Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Greeks have a Word for it...

I recently read Aristotle's 'Poetics' - the earliest known work of story theory. It was weird to be spoken to about story theory by a man who died 2,300 years ago, and extraordinary to find him speaking perfect sense in ways that still influence Hollywood today.

Let's see if a modern story can be seen to live up to Aristotle’s key elements, defined literally thousands of years ago. Here they are. An effective story has three essential elements:

  • Firstly, we have the Harmartia - a ‘fault’ or ‘flaw’ that disturbs the protagonist’s balance of life.
  • Secondly, the Anagnorisis - the ‘realisation’ of what this flaw means to the protagonist and the action that will be required to restore balance.
  • Thirdly, the Peripeteia - a reversal of expectation that pays off the story and brings the world back into balance at conclusion - but in a way that is unexpected (in the sense that it didn’t work out the way the protagonist intended and/or the audience thought it would).
So, taking Back to the Future as my example story, do these ancient structural imperatives hold up?

Marty McFly is going about his normal day when he is accidentally sent back in time (Harmartia - a fault which spins his world out of balance).

As he comes to terms with the challenges of getting home, he interferes with his parents' meeting when they were teenagers. Even if he could get home to 1985, he is going to be wiped from existence if his parents don't hook up. He realises (anagnorisis) he must get his parents to fall in love before he leaves, or else he will not exist in the future and will simply disappear.

Marty knows his Mum-to-be likes a strong man. And his Dad-do-be is weak. So Marty plans a big charade with his Dad-to-be to make him look strong in front of his Mum. The peripeteia (reversal) comes when he finally gets his parents together - but not in the way he planned - the charade goes wrong and his father is forced to demonstrate genuine strength. When he finally does get home to 1985 we are surprised to find that his family and quality of life have gone way upmarket compared to the life he left. His impact in 1955 has influenced his father's character and he is therefore born, 17 years later, to a stronger father and a whole different life.

Take a look at your own stories or story events. Do your sequences/chapters/scenes or entire stories live up to Aristotle? I've found that the Peripeteia is particularly significant. I analyse stories that bug me - they have conflict, great characters, key questions - lots of boxes ticked, but something not right... and often the problem is predictability. If a story is great, the chances are it is because it has a wonderful cleverness to it - and that will be the Peripeteia - a beautiful twistiness compared to expectation - shining through. 

I imagine that anyone who has remained influential for 2,300 years probably knew what he was talking about, so I'd pause and think about this one if I were you...!


  1. Are you suggesting that Aristotle wrote Back to the Future? Or have I been drinking?
    Seriously, great post. It shows that nothing is new and that Aristotle was a great guy.

  2. You spelled "whole" wrong.

    But besides that, great post.

  3. ...Harmartia...: το σωστό hamartia= ἁμαρτία.
    Πολύ καλή η προσέγγισή σας.

  4. Don't forget the Greek word Carl Jung coined: