter and everybody believed him. (except mystics and post-cartesians)

Here's my problem with Aristotle. There are three parts to a story a beginning, middle and end. OK, I grant you he had a keen sense of the obvious. But tell me, does that help you write a story? It doesn't help me. He also never told anyone that you should start at the end but that's another subject.  

Does his mapping audience involvement help you write a story? I find it helps discover my pacing but it doesn't help me write a story.

I have learned from Aristotle but it wasn't enough. I, like Diogenes*, have kept searching.


Yes, good old James Bond. Every 007 movie starts with a big action sequence. Then he returns to headquarters to get his new mission (the one of the movie) and he gets his cool gadgets.

Remember, Remy, the little rat chef from Ratatouille? I felt like the movie ended in the middle about an hour into it. There was a big fat happy ending right in the middle of the movie and I thought it was over. My spider sense was saying something's wrong here. Then the villain came back and the movie started over.

I loved Lord of the Rings and never wanted it to end. But I really didn't want it to end six or seven times! 

I hated The Remains of the Day. (My personal opinion) Most people will love or hate a movie because of the ending. Think if that's true for yourself. This movie felt like Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, the romantic longing was so intense you could cut it with a knife. The filmmakers promised us fireworks. But all we got was a dud. Anthony Hopkins never went after Emma Thompson. I mean come on, it's Emma Thompson. She's right up there with Emma Peel. 

No Country for Old Men was even worse. (My personal opinion) This movie was good. It took me along for the ride right till the end and then... nothing. I was angry when it was over. Couldn't they write an ending? 

Interestingly, some people read my clues as iconic images rather than graphs. In retrospect, I unconsciously did this when I pointed out that the graph that looked iconically like a shark fin was not Jaws. The other one was The Remains of the Day graph looked iconically like the deserts of  Lawrence of Arabia.

* Diogenes of Sinope was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived around the time of Aristotle. He was also known as Diogenes the Cynic, and most famous for carrying a lamp and searching for an honest man. I did not know that he was notorious for his philosophical stunts and this was one of them, he would carry his lamp in the daytime.

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