Writing Excuses 14.26: Lessons from Aristotle, with Rob Kimbro
Key points: Aristotle’s six elements of story, ordered by importance, are: plot, character, idea, dialogue, music, spectacle. E.g., fight scenes are often plot, character, spectacle, but if they are just spectacle, they may be boring. Different stories, different medium, different audience, may rearrange the order. Consider what you are trying to do as you write a scene. Beware of overdoing one element in your opening. Most openings are either character-driven, mostly plot and character, or voice-driven, mostly ideas, music, and spectacle. Aristotle also says there are three modes, lyric, epic, and dramatic. Lyric, the author telling their own experience. Epic, the author telling a story that happens to someone else. Dramatic, showing a story without an author’s presence. All mediums can be mixed modes. Finally, you may use a kind of collective creation mode with the audience, “I need you to imagine this with me.”
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 26.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Lessons from Aristotle, with Rob Kimbro.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Rob] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Rob] And I’m Rob.
[Brandon] Rob, introduce yourself to our audience.
[Rob] Sure. My name’s Rob Kimbro. I’m a theater director and teacher, and also sometimes adapter and a sometime colleague and collaborator of Mary Robinette’s.
[Mary Robinette] That is actually why he is here, because over the years, I have known Rob Kimbro for well over a decade at this point. He’s one of my favorite people to talk structural theory with because he comes at it… He’s a dramaturge among other things. Every time I talk to him, I’m like, “That’s a really good thing.” Then we’ll come back and incorporate it into the writing. He’s also one of us, because…
[Mary Robinette] He’s a science-fiction fan, he listens to the podcast. But we were talking about various things from Aristotle, and you brought up the six elements of Aristotle. Please tell us…
[Rob] I should say at the beginning that one of the things I’m not is an Aristotle scholar. But I am somebody who’s done a lot of theatrical adaptation, so taking stories from the page and putting them on stage. At one point, I did a graduate program in that. Aristotle’s Poetics was something I found really useful. There are a few different tools you can pull out of that book. But one of them is his idea that story… He says tragedy, but really it’s generalizable to story… Is made of six things. He puts them in an order. Those six things are, from the most important to the least, Plot. Character. Idea. Dialogue. Music. Spectacle. What I find is that’s a… It’s a taxonomy, it’s a paradigm, that you can apply to stories and think about how is this working and how can it work better. The place that I think it’s useful to depart from Aristotle is that he says… And he’s fairly descriptive… He says that the best story he sees, they go in this order. But what I find is that every story has its own order.
[Brandon] When he says order, order of importance or orders of…
[Rob] Order of importance.
[Dan] Order of importance. I really… This is my first time encountering this idea, but it is explaining a lot of the things that I think rub people the wrong way about bad stories. A few episodes ago, I complained about how fight scenes are so boring. It’s because, it’s spectacle, and if you don’t have good plot or good character embedded in that spectacle, then the spectacle itself, that’s the least important one. That’s not enough to keep you going.
[Rob] Right. Although, a fight scene doesn’t have to be spectacle. But it often is. If the fight scene is character, if that’s what it’s doing, then you need to know that when you write it. Right? Or if the fight scene is plot. I think those are the three things it could be. If spectacle is what you need from your fight scene…
[Dan] It’s worth mentioning that sometimes you just want to watch Jackie Chan do something amazing with a ladder. That is spectacle that is worth your time.
[Mary Robinette] But Jackie Chan is never just doing something with a ladder.
[Mary Robinette] That’s the thing. He’s also laying groundwork for plot and character at the same time. He’s giving you geography. He’s doing… I mean, geography was not one of the elements, but…
[Mary Robinette] But it is one of the reasons that you are willing to give him that. In addition to… No, actually, you’re right, it’s all about the spectacle.
[Rob] It can be. Because Aristotle puts it sixth, but it’s not always sixth. Like, I think… They’re going to be different for any medium. So, like, in a written medium, music is often likely to be down at the bottom of the list. You’re doing something fairly unusual. Spectacle you might think is also near the bottom in your novel, but I think of things like George RR Martin’s castles. The way that every stronghold he does in those books… Like, that’s written word spectacle. When he talks about the size of Winterfell, or the…
[Dan] I think it’s worth considering audience as well. In one of the theater classes that I had in college, my professor would refer to things like Phantom of the Opera as tired businessman shows. They’re all spectacle and music, but sometimes that’s all your audience wants.
