How to Tell a Story: It’s time we forget Aristotle

Let me guess, regardless of your background whether you’re a poet or playwright, an avid reader or brutal critic, you first began this writerly life indoctrinated into the lens of Aristotle’s Poetics.

I say indoctrinated because we’re steeped in the stuff, here on the west. We’re marinated from birth in this worldview that stresses a triumvirate cycle, from our various religions in the Abrahamic traditions to the way we handle business transactions. Life is a three act cycle of beginning, middle and end. How boring! Are we really happy limiting ourselves to the aesthetics of the ancients? I adore the Poetics, they’re absolutely dazzling to read and hyper valuable. But they’re not prescriptive. They’re a splendid vehicle to deliver us into the adolescence of playing with stories. It’s an infants playground, the Poetics. But it’s time to graduate. And don’t be afraid to speak your mind and stand on your own two legs.

As a graduate of creative writing, English, and East Asian Literature, I must emphasize that while Aristotle’s “Poetics” is a foundational work in the study of storytelling, it is not the only approach to understanding and analyzing narratives. Other structures of story have emerged over the centuries, and other cultures have developed their own methods of storytelling.

One alternative to Aristotle’s “Poetics” is the Russian formalist approach, which emphasizes the structure of the narrative and the techniques used by the author to create meaning. This approach looks at the way in which the author uses language, plot, and other literary devices to create a cohesive and meaningful story.

Another approach is the mythic structure, which draws upon the archetypal patterns and symbols found in myths and legends. This structure emphasizes the hero’s journey, the struggle between good and evil, and the importance of transformation and growth.

Other cultures have developed their own methods of storytelling. For example, in African storytelling, the focus is on the communal experience of storytelling rather than the individual author. African storytelling often involves call-and-response techniques, repetition, and participatory elements such as dance and music.

In Native American storytelling, the focus is on the interconnectedness of all things, and the stories often emphasize the relationship between humans and the natural world. These stories may also be told through song, dance, and other performance techniques.

On the Chinese Kishōtenketsu. Brilliant graphics props to The Art of Narrative

Asterisk* while I’m more than savvy regarding the western dramatic tradition and familiar with the ins and outs of the Poetics, my training is in the Eastern tradition. So take my view with a grain of salt, or

So let’s qualify that asterisk there: here’s a painfully brief primer on Japanese and Chinese storytelling. If you find something of interest I encourage you to research the topic further. And report back, I’d love your thoughts!

Japanese Story Structures:

  1. Monogatari: Monogatari is a type of Japanese narrative that typically features a single protagonist on a journey of self-discovery. These stories often include supernatural elements and are written in a lyrical, poetic style.
  2. Haiku: Haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry that consists of three lines with a total of 17 syllables. Haiku often evoke a sense of nature and the changing seasons.
  3. Kishōtenketsu: Kishōtenketsu is a four-part structure commonly used in Japanese storytelling. The first part establishes the setting, the second part introduces a new element, the third part develops that element, and the fourth part provides a surprising conclusion.

Chinese Story Structures:

  1. Zaju: Zaju is a type of Chinese drama that originated in the 13th century. It typically consists of four acts and features a mix of singing, dialogue, and action. The stories often revolve around love, loyalty, and revenge.
  2. Chuanqi: Chuanqi is a type of Chinese narrative that emerged during the Tang dynasty. These stories are typically long and complex, featuring multiple characters and intricate plotlines. They often incorporate elements of fantasy, history, and romance.
  3. Sanqu: Sanqu is a type of Chinese poetry that emerged in the Song dynasty. It consists of three lines of unequal length and often explores themes of love, nature, and everyday life.

In terms of a comparison to Aristotle’s Poetics, it’s worth noting that Japanese and Chinese storytelling traditions have evolved independently of Western literary theory. While there may be some similarities in terms of overarching themes and narrative structures, the specific techniques and conventions used in Japanese and Chinese storytelling differ significantly from those in Western literature. As such, it may be more fruitful to approach these traditions on their own terms rather than trying to fit them into a Western framework.

The core of Aristotle’s metaphysics is mirrored in the work of a medieval Chinese thinker, Zhu Xi.

That being said, it’s possible to identify some general similarities and differences between Japanese and Chinese story structures and Aristotle’s Poetics.

One key similarity is the emphasis on character development and the exploration of universal human experiences. Both Japanese and Chinese storytelling traditions often feature protagonists who undergo significant personal growth and transformation over the course of the story. Similarly, Aristotle’s Poetics highlights the importance of character development in creating a compelling narrative.

