This book, which I'd more properly describe as a treatise I guess, was written 2,363 years ago by a dude named Aristotle. I think that every aspiring writer should download a copy of this (the Copyright has expired) and read it.
However, if you do, remember the time and place where it was written. Aristotle talks about Poetry, and that includes the Odyssey and the Illiad by Homer. In Aristotle's day, all stories were told as poetry, including narrative stories.
And, while Aristotle regards plot as paramount over character, his insights into both are just as relevant today as any contemporary sage's discourse on the art of writing. He even takes a pot shot at 'show and tell'. I don't agree with everything he writes, but a lot of it makes sense. And, as a last explanation when you get to the part where he talks about Tragic and Epic poetry, remember that the ancient Greeks preferred tragic endings to their poems; take Oedipus for example.
I've made a study of the Poetics. I hardly understood anything Aristotle espouses the first three times I read the text. Dozens of ever closer readings later, and comparing and contrasting the text with other poetics texts, I understand the entirety to my satisfaction, which in the near term is all that matters.
I even glean aspects about the cultural values of the man and his society and the state of language of his time. His poetry remarks, for example, that everyday speech took place in iambic often pentameter accenture and rhythm. No deliberate rhyme though.
Everyday English speech today is so commonplace to the ear people generally under-realize the poetry of it, though perhaps slightly more so when written prose. The reign of poetry's preeminence and its fashion for drama lasted long into the early modern era as dramatic poetry, replaced by dramatic performing arts, which also arose in ancient Greece from oral performance.
We owe our contemporary writing terms protagonist, antagonist and antagonism, and less used deuteragonist and triagonist, and other terms like logos, pathos, ethos, kleos, kairos, and decorum to the early oratory competitions in the time of the Attic Orators held similalry to the Olympics. The Greek word antagoniste meaning simply contestant originally, though by Aristotle's time the term protagonist, meaning first contestant, had also come to mean the first primary actor introduced to an audience.
I've read incomplete editions of the Poetics, distorted editions, retranslated editions that add a biased slant, editions that skip entire parts, but only one widely accepted as the authoritive edition: the 1894 translation by Samuel Henry Butcher. archive.org hosts a digital scan of the original publication. I printed it out and bound it into booklet form for convenient reading, study, and annotation.
Deep digging was required to understand that many terms in the translation are not used as they are today. Like chorus and significance. The English translation itself requires translation in order to fully understand the parts and the whole.
One term Butcher translated was challenged by critics as imperfectly realized: peripeteia, meaning a profound, sudden or unexpected reversal of the dramatic circumstances. This is a major turn in a plot, which cinematists often call a twist. Followers of a different school of writing thought call it a plot point, but neither does the term peripeteia justice. The term has since Butcher's time come to be commonly understood for its loan word status among students of narrative teory.
One of the harder for me to understand principles Aristotle espouses is defining simple and complex plots. Harder yet to apply. I figured them out due to the Poetics. Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus has a complex plot. As does Homer's Odyssey. Most prose today has simple plots, not per se simplistic but straightforward dramatic action. Conflict resolution outcomes, by far the most common of narrative types, favor simple plots. When the surprises of discovery or revelation and reversal, anagnorisis and peripeteia, respectively, are understood and artfully deployed, audiences love them. Many of the classics and contemporary popularly and critically acclaimed narratives deploy both.
I haven't found any other narratology text that distinguishes simple and complex plots. Through appreciating the value of simple and complex plots, I at last unravelled the mysteries of plot and scene. Thank you, Aristotle.
The version I downloaded was the one translated by S H Butcher. And, being slightly archaic myself, I understood most of the 'uncommon' usages of words in their original meaning. The most amusing to me was the Pathetic poem, which isn't at all pathetic in its modern meaning. At least I have the 'history' behind me to understand some aspects of ancient Greek society and practices. However, some people will struggle with the idea that, in the time of Aristotle, Poetry was any activity performed for entertainment and that oratory was for political discourse. Also, the chorus wasn't always singing it's parts, and the audience was expected to participate in some instances.
I completely agree that further close study by myself is indicated. I experienced a tingling thrill when I started reading his theories on the unexpected reversal and revelation, as well as his discourse on simple and complex plots. These areas will need lots of time for thinking on my part.
Aristotle does emphasize plot, mainly causation. For a continuation of study, might I next recommend Elias J. MacEwan's 1894 translation of Gustav Freytag's Technique of the Drama, 1863, also available at archive.org. Greater understanding of the Poetics resulted from my studying that text.
Freytag examines tension's empathy, or sympathy as he labels it, that speaks to pathetikos, meaning capable of feeling (or expressing) pathos, meaning evoking pity or compassion, emotions, as Aristotle means for the Pathetic poem. The other identity of tension, curiosity, is also explored in the Freyatg text.
Freytag saw a two-dimensional representation of plot, that of a pyramid-like shape. Subsequent twentieth century narratologists misrepresent the pyramid shape. Wikipedia's essay on the Freytag pyramid is far from the original, giving exposition no introduction and denouement no closure in terms of tension's empathy and curiosity values.
From my studies, I've developed a theory of a third plot dimension. Aristotle's causation is the x axis in Freytag's pyramid. Tension is the y axis in Freytag's pyramid. And the z axis is the antagonism axis, the additional dimension in my theory.
In order for causation to matter to audiences, there must be tension. In order for tension to matter to audiences, there must be antagonism, which also influences causation and tension. While it takes two plot axes to tango, three's a party!
