The Uses and Abuses of Aristotle’s Poetics in Screenwriting How-to Books
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Monday, December 24th, 2012
In the ever-expanding family of Arts and Letters conceived by humankind, Screenwriting is one of the newest members. Cursed as the bastard child of Playwriting, she strives for the acceptance of her adoptive father Film, who neglects poor Screenwriting to shamelessly favor his natural daughters Image and Montage. This unfortunate circumstance may explain why it is that Cinderella Screenwriting clings so desperately to a remote ancestry, so quick to remind those who’ll listen that she is actually a direct descendant of the great Aristotle, revered and infallible patriarch of the ancient family of Drama. She rarely misses an opportunity to refer to Aristotle’s Poetics, her pedigree papers, often quoting liberally from it.
It is, in fact, a legitimate claim. Screenwriting is a form of dramatic literature, and many of Aristotle’s observations on the nature of drama, based on his study of the plays of his time, still do pertain. But, when examining a somewhat random collection of instructional screenwriting texts, what is curious is the great variety of ways that Aristotle’s principles are portrayed—in some cases insightfully applied, but at least as often deceptively misapplied, and not uncommonly completely misrepresented. In nearly all cases, references to Aristotle have a self-conscious quality, as if he is being displayed to legitimize the speaker’s authority.
“Now is the time to start talking about Aristotle’s two-thousand-year-old ‘beginning-middle-end’ structure,” begins Lew Hunter, U.C.L.A. screenwriting professor, on page 20 of his Screenwriting 434.
“Aristotle was the first to put the storyteller’s trade tricks down on paper. The beginning-middle-end concept is in Plato’s Republic, but the elaboration of this insight you will find in Aristotle’s Poetics. For more demystification, buy that slim volume, read it twice, then pick it up every three or four years and read it during your screenwriting career. Those are the few rules we have and need.”
Hunter then goes on to fill a 350-page book with a few more rules that may nonetheless come in handy. Every 20 pages or so he pulls out the Poetics and waves it around to say, “If you don’t believe me, it’s all right here in this book by an ancient Greek philosopher.”
U.S.C. screenwriting professor, Richard Krevolin, also draws credibility from the classic in his Screenwriting from the Soul. “What exactly is the best storytelling form? Well, Aristotelian structure seems to have worked for thousands of years, so let’s start there.” Even the revered weekend-workshop guru Robert McKee calls on the Greek to add weight to his instruction. “In the twenty-three centuries since Aristotle wrote the Poetics, the ‘secrets’ of story have been as public as the library down the street,” he says in his introduction to Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
Two more authors, Linda J. Cowgill (Secrets of Screenplay Structure), who teaches at Loyola Marymount University, and Thomas Pope (Good Scripts, Bad Scripts), lecturer at the University of Minnesota, also begin their books on dramatic structure by citing the primacy of Aristotle. “The basis of our understanding of classic three-act structure goes back to Aristotle,” says Cowgill. “Drama theory begins with Aristotle,” says Pope. They then join Hunter, Krevolin and McKee in a general consensus that if we all just adhere to the principles laid out by Aristotle in the 5th century B.C., then we will write great screenplays.
However, the specific lessons that these authors draw from the Poetics have a tendency to stray somewhat from the actual text. Pope attributes to Aristotle the belief that “a drama begins when a problem begins, and ends when the problem is solved.” But in Aristotle’s time, drama meant tragedy, as in everyone dies in the end. Nowhere in the Poetics, in all the discussion of reversal, recognition and pathos – not to mention all the cataloguing of the various types of plots in which this or that family member kills or almost kills another – is the goal of plot-making posed as problem solving. The goal of Greek tragedy was to evoke in the viewer pity and terror for the misguided protagonist who is about to meet his demise.
Cowgill, citing Aristotle’s definition of tragedy (“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude”), points to the word “magnitude” as meaning the underlying unifying idea, translatable in today’s terms as “theme.” In fact, while Aristotle was notoriously unclear on what he meant by “magnitude,” scholars generally agree that it refers to the importance of the subject matter, that it should be an event worthy of relating in a story, as well as the length of the drama, that it should be in keeping with the subject matter’s importance. It is a bit of a leap to go from this to what we think of today as unifying theme.
Hunter, on the other hand, gives much credit to Aristotle for the third act, saying at one point, “Aristotle defines the emotion that should be felt by your audience in the third act as the catharsis.” He then includes an extended quote from S.H. Butcher, one of the many translators of the Poetics, in which Butcher explains the purifying effect of cathartic pity and fear using the ending of Romeo and Juliet as an example. A discerning reader might wonder, “If Aristotle defined catharsis, why is Hunter relying on Butcher for an explanation of it?” The answer is that Aristotle did not adequately define catharsis. In fact, he only fleetingly mentions it, which has been a matter of much consternation among scholars for many centuries.
