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Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters
Storytelling Secrets from the Greatest Mind in Western Civilization
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Long considered the bible for storytellers, Aristotle’s Poetics is a fixture of college courses on everything from fiction writing to dramatic theory. Now Michael Tierno shows how this great work can be an invaluable resource to screenwriters or anyone interested in studying plot structure. In carefully organized chapters, Tierno breaks down the fundamentals of screenwriting, highlighting particular aspects of Aristotle’s work. Then, using examples from some of the best movies ever made, he demonstrates how to apply these ancient insights to modern-day screenwriting. This user-friendly guide covers a multitude of topics, from plotting and subplotting to dialogue and dramatic unity. Writing in a highly readable, informal tone, Tierno makes Aristotle’s monumental work accessible to beginners and pros alike in areas such as screenwriting, film theory, fiction, and playwriting.
First, heartfelt thanks to my wife Judy, my favorite person on earth. Her contributions to my life and this work are incalculable.
I am grateful to Hyperion. Because of the editors' swift response to this project and support throughout all phases of it, I can't complain one iota anymore that the powers that be don't think Aristotle is cool. I am grateful to Alison Lowenstein for signing the book and, when she left, handing it to Cassie Mayer, who has turned out to be a true collaborator. Her comments, queries, line edits, rearranging of chapters, and even ideas about movies to use were so on the money and inspiring that they pushed me deeper into the Poetics than I ever thought possible. They're the reason the book is more than I dreamed it could be.
Likewise, I am much indebted to my agent, Susan Crawford, who for no reason other than that this project sounded good, jumped on board and made it happen. Her disciplined guidance with the proposal is the principal reason you're reading this book.
I am grateful to the College of Staten Island, and especially to the City University of New York City Film School, which introduced me to cinema studies. This great institution successfully marries academic film studies with hands-on filmmaking, covering everything from semiotics to classical Hollywood and experimental cinema theory. My experience at the CUNY film school was greatly enhanced by outstanding professors: Mirella Affron, Sarah Kozloff, Richard Pena, Elaine Mancini, Phill Niblock, and Lenny Quart. They gave everything they had to ensure that my fellow students and I received a rich, solid filmmaking and cinema theory education.
Two other professors I've had the fortune of learning from are Martha Nussbaum and Stephen Halliwell. I was delighted they took time to answer my e-mails, as they are two of the top Aristotle scholars of all time. I recommend your reading as much of their writings as possible. I'd also like to acknowledge Films For The Humanities for giving me a video copy of Oedipus Rex to use as my basis for understanding Aristotle's favorite play.
My thanks, too, for the Writer's Room, because it gave me a place to go to help stave off the feeling of isolation that comes with writing. And to my dear friends Judith Nelson, Catharine Carlin, Toni L. Kamins, Harold Itzkowitz, and Eric Justice, all of whom gave me a lot of support through various phases of this project.
The movie business is tough to break into. Miramax Films gave me an opportunity to be a story analyst, and I'm especially grateful to Heidi Herman for taking the time to teach me the ropes and to Hannah Minghella and Tony Mosher for piling on all kinds of work as well as giving me a break to write this book. I am indebted to Jack Lechner and Sam Maser, who have given me a great deal of guidance and encouragement, and to my lawyer and friend, Robert L. Seigel, who has supported my filmmaking efforts, offering legal advice about and insight into the independent-film business. I am very grateful for the awe-inspiring New York Public Library, my favorite place on earth. Because of it, I feel like a billionaire.
Finally, my gratitude to my family for their love. And at the risk of sounding hokey, I am indebted to Aristotle because of the beautiful truth he left behind for anyone to stumble upon in his writings.
If, scarily enough, your screenplay happens to get read by a Hollywood studio, the story analyst will sum it up using a "coverage" form that looks something like this:
Absolutely everything submitted to a Hollywood studio is boiled down to its bare merits and discussed using these nine topics of analysis. The form allows a story analyst to write a quick summary of the screenplay before zipping said summary off to an overworked story editor, who sends it to an equally time-taxed studio executive. Based on this coverage sheet, the executive decides whether or not to look at your script. What the items on the sheet represent are the no-brainer essentials of a screenplay—its idea, its story, and so forth. But you'd be surprised to find out that the criteria Hollywood executives use to evaluate screenplays are exactly those the legendary philosopher Aristotle thought were the nuts and bolts of ancient drama more than 2,000 years ago!