Like causation's identities of cause and effect and tension's identities of empathy and curiosity, antagonism's identities are problem and want; in other words, a dramatic complication's want and problem wanting satisfaction. A want or a problem or both is causal. For audiences to care and be curious, also, expressing wants and problems wanting satisfaction that matter to the audience raises tension.
I found the first clue of antagonism in the Poetics sections about character and causation. Freytag gave me more clues. Both scratch at the edges of the idea but don't fully realize antagonism's potency.
I am guessing that your use of the word antagonism does not equate to the 'antagonist', the former being a psychological/emotional state and the latter being either a battle against self (psychological, but in a different manner) or a battle against something/someone that/who stands between the protagonist and the thing he/she wants.
Just realised that's a damn big sentence, hope it makes sense.
I do agree that Aristotle is adamant about cause and effect, even going so far as to disparage the works of other 'poets' who either resort to the Deus ex Machina or simply add 'plot complications' to make things interesting. As he says at one point, some audiences rightly 'booed' such poems from the amphitheater.
I'll give Freytag a look tomorrow; can't get enthused about the story I'm working on at the moment, and all I'm doing is creating the milieu through the use of family trees. Ugh!
I mean antagonism in the sense of oppositional forces or circumstances that are changed and cause change by their interaction. In chemistry, as an example, mixing muriatic acid and sodium bicarbonate rapidly changes the two compounds into heat, carbon dioxide gas, table salt, and water. Muriatic acid and sodium bicarbonate are antagonists of each other in that sense. Like battlefield combatants, that's a tangible example.
An intangible example, in terms of an internal complication, might be wanting a love interest. Not having one might be a problem, too. Wanting and not having a love interest is causal; however, not per se oppositional, contentious, or competitive in the sense of antagonism, nor exciting change.
For opposition, internal complication, resistance to pursuing a love interest might be from a fear of intimacy. That's an antagonizing problem opposing the want for and problem of not having a love interest.
Antagonism is the agonies of competition. The agonistes are the contestants who are changed by a contest of passionate wills. The process is that of transformation, as Aristotle means when he describes how fortunes run from bad to good or good to bad in the cases of comedy and tragedy.
So, you're proposing a state of either inner turmoil, that results in change, or the fractious rubbing together of two 'personalities' that results in change.
Is it a prerequisite of this antagonism that, say, the two personalities at odds must, needs be, protagonist and antagonist? Perhaps an Aristotelian reversal is called for, where two opposing forces suddenly find their goals in harmony, or, those whose goals appear to be in harmony are revealed to be in opposition?
Just foolin' around with possibilities and hoping to learn something in the process.
Btw, I have an argument I'm developing that refutes the notion that Aristotle places plot above character. I need to find it in his Poetics, however, he talks about Tragic Poems being the tales of certain 'families', Oedipus, Achilles and Odysseus to name a few. I contend that Aristotle paid less heed to character simply because the 'characters' had already been fully developed; only the plots they found themselves in differed.
I theorize that antagonism may be several forces in contention at any given moment, be they interior, inside, or outside. Interior being a psychological gamut, including maturation phases, personality, and emotional condition. Inside being esoteric forces, inside one's personal space but exterior, near and dear closeby: family, acquaintances, pets, plants, personal possessions, etc., and within one's folk group. Outside being exoteric, nemeses, villains, the other, strangers, etc., farther external. Though keeping one's enemies closer than family is a wise course.
Scholars believe Aristotle's surviving works are largely unpolished lecture notes. Much of his material remarked by contemporaries, where those works also survive, and later chroniclers of his works, suggests his oral traditions were far more extensive than what we have available to us today. Perhaps rather than Aristotle's focus on plot, his chroniclers paid less heed to character, setting, discourse, theme, and events than he did.
E.M. Forester's Aspects of the Novel is likewise a collection of lectures Forester gave over a span of time. Comparing its elliptical manner to the Poetics' elliptical manner suggests to me; one, the Poetics focuses on one area of drama yet other lectures focused on others, like character. Two, the Poetics contains a degree of depth that relates other connected dramatic elements, like character, through plot. Three, Aristotle deliberately left open other areas so that his audiences might have latitude for joining the conversation, develop their own theories, and so that his audiences might follow their own muses, so that drama would not become solely according to Aristotle. And four, including character development, beyond what he does, would have made the Poetics a more rambling and chaotic and burdensome text than it is. Hence, as a point of access, Aristotle focused on the element he perceived was most warranted at the time and most difficult for journeyperson dramatists to grasp. Once the Poetics are fully realized, Aristotle may have believed other elements would have been a matter of extending similar principles onto them. Or, he only began with the Poetics and other elements' lectures do not survive.
Nonetheless, others since and long since have taken up Aristotle's torch and mantle and examined other dramatic elements and attributes in detail. Dramatists and poeticists still do to this day. Orson Scott Card's Elements of Fiction: Character and Viewpoint, for example. Seymour Chatman's Story and Discourse. John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing. To name a few out of tens of thousands. And the many offer much artful variety.
For any given writer, I assert cherry-picking and choosing which ones to accept and deploy and which to pass by and which to develop further and whatever else not priorly covered will put the writer ahead of the contending, antagonizing pillaton. Seeking guidance only goes so far. Establishing one's own poetics aesthetics is a hallmark of originality.
Really good discussion. Extrinsic I see your third axis of antagonism as enlightening. In many cases when we have causation and tension without antagonism, the story becomes an unintentional comedy. This is usually because there is nothing of value at stake, or in other words, no problem and want worth our time.
Now an intentional comedy is often built around a fool's problem and want. But we know what he should want, so the story becomes all the more humorous.
Anyway, that's my 2 bit contribution.
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