Okay, I have a confession to make: Aristotle never compiled a list of rules for creative writing. If you didn’t realize it by now, Aristotle lived in the 4th century BC, which was a significantly long, long time before “first novels” like The Tale of Genji (1010) or Don Quixote (1605) – and I don’t think there’s any debating that it’s impossible for anyone to foretell the rules of the literary art by 1300 years, even a man as brilliant as Aristotle.
. . . Or is it? Is it, really?
In reality, these are Aristotle’s “Seven Golden Rules of Storytelling.” They’re meant to apply to the visual arts of storytelling; in particular, Greek theatre. But as a writer, I’m always translating advice on any art into a context that fits my own; and I discovered that Aristotle’s rules actually translate into surprisingly accurate and well-rounded elements of writing.
Plot means different things depending on who you ask. We could have interesting discussions just looking for the nature of plot. Some say a story is nothing without it. Some (take Stephen King) “distrust” it. But we’re all agreed that it’s a thing, and that all proper fiction has some form of it – and typically, it’s your first step to a story.
The plot is the “what” of a story. If you’re writing, you’re bound to write about something happening; that’s your plot.
Now that you have a plot, you need characters to populate it. No writer will tell you different. Characters are people, and there’s no story without a) a person to tell it (you), and b) people to live in it. There’s simply no getting around this one. And I don’t know about you, but I like it that way.
Why are you writing your story? Why is the story happening? Why are the characters doing what they’re doing? That’s your theme, honey.
This is another place where writers don’t always agree. Some say Yes, every story has a theme, if you don’t have one you’re missing something; some say No, don’t do the thing, that’s gimmick not story. Most writers (and I can include myself here) will tell you something in between: every story has a theme, yes, but every theme doesn’t have a story. If you start with a theme, it will become your gimmick. If you tack on a theme, it will become your gimmick. If you let the theme grow organically in your story in whatever nooks and crannies it chooses, you’re doing something right.
Talk is cheap . . . except when it’s not, because it’s one of your most valuable tools as a writer. Verbal communication is thousands of years in the making, please of all the mistakes you may make do not butcher it by making your characters talk like rocks. They can talk like rockers – or aristocrats or scientists or cockneys or rednecks – but please please please remember they have to talk like human beings.
So far so good. Everything obviously applies to writing. We have four elements no story can go without. Now let’s see what else Aristotle has to share . . .
In the Greek theatre, the chorus was the part where the actors came out to sing and dance, and to perorate on the nature of the play’s moral. It was a kind of commentary, description, or exposition; and I don’t know what kind of grades you got in your elementary school spelling tests, but to me that clearly spells P-R-O-S-E. This is the only place where writing itself intersects with Greek theatre.
Good plot, bad plot, no plot, you can still have a story; good prose, bad prose, but there has to be prose to be a story. (Unless you’re Paul Fournel. But have you ever heard of him? There might be a reason for that. It’s this: You’re not French and you’ll never be as cool as the French.)
So don’t stint here. You have a compelling plot, complex characters, theme, strong dialogue; it all falls apart if you can’t write it down and do a good job of it. You have to write words good.
You’ve seen a stage: it’s a big platform, usually made of wood, with great big curtains and arcane mysteries behind them. But when you watch a performance, you don’t see the stage; you see the library in a British country villa, or the streets of New York, or the Opera Populaire. Thanks to the decor, you don’t see a stage: you see a setting.
Your story needs to happen somewhere. It could be on Main Street in a rural Minnesooota town, or it could be on Mars. It just needs to be somewhere you can get excited about traveling to, so you can be the tour guide to make your reader excited about being there.
I’ll tell you what. I’ve given this one some thought, and I’ve interpreted it in my own way; but I’m not entirely sure about this one. What I’d like you to do is learn a little about the spectacle, the opsis in Greek theatre, for yourself. Make your own interpretations, figure out what you think it means for literature, and then come back for my opinion. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
. . . Ready? You want to know how I interpret the opsis? I think it’s just this:
I hope you don’t feel cheated. But I’m serious; just hear me out. I really think this is the most pivotal of all the seven rules.
The action is what the reader really wants. Whether they’re reading James Patterson or Charles Dickens, readers crave action. It’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction: nonfiction tells about something that happened; fiction shows something happen. Characters have to do something. Plot is what happens; action is the happening. I think Chekhov says it best:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov*
Nonfiction will tell you the moon is shining, and when the moon shines and why. Good fiction will tell you what the moonlight revealed, what the moon meant to the person seeing it shine, what the lovers did in the moonlight, and what they learned in the moonlight.
* Supposedly, Chekhov never actually said this. You probably noticed the similarity to a quote credited to Mark Twain. It seems that somebody took Chekhov’s words and rearranged them to sound like Twain’s (supposed) words.
What do you think? Do Aristotle’s commandments apply to writing? What was your interpretation of the seventh rule?