Wright’s Writing Corner: Aristotle On Plot

Welcome, Everyone, glad to be back!

Plot is the part of the story that compels the reader forward, the logical structure upon which the narrative hangs.

So what makes a great plot?

I was going to write a post on this topic but, when reviewing the Poetics, I realized that Aristotle said it better:

As for the meter, the heroic measure has proved its fitness by hexameter test of experience…Nature herself, as we have said, teaches the choice of the proper measure.

Oh, wait… Okay, some things discussed by Aristotle no longer have bearing. Let us try again:

A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

Okay…that sounds really, really Aristotly…but not so very helpful for the study of plot. One more try:

The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.

Ah ha! That is much more the kind of thing we are looking for. Like form in a painting, plot is the thing that holds the story together. Great characters and descriptions without a sense of order to the storytelling will never make a great book…or even a good one.

Aristotle goes on to say that plot must have a theme to it, a story about a person’s entire life is not a plot. A plot needs events.

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity.

But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether from art or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to center round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

Aristotle then discusses the problem with plots that do not have much unity to them.

Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot ‘episodic’ in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence. Bad poets compose such pieces by their own fault, good poets, to please the players; for, as they write show pieces for competition, they stretch the plot beyond its capacity, and are often forced to break the natural continuity.

He also speaks about the technical side of plotting, how plots are formed and categorized:

Plots are either Simple or Complex, for the actions in real life, of which the plots are an imitation, obviously show a similar distinction. An action which is one and continuous in the sense above defined, I call Simple, when the change of fortune takes place without Reversal of the Situation and without Recognition

A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of proter hoc or post hoc.

Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.


Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune

Two parts, then, of the Plot- Reversal of the Situation and Recognition- turn upon surprises. A third part is the Scene of Suffering. The Scene of Suffering is a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the like.

This next passage is my favorite in the Poetics. It is the one that stuck with me in the thirty years since I read it last. It discusses proper emotion in a story and what kind of man can suffer a tragedy:

A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.

Aristotle also felt that plot should have integrity. He objected to plot contrivances…something that happens just to forward the plot that does not makes sense within the story. He speaks about this at length but sums it up best in the following sentence.

The plea that otherwise the plot would have been ruined, is ridiculous; such a plot should not in the first instance be constructed.

The idea of Deus ex Machina – of a god coming down and just fixing a problem – comes from the Ancient Greeks. Nowadays, we think of it as something to avoid. Aristotle, however, said something more complex…not that Deus ex Machina should be avoided, but that it must be used in its place—not at the end, but when wonder was needed.

The Deus ex Machina should be employed only for events external to the drama- for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things. Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element the Oedipus of Sophocles.

That covers much of the basics of plots. It must have structure. It should not attempt to undertake the whole matter, but a particular slice. Characters should be portrayed as flawed and striving, and wonder should be used to increase wonder, not to solve plot problems. And plots should not include contrivances.

And finally, Aristotle pauses to comment on when a bit of contrivance might work…and the differences between a play and a novel.

Thus, the pursuit of Hector would be ludicrous if placed upon the stage- the Greeks standing still and not joining in the pursuit, and Achilles waving them back. But in the Epic poem the absurdity passes unnoticed.

This last passage really made me laugh. Suddenly, I kept chuckling and thinking…”Yeah, why didn’t the Greeks all help chase Hector?”

Poor Homer. And yet, I am sure if that question was brought up today, loyal readers would be able to find a fan save.