[Rob] Sure. Sure. There’s an adaptation I worked on at McCarter Theatre of a book called Crowns. Which is… The source material is this coffee table book. It’s photos of black women, southern African-American women in their church hats. Each one gets a little like paragraph of that woman telling something. That book is spectacle and character.
[Mary Robinette] It’s nice.
[Rob] Through the hats, it’s these snapshots of character. Then… The book’s by Mayberry and… I can look it up if we want to put it in the liner notes. But Regina Taylor took it and made it into a play. One of the things about that process is at that point, you have to have some plot. Like, you don’t have to have a plot in the coffee table book, but you have to have plot. The things she did that was brilliant is the show is laced with music. Incredible, often gospel, music throughout. So in that adaptation, the order of those six elements change. That’s part of the success of the adaptation.
[Mary Robinette] So how about the two in the middle? Because we were talking about plot and character, and then music and spectacle. What are the two in the middle… Like, how do those map to literature in our…
[Rob] Sure. Well, I think… I mean, dialogue. Like, I think about Aaron Sorkin. Like, I… I believe television is primar… I would argue, primarily a character medium. I think. I think books tend to do plot and ideas really well. But you can shuffle. I mean, movies are big on spectacle, relatively speaking. TV, I think, tends to do character and plot. But when you watch an Aaron Sorkin TV show, sometimes what you’re there for…
[Mary Robinette] Is the dialogue.
[Dan] Just the words.
[Mary Robinette] And David Mamet.
[Dan]… Anderson mention as well.
[Rob] Tom Stoppard, sometimes, is that kind of…
[Dan] Well, off the top of my head, that’s why I like Catcher in the Rye, is not so much the characters or anything that happens to them, but the way that it is written. That’s also what I love about the Kingkiller Chronicles, is the language and the dialogue.
[Brandon] You could almost argue that that’s music. Also, though.
[Mary Robinette] I was just having the same thought. I was like, where… Because I feel like the lyrical language falls into a different category than spoken language, the dialogue language. That’s a really interesting thing, because I feel like with my own writing, the music of the language is not as important to me as the dialogue. Like, the way the characters interact in the way that’s communicating to each other. I am less interested in writing a sentence that is a beautiful sentence for the sake of being a beautiful sentence. Which some of my Goodreads reviews talk about.
[Rob] But then I think part of the usefulness of this is the what are we here for? What am I expecting my audience to be enjoying in this work? It’s generally not all six at the same time. Or not all six at the same time. I think it’s useful… I think it can be useful in the way that all of these writing tools are, just to help you think about what am I trying to do right now, as I write this fight scene.
[Dan] So another thing that I see a lot, especially as I am reading short story submissions from brand-new writers, is that they are trying to really knock our socks off on the first page or the first chapter. What they’re actually doing, under the hood, now that I know this system, is that they’ve picked a different element to promote. They’re going to give us gorgeous language in the first chapter, without realizing that they’re making a promise and then not fulfilling it, because the rest of the book is not about language. They were just trying to impress us.
[Mary Robinette] I took a class from Donald Maass where he talked about openings. It was just a class on openings. He broke it down into their being basically two major types of openings. Character-driven openings, and voice-driven openings. That they are not… You can have a voice-driven opening that is also a character opening. But that in a character opening, what you’re trying to do is ground the reader in who we… Who the character is and where we are. So you try to hit them with basically plot and character. That a voice-driven opening is all about the language and the ideas that you’re evoking in the reader. I’m like, “Oh. Oh. Yeah. It’s all about the bottom three. Ideas, music, and spectacle.” Which is probably why I tend… I mean, I personally tend to gravitate towards things as a reader that are driven by plot, character, and dialogue, more so than I do with things that are just… That are voicy.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is, very surprisingly, Aristotle’s Poetics.
[Rob] Right. Which is the book where he lays all this out. You’ll find, when you go to that, that the ideas I’m talking about today are modified by my experience in teaching and the people who taught me. But it’s not that long. It’s public domain, of course. You can find it on Project Gutenberg or any number of places like that.
[Mary Robinette] Cool. So. You… I feel like… I keep wanting to talk about this, but I also know that we have modes that we can talk about as well.
[Mary Robinette] Which is… That was one of the other things, when you mentioned, I got really excited about.
