Monday, 7 September 2009

Plot structure - Introduction

For as long as people have been telling stories, there has been a structure that works well. One that captivates the audience, hooks them, draws them into the world of the storyteller.

As far as I'm aware, that structure was first analysed and codified by Aristotle in his work 'The Poetics.' Of course, he was talking about epic oral poetry and Greek theatre, complete with chorus. Nonetheless, what worked for 100,000 years huddled round fires at night, worked for Ancient Greece, was followed by the Romans, the writers of Northern European epics such as as Beowulf, the Prose Edda and the Nibelungenlied and was obeyed by great writers of the Medieval and Elizabethan periods (Chretien de Troyes, Mallory, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson and others) is as relevant and important today as ever it was.

Don't forget, people have told stories as long as there have been people. The idea of reading stories has only been around for some 500 years. Watching them at the talkies or on the telescreen has only been around for a century.

What I'm saying is that what worked for millennia worked for a reason. It satisfied some basic human need. Technology may have evolved, but the human brain has not kept pace. What worked when the sabre-toothed tiger roared outside and mammoths roamed the plains still works.

We call this the Aristotelian structure.

Aristotle's six most important elements of any drama were:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Theme
  4. Dialogue
  5. Music
  6. Spectacle

This list still works marvellously for films, though sadly, Hollywood seems to have reversed the order in recent decades. Special effects do not make a great movie no matter what the movie moguls think.

You might also notice that music is on the list - important for Greek drama, crucial in films.

OK, if we're talking about writing books, you can ignore music.

Spectacle for books is what the reader envisions as he or she reads your prose.

Tomorrow, I'm going to write about the two ways of creating (or analysing) any decent plot. In later posts, I'll go through every other element on the list with the exception of music.


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