Narrative insights: notes from Aristotle on storytelling
The master critic of drama in Classical Greece has a thing or two to say about story, still.
We bundle the dog into the car, my husband and I, and fill up the trunk: books for one sister, the teapot my mother wanted, an article for my father, something for the baby. The trip down will take us two hours, three in heavy traffic, and the familiar terrain — the cattle on the hillsides, the billboards, the iron-worked toll bridge — slips by as we play our versions of Botticelli and Ghosts. As we cross the Bay Bridge, he snaps off the air conditioning and I open the windows. The dog perks up and climbs to his post behind the back seat, tilting his head to sniff at the cool air and whining softly in anticipation. I hang one foot up on the dash and tune in KPFA. We are all going home.
Got your attention?
I would wager yes, and that’s because you’re wired for story. We all are. We are so attuned to story that we will see story even where none is intended, even when “story” (the glue that links events together) has been thoroughly excised. If you are presented with a sequence of events from which all causality has been removed, or in which none ever existed, your mind will likely perceive causality all the same. Just as we tend to see faces in random patterns in the clouds or on surfaces in the world around us (part of a phenomenon called pareidolia), we will tend to see causality in sequences of unrelated events. The novelist E.M. Forster famously said that “The king died and then the queen died” is nothing more than a sequence in time, answering the question “What happened?,” while “The king died and then the queen died of grief” inquires more deeply into events to answer the question “Why?” But most of us hearing the first would intuit the second.
Avoiding story is difficult.
It is also not advisable for the kind of writing that many of us find ourselves involved in these days — because story engages.
Story enables you to better convey your message and to make it stick. Stories are persuasive. They mimic the way we experience the world, and the way we learn from those lived experiences. When we’re involved in a story, the activity in our brain looks for all the world as though we ourselves were participating in those events — and neuronally, we are. The areas for vision and movement light up in response to vivid description. (You’ve heard “show, don’t tell”? That’s why.) Our emotional centers are engaged as well. Good stories take us completely outside ourselves, transporting us to another world.
You don’t have to be a novelist to work a little story into your writing. In fact, you’re already doing it. Whenever you write up an interview, whenever you work an anecdote into an article or a presentation, whenever narrative of any sort comes into play, you are engaging in storytelling. To do it well, you need only follow a few basic principles. And Aristotle laid a set of them out beautifully in the Poetics, as applicable today as it was two thousand years ago.
Stories have shape
It seems deceptively simple to say, but as Aristotle long ago observed, stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stories are shaped compositions (“well-designed structures,” in Aristotle’s terms): they ought not to begin or end at arbitrary points, and the development of the middle should clearly connect the beginning to the end through the logic of causality. Where you choose to begin, where you end, and how you develop the narrative between those two points, these are first principles.
Then there’s balance. You’d not want a story to linger long on setup, for example, but then give short shrift to development, because then you’d have prepared the way for what is never delivered. And you’d not want one that was all development, without adequate setup, because then you’d have delivered something without preparing the way for it. “Balance,” though, doesn’t mean equal time spent. Just enough time in each to get the job done.
This fundamental three-part story-shape is just the first and most basic way of evaluating a story’s effectiveness. And as with any principle, in capable hands some aspects of it can be overturned for artistic effect.
Every detail should contribute to the whole
Another fundamental aspect of story is unity. Every detail in the piece should relate back to the main theme you’re exploring. What point are you making? What thought or feeling do you want to leave the audience with? Every detail you select should contribute to that, whether explicitly (in direct statement) or implicitly (in details you leave readers to draw conclusions from). Every word in the story, every image, every plot-point, should do work. And work together. As Aristotle noted, the piece should be so constructed that removing any one element of it would “disturb and disjoint” the whole. The corollary of that principle is that everything that should be there, is.
Start by putting down all the details that come to mind and seem particularly apt, and then test the effect by reading the draft through to see whether any particular bits contribute nothing to the effect you want.