However, there are also notable differences between these storytelling traditions and Aristotle’s Poetics. For example, while Aristotle’s Poetics emphasizes the importance of plot and the use of dramatic conflict to drive the story forward, Japanese and Chinese stories often prioritize atmosphere, mood, and the exploration of abstract themes such as nature, love, and spirituality.

In addition, while Aristotle’s Poetics focuses on the three unities of time, place, and action, Japanese and Chinese storytelling traditions often span multiple locations and time periods and may incorporate fantastical or supernatural elements.

Overall, while there are some similarities between Japanese and Chinese story structures and Aristotle’s Poetics, it’s important to recognize the unique features and conventions of each tradition and avoid imposing a Western-centric framework on non-Western storytelling.

Author Yoko Towada, whom I adore immensely.
Check out Language is a Living Thing

Japanese Storytelling Conventions:

  1. Emphasis on Atmosphere: Japanese stories often prioritize creating a specific mood or atmosphere over advancing a particular plot. This emphasis on atmosphere can be seen in the use of poetic language, descriptions of nature, and the exploration of abstract themes such as the impermanence of life.
  2. Importance of Silence: In Japanese storytelling, what is left unsaid is often as important as what is said. Silence and pauses can be used to create tension, highlight emotional moments, and emphasize the significance of certain events.
  3. Use of Symbols: Japanese storytelling often incorporates symbols and motifs that have cultural and historical significance. For example, the cherry blossom is a common symbol of beauty and transience in Japanese literature and poetry.

Chinese Storytelling Conventions:

  1. Use of Parallelism: Chinese storytelling often utilizes parallelism to structure the narrative and reinforce themes. For example, a character may experience a series of similar events or encounters that highlight their personal growth or illustrate a particular moral lesson.
  2. Focus on Social Relationships: Chinese stories often emphasize the importance of social relationships and the obligations that come with them. This can be seen in the focus on family ties, loyalty to one’s community or ruler, and the duty to maintain harmony and balance in one’s relationships.
  3. Emphasis on Historical Context: Many Chinese stories are set against a historical backdrop and incorporate real events and figures from China’s rich cultural history. This can help to provide a sense of depth and meaning to the narrative, and allow readers to connect the story to broader themes and issues in Chinese society.

These are just a few examples of the unique conventions and techniques that are employed in Japanese and Chinese storytelling traditions. By embracing these non-western conventions, these traditions can offer readers and audiences a unique perspective on the human experience and the world around us.

So, sure, while Aristotle’s “Poetics” remains a valuable tool for analyzing and understanding storytelling, it is important to recognize that other structures of story and other cultures’ methods of storytelling also exist. As writers and scholars, we should be open to exploring these alternative approaches to gain a richer and more diverse understanding of the art of storytelling.

Floating Weeds, Yasujiro Ozu, That comp, though!

A special note on screenwriting, playwriting, and cinema.

Certainly! When it comes to screenplays and playwriting, there are a variety of structures and techniques that can be used to create compelling stories. One approach is to focus on dialogue and character development, as emphasized by Aaron Sorkin, the acclaimed screenwriter and playwright known for his sharp, witty dialogue. Sorkin once said, “I always like to say that my screenplays are really plays, just with more entrances and exits.” This focus on dialogue and character allows the story to unfold through the interactions between the characters, creating a compelling and nuanced narrative.

Another approach to screenplays and playwriting is to draw upon mythic or archetypal structures, as emphasized by Phillip Kaufman, the director of the film “The Right Stuff.” In an interview, Kaufman spoke about the importance of the hero’s journey in his work, saying, “I’ve always been fascinated by myths and archetypes, by the way they offer insights into the human experience.” This approach allows the writer to tap into universal themes and symbols, creating a story that resonates with audiences across cultures and time.

In Japanese cinema, the director Yasujiro Ozu (my personal favorite) is known for his use of visual storytelling, emphasizing the power of composition and visual symbolism to create meaning. Ozu once said, “I try to tell a story through the images, to convey the atmosphere and the inner emotions of the characters.” This approach to screenwriting and playwriting allows the writer to use visual cues and symbolism to create a rich, layered narrative that engages the audience on a deeper level.

Yosh, there are a variety of approaches to screenwriting and playwriting, each emphasizing different aspects of storytelling. Whether it’s the focus on dialogue and character development of Aaron Sorkin, the mythic structures of Phillip Kaufman, or the visual storytelling of Yasujiro Ozu, these approaches offer valuable insights into the art of crafting compelling stories for the stage and screen. As writers and creators, it’s important to explore these different approaches and find the one that best suits our own voice and vision



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