Krevolin claims that according to Aristotle a story must have a beginning, middle and end to portray a protagonist’s journey towards a climax in which he learns something life-changing, and that the change must be for the better. He then parenthetically states that he is quoting from the autobiography of Josh Logan.
All of the points being made by these authors — three-act structure, posing a problem and leading to the solution, third act catharsis, a main character who learns something — are sound points that can easily stand on their own when backed up by examples from successful films. But proponents of screenwriting technique are highly defensive, due largely to the form’s underprivileged status. It is perhaps a tribute to Aristotle that his discussion of drama is so comprehensive, as well as sufficiently vague, that each writer can pull from his work the points they need to legitimate their own claims.
In all of this throwing around of Aristotle’s name, Cowgill is the only one who goes to the trouble of actually describing in any detail what exactly the philosopher said. She provides an extensive quote from chapter seven (Richard Janko translation), in which Aristotle describes beginning, middle and end, and then fairly accurately expands on what each of those means for about two more pages. She does not claim that Aristotle dictated what should happen in the beginning, but instead refers to the conventions of Greek tragedy. “In Aristotle’s day, playwrights used a prologue, delivered by the chorus, which introduced the main characters and story.” In discussing the middle, she refers to Aristotle’s identification of the complication and describes his concepts of reversal, recognition and pathos. For the end, she cites climax and resolution and wisely stays away from the thorny problem of catharsis.
Robert McKee, who poses himself as the literate, scholarly screenwriting authority, does not dwell on so-called Aristotelian structure in his book. Instead, he calls upon Aristotle’s overall philosophy to support his own structural formulations, which he describes in great detail with graphs and charts, and scolds lazy screenwriters using Aristotle’s dictum that bad storytelling leads to decadence.
Indeed, his true affection for Aristotle seems to be from a philosopher’s bent more than as a drama theorist since the points he most often cites are Aristotle’s tendency to compare and categorize things. “Why is it, [Aristotle] asked, when we see a dead body in the street we have one reaction, but when we read of death in Homer, or see it in the theatre, we have another?” McKee then describes the difference between real life emotion and what he calls “aesthetic emotion.” In discussing authenticity, McKee quotes Aristotle as saying, “‘For the purposes of [story] a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility.’”
Whereas McKee is the self-appointed Dean of Screenwriting as Literature, Syd Field is the reigning authority on Screenwriting as Commercial Product. Interestingly, Field does not make the same fuss over Aristotelian structure as his colleagues. But he is not beneath utilizing a quote now and then to bolster his advocacy of high-concept, action-based, Hollywood-style, moral-redemption films. Rather than questioning or dismissing Aristotle’s privileging of action over character, as most playwrights and theorists over the last couple of centuries have done, Field uses it to his advantage, as demonstrated in his analysis of Terminator 2.
“As I was pondering the ending of the film,” says Field, “I realized it was the Terminator’s action that affected me so deeply, his absolute willingness to sacrifice his life for the good of humankind. It is a noble action, a heroic action. . . . A hero is someone who gives up his or her life to something bigger, something larger than oneself. ‘Life consists in action,’ Aristotle declares, ‘and its end is a mode of action not a quality.’ Just look at Oedipus, at King Lear; it is their actions that make them tragic figures, and that’s exactly what the Terminator does: He sacrifices his life, his microprocessor chip, for the future of humankind and the good of humanity.”
For Field, there is nothing antiquated in Aristotle’s subordinating character to action. On the contrary, it provides complete justification for many of his favorite films. “What is character?” Field asks. “Action is character—what a person does is what he is, not what he says.”
Hunter, meanwhile, insists the two bibles of screenwriting are the Poetics and Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. This is a curious combination since, in contrast to all of Hunter’s lionizing of the Greek, Egri does not appear to put much stock in him at all.
Not strictly a screenwriting book, Egri’s 1946 text was the only work on dramatic writing widely read by screenwriters until the explosion of “how-tos” began in the mid 1980s. In contrast to Field (who was the first to elbow in on Egri’s corner on the market), Egri carries on a rather thorough debate with Aristotle on the action vs. character issue for about 14 pages. He accurately represents Aristotle’s views on the matter and then painstakingly and effectively refutes them.