Focusing on a single individual does not guarantee unity
A story does not necessarily attain unity simply by centering on one individual. In any story you are telling, it is not enough to make sure that all the details relate to one person — or to one business or one product or one feature. This strategy does not necessarily ensure unity of theme, characterization, action, or impact. You must still select from all the details available to you (or from among those you might create, if you are spinning a fanciful ad or marketing piece) to find the ones that drive home your point.
Think in terms of the effect you want to create, or the event you want to relate, and make that your selection criteria. Even if you are specifically sketching a character (or describing a product), select only those details that will help shape the finished portrait.
Starting in the middle of the action helps to propel your readers in
The epics and dramas of Classical Greece always began at the height of activity, long after what might have been the chronological beginning, and this is a convention that Aristotle himself works within and assumes. It took a later Roman poet to remark that the action of a story as told ought to begin in media res (“in the middle of things”), rather than ab ovo (literally, “from the egg,” meaning “from the beginning”).
So too where you start telling a story need not — in fact, in general ought not — be the beginning of the events as they happened (or would have happened). You can choose to use flashback or flashforward, to tell events out of order, or to begin, using that time-honored device, in the middle of things. Beginning in the middle helps to create a sense of engagement with the story immediately.
You might write events out chronologically in early drafts and experiment later, when you’re clear on the overall trajectory, with beginning instead wherever the action becomes especially interesting.
Necessity or probability
Events linked tightly by cause and effect feel particularly inevitable
When Aristotle noted that the middle of a story is linked to both beginning and end through a causal chain of events, he was calling attention to a fundamental aspect of narrative, indeed to the way in which we define narrative. For although we are inclined to detect causation in any sequence of lived events (from which follows, for example, the superstition of many athletes with respect to how they prepare for a game), we hold stories that are constructed by an author to a higher standard. We expect events to follow from one another in a story even more logically than they might in real life. You can capitalize on this in any narrative you write, whether retold from life or created to drive home a point, by selecting and situating events to highlight those logical links.
To test the strength of the causal chain in a story you’re writing, work backwards event by event: was each propelled believably into motion by the previous? We judge events in stories retrospectively. That’s a good way to test that events as they unfold are believable (or in Aristotle’s terms, “necessary or probable”).
When chance intervenes in the right way, it can feel right . . .
As a counter principle to ensuring necessity or probability in the way that events unfold, because life itself is seldom strictly logical, you can sprinkle in a little chance here and there to increase the story’s likeness to life. Handled in the right way, chance can also feel like fate. It can add another layer of motivated purpose to the story. Aristotle cites the example of the bronze statue of the murdered king of Argos, which during a public event fell on the king’s murderer, killing him in turn.
An anecdote such as this carries with it the satisfying feeling of fulfillment: the statue’s fall was unexpected, yet fitting. And so it seems less like chance and more like fate. It feels right.
. . . but chance ought not be used to resolve a knotty complication
You’ve got to be careful with chance in a story though: a chance event can’t seem like it’s rescued you, the author, from a tight predicament. That’s cheating. Better a chance event that increases difficulties than one that solves them.
A resolution that does not arise organically from the plot — from, in the language of game theory, the pieces already on the table — is what Aristotle called apo mechanes theos (and the Roman poets who came after him, deus ex machina), literally “the god in the machine.” The phrase comes from the habit, common among the dramatists of lesser talent, of resolving a particularly complicated situation by lowering down from a huge crane (“the machine”) a representation of one of the gods, who then put an end to the problem, and with it the action of the story. It was the classical forerunner of the cavalry coming over the hill.
Error, reversal, and recognition: hamartia, peripeteia, and anagnorisis
People make mistakes, and we learn from them (even if they don’t)
Stories are about conflict and struggle and strife. They are about things that go wrong or things that are about to go wrong or things that we fear will go wrong, perhaps even terribly wrong. All the trouble in a story frequently comes about because somebody — one or more of the characters, or the narrator — has made a mistake. Perhaps you didn’t get the memo, you opted out of a meeting, you misread the new initiative, something. An error in judgment, a miscalculation, the wrong information received, the wrong person trusted. This initial error (hamartia for Aristotle) is the spark the sets events in motion.