Aristotle carefully examined the fundamentals of dramatic story structure in the Poetics, which is still considered to be "the bible of screenwriting" by many Hollywood professionals today. Sharing this view, I use the Poetics as a guide to write scripts and make films, and have used its truths to analyze and write screenplay coverage notes as a story analyst for Miramax Films. Since the Poetics has helped me immensely in both endeavors, I feel obliged to share its insights with anyone interested in writing better screenplays.
Don't worry, this book is not an academic study. It's an introduction to the Poetics aimed specifically at screenwriters, that seeks to break down many of Aristotle's brilliant concepts and demonstrate how his techniques of dramatic story structure are still used in modern movies. I know how hard it is to read the Poetics in its entirety. There's that translation-from-ancient-Greek issue, not to mention the fact that many of the plays Aristotle refers to have vanished or are rarely performed. Some of the conventions he describes have no bearing in today's cinematic world, including talk of "dithyrambs" and other outmoded forms of dramatic writing. However, the Poetics is still useful to screenwriters because Aristotle explained why well-structured dramatic works affected audiences the way they did. He analyzed plot devices, character, and everything you'd find in a Hollywood story coverage sheet today. In fact, I think it's safe to say that Aristotle, besides being the greatest mind in Western civilization, was the world's first movie story analyst!
Aristotle's examination of plays such as Oedipus Rex demonstrates timeless universal truths about dramatic storytelling. In analyzing great movies like Rocky and American Beauty, I discovered that they follow Aristotelian story structure, which is not to say they simply follow a bunch of rules. On the contrary, in these works, the art of storytelling is alive and fresh, and perhaps that is why they emerged like beacons from the cluttered marketplace. In each great movie I analyze, the screenwriters and directors have understood how audiences respond to drama, which is what the Poetics is all about. This understanding is what makes classic films timeless and awe-inspiring.
The passages from the Poetics I cite in the subsequent chapters contain the soundest principles of screenwriting technique ever articulated. What parenthetical emphasis I have added or any rearranging I have done I felt was necessary for the sake of presenting Aristotle's thoughts on dramatic structure as clearly and simply as he intended. You will notice that throughout most of the book, I demonstrate these principles by citing actual movies rather than screenplays. I feel that screenwriters must first understand how drama works in great movies on screen before they can make it happen on paper.
A word about the semantics of the Poetics needs mentioning. When Aristotle says "tragedy," he means "serious drama," so whenever you see "tragedy" throughout the book (notably in the Poetics excerpts), it means just that—not necessarily "tragic drama," in the conventional sense modern viewers hold. In Aristotle's day, there was a hard-core split between tragedy (drama) and comedy. Tragedy was about serious issues—the "tragic deed" and higher-level personages falling from grace. Comedy, about buffoons and lower-level personages that were not to be taken seriously, amounted to a sort of "vaudeville." Aristotle informs us that the sadder dramatic works are indeed the most potent kind, a notion that came to define classical "tragedy," as championed by Shakespeare with works such as Hamlet and King Lear. But all of the principles about tragedy laid out in the Poetics apply to most movies today, even comedies like Galaxy Quest.
And now the moment we've all been waiting for … storytelling secrets from the greatest mind in Western civilization.
Orestes is made to say himself what the poet rather than the story demands.
"Say what the story demands" is a concept that should be pasted on every screenwriter's wall. It's probably the pearl of wisdom from The Poetics, which Aristotle gets at in the above passage. Here, he's referring to the Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris, a play that he feels is flawed because the author (Euripides) made the mistake of letting his own agenda seep into the story rather than having every plot incident come together to create a tight unified structure. In fact, the ability to plot well or create strong story structures is not a minor talent, and according to Aristotle it comes with maturity:
… beginners succeed earlier with the Diction and Characters than with the construction of a story.
According to Aristotle, the ability to plot, or to create a powerful structure, is the most important aspect of writing. Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas. By the end of this book, you'll understand why it's important to say what the story demands. You'll be able to judge if you're doing so, and if not, how to fix it! And to help you in this quest, I want to introduce you to a tool that I call the ACTION-IDEA.
I'm going to refer to this ACTION-IDEA throughout the rest of the book because it represents the essence of Aristotle's Poetics. Screenwriters (and directors) must instill their story's ACTION-IDEA, or "mission statement," into an audience to create emotions in them. The ACTION-IDEA is really the foundation of the entire screenplay. A good movie expands an ACTION-IDEA into a full-length story, without losing the essence of the simple idea upon which it is based. While dramatic movies seek to convey a truth about the human condition, it is through the ACTION-IDEA that the screenwriter's particular worldview is best conveyed.
That said, let me now explain more fully what I mean by ACTION-IDEA. Aristotle teaches us to think of ACTION as the IDEA of a story. In fact, he says that action is more important than people; that is, characters. Aristotle is fanatical about the need for our stories to be about action, about action that is larger than life itself and greater than the persons who partake in it. Think about all the people who say they're going to do a million things, but in the end, you judge them by what they actually accomplish. That's why we screenwriters build a dramatic story on a single action. The hero in a dramatic story is whoever takes the lead in that action. For example, Jaws is an idea about a man trying to stop a killer shark. Chief Brody takes the lead in the action of trying to stop the killer shark. But notice that the IDEA for Jaws is an ACTION upon which the entire story is built. We could reduce the ACTION even further to read, "stopping a killer shark," an ACTION that is greater than any of the characters in the story, even Chief Brody.
Your ACTION-IDEA should be able to move listeners who merely hear it just as they would be moved if they saw an entire movie made from your screenplay. It takes a full-length movie to bring an audience to "catharsis," or profound emotional release, but the ACTION-IDEA should be able to evoke a little bit of that same deep feeling on its own. So, if your ACTION-IDEA must do all this work, it must be a simple summary of a story, strong enough so that when it's expanded into a complete screenplay, it will hold and move an audience. Let's now give the ACTION-IDEA a try.
Say we want to write about someone who likes cars. That's not an ACTION-IDEA. Okay, how about someone who not only likes cars but who likes them so much that he steals them. "Steals" is better than "likes" because "steals" refers to an action, whereas "likes" refers to a state of mind. But the idea of a hero who merely steals cars isn't in and of itself capable of moving an audience to a catharsis. It needs something. So, a better example of an ACTION-IDEA would read something like:
THE JOE SCHMO STORY—JOE SCHMO steals cars to help kids in his neighborhood go to college, but he eventually decides he's setting a bad example, so he goes to college himself so that someday he can get a real job and earn the money to put his kids through school. At college he struggles to transcend his 50 I.Q., but instead of bribing teachers to pass his classes, he decides to pass on his own merits, setting the ultimate example for his kids.
Bravo! We did it. We created an ACTION-IDEA suitable for building into a full-length film. And notice that the finishing touch was adding the fact that Joe Schmo, the agent of the action, got to make a moral choice, two important Aristotelian concepts. Admit it, with Joe's decision to pass college on his own merits to set an example, you can't help but feel for him. And that's what it's all about, getting the audience to feel and to connect with your characters.
Of course, you might get cute and ask, "If the ACTION-IDEA is capable in and of itself of doing emotional work on an audience, why make them sit through a two-hour movie?" The answer could be, "What else are we going to do on Saturday nights?" The real answer is that undergoing catharsis through a full-length story is a richer experience than listening to the mere summation of a story in a few sentences.
According to Aristotle, catharsis (which literally translates to "emotional purging") is the whole point of dramatic storytelling, and it's what every single story event is working to achieve in the audience. Your movie should take the audience on an emotional and psychological journey—that is what they pay for. A good movie reveals poignant truths of the human experience in either a small or big way, depending on the kind of movie it is.
Just hearing a good ACTION-IDEA can impart a small feeling of catharsis, but the bigger drawn-out one experienced during a complete movie is more cleansing for the human psyche, and even therapeutic. Bear in mind, a secret to understanding catharsis is that it doesn't happen at the end of watching a movie, but builds throughout the entire story and climaxes at the end, giving the audience a final release.
A well-crafted story is needed to make an ACTION-IDEA cathartic. Our task is to take our simple ACTION-IDEA and develop it into a full-length screenplay, without abandoning the essence of the original idea. So now, all that's left is for me to lead you to the master who can point the way. The task is easier than you think.
Let's Start at the Very Beginning, Middle, and End
… a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end.
This quote from the Poetics has led to the common misconception held by many screenwriters that the Poetics
- On Sale
- Oct 30, 2012
- Page Count
- 192 pages
- Hachette Books