But then his argument with the ancient theorist seems to get personal when he also vehemently disagrees with Aristotle’s statement that every story must have a beginning, middle and end. “Any writer who has the naivete to take this advice seriously is bound to run into trouble,” he proclaims. Then he continues:
“If it is true that every story has to have a beginning, then every story might have started at the conception of the characters and ended with their death. You may protest that this is a too literal interpretation of Aristotle. Perhaps it is, but many plays met their Waterloo for the very reason that their authors, consciously or otherwise, obeyed this Aristotelian dictum.”
It seems that Egri should have heeded Hunter’s advice to read, and reread, the Poetics, since his negative interpretation of the paraphrasing of chapter seven expresses exactly what Aristotle himself is arguing against in chapter eight when he applauds Homer’s selectivity in portraying only a portion of Odysseus’ life in the Odyssey.
On the subject of Aristotle’s comments on character vs. action, there is also Loyola University Professor Andrew Horton to consult. In his Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay, he attacks Syd Field for having “a profoundly negative effect on the quality of American screenwriting in the past decade.” He then makes the declaration that character and action are inextricably intertwined and calls upon Aristotle to back him up by quoting “‘Men are better or worse, according to their moral bent; but they become happy or miserable in their actual deeds.’” Curiously, this is the very next sentence after the one Field quotes in support of his Terminator 2 analysis, although from a different translation (Cooper, 1947).
Horton takes Aristotle’s words as a defense of character, and then credits him with foreseeing “Hollywood’s plot-heavy/character-light scripts.” In support of this view, he cites Aristotle’s statement that it is possible to have dramas without strong characters, but not possible to have dramas without action. He then interprets as a lament Aristotle’s comment that “The tragedies of most of our modern poets fail in the rendering of character” when the much greater likelihood is that Aristotle was of the opinion that these tragedies had succeeded just fine without any such renderings.
Later, Horton uses Aristotle’s four types of tragedy to demonstrate that all narrative can be broken down into three categories – plot, character and spectacle – as well as to justify his chosen task of examining character-centered narrative structures. First, he claims that Aristotle identified the four types of tragedy as: plot, suffering, character and spectacle. Clearly, he takes this from chapter eighteen, and indeed the Cooper translation does vaguely resemble his claim, certainly more so than Butcher (who translates them as the Complex, the Pathetic, the Ethical and the Simple) and Halliwell (the Complex Tragedy, the Tragedy of Suffering, the Tragedy of Character and Simple Tragedy). Cooper lists them as “Reversal and Discovery, taken together; the Tragic Incident (i.e., Suffering); Moral Bent, or Character, in the agents; and Spectacular Means.” Horton adds his own translation to this wide mix of meanings by substituting the word “plot” for “reversal and discovery,” and “narrative” for “tragedy.”
He then notes that “suffering” could be an effect of the other three divisions and so proposes to collapse that division into the others. This leaves plot, character and spectacle, from which he dismisses plot and spectacle to then focus on character. All of this without endeavoring to explain what Aristotle might have meant by each type, and, more importantly, failing to acknowledge that in his strategy for putting character up front he is borrowing from the methods of someone who emphatically put character in second place.
But Horton is not the only one to use this particular passage to serve his needs. McKee introduces his discussion of film genres by citing Aristotle’s four types. He couches it thus: “Aristotle gave us the first genres by dividing dramas according to the value-charge of their ending versus their story design. A story, he noted, could end on either a positive or negative charge.” He then lists the four genres he attributes to Aristotle: Simple Tragic, Simple Fortunate, Complex Tragic, Complex Fortunate.
This language of positive and negative charge is pure McKee-ism. Nowhere in the Poetics does Aristotle speak in polarities. Neither does he speak of a fortunate denouement. Consulting the Halliwell translation, which McKee cites, again there is clear spinning and twisting going on. To review, Halliwell’s four genres are: the Complex Tragedy, the Tragedy of Suffering, the Tragedy of Character, and the Simple Tragedy. How McKee gets Simple Fortunate and Complex Fortunate from the Tragedy of Suffering and the Tragedy of Character is hard to imagine.
Finally, there is the matter of the unities. Field, Egri, Cowgill and David Howard, director of the screenwriting program at U.S.C., and author of The Tools of Screenwriting, all make the pervasive mistake of misattributing the unities of time, place and action. Field and Egri, despite their differences on action vs. character, share the belief that all three unities originated with Aristotle, when in fact only the unity of action can be decisively credited to him. But Field distinguishes himself by going on to commit the colossal gaffe of saying it was Aristotle’s view that a play of two hours could only cover two hours of the hero’s life, and then cites Oedipus as an example.
In fact, the unity of time only warrants one mention in the Poetics, in chapter five, as “a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit.” But it is not put forth as a fixed rule, rather it is qualified with the comment that tragedy “endeavors, as far as possible” to confine itself thus.