In serious stories, as in life, from mistakes come insight. Generally for someone in the story, but most particularly for us the audience. If you’re relating an incident from real life, you are probably relating it because you became aware of some mistake or misunderstanding and its consequences, and somebody learned from it.
Whose mistake? One mistake or many?
A mistake made by someone else can affect the main character we’re meant to identify with or care about, a mistake that main character makes can affect somebody else — or the mistake made can come back to haunt the person who made it. That last is the mistake whose revelation offers the strongest impact: the character learns that she has been the author of her own (typically) downfall.
Knowing this, you can structure stories you’re working on to have more dramatic (or comic) effect. Whatever the purpose of the narrative, whether you’re working from something that actually happened (selecting and arranging details) or writing something from scratch (creating those details as well), you can develop a trajectory that resonates more deeply with your audience.
With revelation comes understanding, and deeper narrative impact
As characters are drawn deeper and deeper into the problematic situations set in motion by that initial misunderstanding, that initial misstep, narratives sustain audience attention, keeping them with and in the story. Keeping them listening to what it is you have to say. For Aristotle, the best plot-structure is the one in which that initial mistake sets in motion events which continue to spiral out of the characters’ control, the narrative tension building inexorably until that moment of release, the pivot-point in the action, when a sudden reversal (peripeteia) — generally meaning that somebody’s fortune rises, somebody’s falls — makes clear that fateful first misstep. This moment of illumination, of recognition (anagnorisis), of understanding, follows the reversal swiftly.
This structure of “mistake, unintended consequences, and the turning point that brings the mistake to light” is the best plot-structure, in Aristotle’s estimation, because it is the one that most fully engages both an audience’s attention and an audience’s emotions. Because narrative mimics the experience of living, both cognitively and emotionally, it can be very persuasive. If you can draw the audience into deep engagement with the material, what the main characters feel, they will feel. And what the main characters learn, the audience too may take on board. Narrative can persuade where reasoned arguments fail. And it has been used to do so.
The more “storified” your message is, the more you will want to pay attention to the Aristotelian schema for story. It may be a structure that works with your material and message.
The unexpected is sticky
To increase a story’s impact, write, as Aristotle advised, “contrary to expectation.” We tune out the consistent, the humdrum, the normal. But break expectation, break a pattern — now you’ve got our attention. We’ll pay attention to what you’re saying, and we’ll tend to remember it better.
The unexpected may be a chance occurrence (particularly if it hastens events forward, rather than resolving them) or it may arise directly from someone’s actions, most especially a misstep. It may also come at the end.
In the end is the beginning
What Aristotle spells out in the Poetics is a teleological critique of story, a perspective which has been explored more fully in modern narrative theory. Narrative is exuberantly end-focused: from the opening moment, every story strains toward its conclusion. And the way a story concludes colors our interpretation, indeed our experience, of it. A good ending, an ending with a twist of the unexpected, can cause us to reevaluate our entire understanding of the story retrospectively. Such an ending rewrites the story. So choose the endings of your stories carefully: the endpoint should provide closure, it should offer answers.
Because the ending is the most important point of the story, if you can, write it first. If you discover along the way how you want the piece to end (or how it seems, as you work with it, to want to end), return later to the rest of it and revise from the beginning so as to better prepare for that end. Endings are often written first; beginnings, last.
You don’t need to write fiction to take advantage of these Aristotelian insights into effective story structure. You can incorporate them into any narrative you’re working on — user personas, use cases, a product pitch, the warmup to your presentation, a customer experience piece for the corporate blog — to tighten structure and increase impact.
Not every story, of course, follows this classic trajectory, but a story that does can connect with its audience deeply on both an intellectual and an emotional level. It’s a story that can increase engagement. It’s a story that can persuade.