[Rob] That’s where we started this conversation, right? So that’s a thing… Classification of story thing. So we talk about… Or at least when I teach and I hear you guys talk about medium. What’s your interface between the author brain and the audience brain? Genre. Which I think are about audience expectations to some extent. Modes is a classification system that’s about the relationship of the author to the story and to the audience. So Aristotle says there are three modes. Lyric, Epic, and Dramatic. In Lyric, an author is telling of their own experience. In Epic, an author is telling a story that happens to someone else. In Dramatic, you’re shown a story without an author’s presence. Okay? So some other people picked that up, and you’ll hear it described sometimes as narrator talks… Only narrator talks, characters talk, narrators talk and characters talk. What gets tricky is that there’s a lot of writing about it that assumes that plays are dramatic mode. That that’s what they’re doing, you’re showing a thing. That written, that’s epic… Like, Homer is epic mode. He is telling a story that is happening. But that’s kind of a trap. Because to write effectively in any of these modes, it’s useful to realize that your med… All mediums can be mixed modes. You can activate dramatic mode in written prose. For example, the phrase about Jane Austen’s writing, clear and direct?
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Rob] Am I getting that right? Is I think, an attempt to do dramatic mode… Or a method for doing dramatic mode in writing. The author is disappearing and you’re just seeing a scene. You’re being shown a scene. Whereas, in other places, you get narrative mode, where the author comes in and becomes more present.
[Mary Robinette] Jane Austen goes back and forth in that, as well. That was one of the things that, for me… I heard Rob do this talk at the Nebula conference. One of the things that, for me, got exciting was realizing that it was talking about the way I as the writer am relating to the audience. That I am relating to them through this medium of fiction. But that there were things that worked very well in fiction that didn’t necessarily work as well on stage, or that worked well on stage that I would try to do in fiction that wouldn’t work. But a lot of it had to do with shifting my thinking about what mode I was in. Where I was, and how that relationship was shifting.
[Rob] And figuring out how to activate the modes you want. So, what kicked off that talk that I did at the Nebulas is there’s a passage from Tolkien where he says that fantasy can’t work on the stage. It’s in an essay in Leaf, Tree and Leaf, whatever that collection of essays is. He says fantasy doesn’t work on stage. He goes so far as to say the witches in Macb don’t work. When you read what he’s saying, he’s saying essentially that it’s because the stages dramatic form. You have to show it, and we’re not going to believe it, and suspicion of disbelief is shattered. Horace says something similar in his Ars Poetica, that basically you show me something I can’t believe and I’m not going to go there. But what I find in practice, and what I think people who like those plays, like Midsummer Night’s Dream, find in practice, is that if you can find ways to activate a narrative mode in the audience, which is sort of a collective creation mode. Like, I need you to imagine this with me.
[Rob] Then it can work. You can do that with a narrator device, you can do that with puppetry.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Rob] Which is something Mary Robinette and I have done together. We did… We worked together on an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants a few years ago. There’s a lot of fantastic in that. Part of the way you do that is, if you do it with a puppet, the audience knows that’s not a frost giant, or, that’s not a bear. It is us imagining a bear.
[Dan] Yeah. This concept of kind of collaborative fiction with the audience is something that Penn and Teller do. They do it overtly. One of the things that fascinates them, and when they said it in an interview, it fascinated me, is that once they have spent all the time laying out what this narrative is going to be, the audience will keep believing it, even when they know it’s false. The example they gave was someone can, after the show, go up and have an entire conversation with Teller, and then talk to Penn and say, “It’s so cool that Teller never talks.”
[Dan] Now, you’ve just talked to… You just had dinner with him. But no. In their head, Teller never talks.
[Dan] Because that’s part of what they’ve bought into in order to enjoy the story.
[Rob] There’s something you have to be careful with on stage in this, is if you get too dramatic mode, if you get too fully in we’re showing you the thing, then you’ve let the audience off the hook. The audience doesn’t do the work. I think, television and film can be this even more so, because were not used to doing creative work when we’re watching those. Then the fantastic becomes harder, if we’re not primed to imagine with.
[Brandon] This has been fascinating. I really like when we have a chance to sit down and do episodes like this that are topics we would never have approached on our own. Thank you so much for being on.
[Rob] Thanks for having me. This was fun.
[Brandon] You have an exercise.
[Rob] I do. I do. So, let’s go back to the elements. So what I’m going to suggest is the exercise is take something you’ve written. Then, rank what those six elements are for that. What’s the most important, what’s the least important? Again, those are plot, character, idea, dialogue, music, spectacle. Then go back, rearrange the order, and rewrite it to do that.
[Mary Robinette] Fun.
[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you so much, Rob, for being on. You guys are out of excuses, now go write.