Cowgill and Howard make another common mistake in attributing the unities of time and place to the Greek playwrights in general. But the plays themselves reveal that the unities of time and place, while followed in most cases, were not strictly adhered to. Euripides’ The Trojan Women breaks the unity of time and Aeschylus’ Eumenides breaks the unity of place. In fact, the unities of time and place didn’t become “rules” until the Renaissance period out of a misguided interpretation of Greek and Roman practices.
In all, the screenwriting authorities do not show up well on the subject of Aristotle’s Poetics. They interpret the material liberally, misinterpret it wildly, bend and twist it to suit their needs, pass on uninvestigated truisms, and don’t seem particularly interested in what Aristotle might have been trying to say separate from their own agendas. In short, they exploit the work for credibility without respecting its actual substance.
In closing, one last quote bears mentioning. Hunter, in reiterating Aristotle’s unity of action, quotes him thus: “‘The play should be about only one thing, and that thing should be what the hero is trying to get.’” Although Hunter does not include notes or bibliography, it is evident from his other quotations that he uses the Butcher translation. Needless to say, a thorough reading — and rereading — of that text failed to turn up any such statement. Maybe Aristotle the Hollywood mogul, but not Aristotle the Greek philosopher.
A Note on the Selection of How-to Books: This paper was written in 1999, which is why it does not examine books written since then.
A Note on Translations: Although the S.H. Butcher translation is the one most often used by scholars, for the layperson who would like to gain a better understanding of the Poetics from the source, the Kenneth McLeish translation is also a good resource for its simplicity, readability and the clarity of its explanatory notes. But no translation is perfect, so probably the best way to get a deeper understanding is to read them both together.
An Updated Cautionary Note: A book called Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, published after this article was written, commits the same sins as the other texts mentioned here. It is simply a more elongated example of bending, twisting and misrepresenting Aristotle’s words to support a current day agenda.
 Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, Lew Hunter (New York: Perigree, 1993) 20.
 In fact, Hunter seems to need two ancient philosophers to bolster his credibility. I can’t confirm or deny his claim about what Plato says in his Republic, but Hunter’s claim that Aristotle was elaborating on an aesthetic principle of Plato’s runs counter to the assumption of many scholars that one of Aristotle’s main purposes in writing The Poetics was to refute Plato’s views about poetry and art.
 Screenwriting from the Soul, Richard Krevolin (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1998), 40.
 Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 5.
 Secrets of Screenplay Structure: How to Recognize and Emulate the Structural Frameworks of Great Films, Linda J. Cowgill (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle, 1999), 1.
 Good Scripts, Bad Scripts: Learning the Craft of Screenwriting Through 25 of the Best and Worst Films in History, Thomas Pope (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), xv.
 Hunter, 104.
 Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the Present, Marvin Carlson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 17-19.
 Cowgill, 1-3.
 McKee, 110.
 McKee, 186.
 Four Screenplays: Studies in the American Screenplay, Syd Field (New York: Dell, 1994), 153. Emphasis his.
 Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field (New York: Dell, 1984), 55. Emphasis his.
 The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946), 86-100.
 Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay, Andrew Horton (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 14.
 Horton, 15.
 Fergusson, 63.
 Aristotle on the Art of Poetry, Lane Cooper (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1947), 59-60.
 The Poetics of Aristotle, trans. Stephen Halliwell (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 51.
 Field, Screenwriter’s Workbook, 151.
 Fergusson, 60.
 Cowgill, 80.
 The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay, David Howard and Edward Mabley (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 58-59.
 Hunter, 125-126. Emphasis his.
Carlson, Marvin. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the Present. Ithaca:Cornell University Press, 1993.
Cooper, Lane, trans. Aristotle on the Art of Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1947.
Cowgill, Linda J. Secrets of Screenplay Structure: How to Recognize and Emulate the Structural Frameworks of Great Films. Los Angeles: Lone Eagle, 1999.
Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.
Fergusson, Francis. Aristotle’s Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.
Field, Syd. Four Screenplays: Studies in the American Screenplay. New York: Dell, 1994.
Field, Syd. Screenwriter’s Workbook. New York: Dell, 1984.
Halliwell, Stephen, trans. The Poetics of Aristotle. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Horton, Andrew. Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.
Howard, David and Edward Mabley. The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Hunter, Lew. Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434. New York: Perigree Books, 1993.
Krevolin, Richard. Screenwriting from the Soul. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1998.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Pope, Thomas. Good Scripts, Bad Scripts: Learning the Craft of Screenwriting Through 25 of the Best and Worst Films in History. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.