Tragedy & Triumph
The 6 crucial elements of a Tragedy, according to Aristotle
Hey – Nathan here.
Sliding back into your inbox on a Tuesday with a follow-up piece to our look at Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
Today, it’s all about how the Greek maestro broke down Tragedies (one of the two main story types in ancient Greece) into six elements, and if we should deconstruct stories ourselves.
Today’s hook (hit me back with your best guess): “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.”
Last week’s hook: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which set a record for how many of you guessed with 211. Can we beat it this time?
School of Athens, Raphael
The year is 323 BC. Alexander The Great marched across Persia nearly a decade earlier, but now lies dead at the age of 32. His teacher, Aristotle, flees Athens due to discrimination against Macedonians.
In the coming years, about two-thirds of Aristotle’s writings were lost or destroyed. Which is astounding considering how much the ones we do have influence our modern philosophy and science.
But I want to talk about a less-known, surviving work — Poetics.
The study of Tragedy
In ancient Greece, two forms of story dominated: Tragedy and Comedy. Through Poetics, Aristotle gives us a detailed breakdown of the six elements of Tragedy, but his study of Comedy has been lost.
Aristotle named and put the six elements of Tragedy in priority order, from most crucial to least. It’s brilliant. Instead of giving us a linear structure to tell a Tragedy, he gave us its crucial elements and trusted us with the narrative.
Two of the elements outweigh all of the others:
But we can’t forget the other four (still in his priority order):
As a consultant turned writer / wanna-be author, listing spectacle last caught my eye. I love dreaming up fantastic worlds with huge histories and epic landscapes, but Aristotle argues that the setting is the least important element of your story. Ouch.
After a day or two of refusing to believe it, I’ve come to agree. Your setting is just a place. Your plot and your characters are what move your story and bring that place to life.
The crucial two
The most gripping plots contain surprises. But not just any random surprise. When your audience thinks back, they should see how the surprise fits logically into the plot. Hiding in plain sight.
The best kinds of surprises are caused by peripeteia — reversal of fortune — or anagnorisis — discovery.
A fan of metaphor, Aristotle compares plot progress to the untying of a knot. The knot should get tied tighter and tighter until the climax of the story (or peripeteia). Then, its complexity and open loops unravel as the story comes to its end.
Aristotle’s thoughts on character must’ve been what George RR Martin read before penning Game of Thrones:
To get an emotional response, your hero must go from relatively noble and happy to struggle and misery
The audience’s pity and fear are aroused more when family members attack each other than strangers
The hero must have positive qualities, or at least a measure of competence, for the audience to care about them
Applying the elements more broadly, and a warning
Aristotle, the philosopher and scientist, took a scientific view of analyzing storytelling.
In rebuttal, the poet Euripides creates stories lacking in structure and logic. His plays are still performed over two thousand years later. You may have heard of his most famous plays, Medea, Helen, and Heracles.
The similar success of the two despite contrasting styles shows the need to do it your way. Like no two creatives have the exact same process, no two storytellers tell stories the exact same way.
So, when I look at breakdowns like Aristotle’s of Tragedy, I find them massively helpful. My analytical brain loves it.
But, while I’ve done similar teardowns of Heists, Rags to Riches, and Thriller plot structures, I remind myself that science only goes so far. You can turn the 7 basic plots into 28. From there, into 112. It’s a never-ending rabbit hole.
True emotional resonance doesn’t come from following the rules to the letter. Yes, embrace the key elements of story — plot and character. But don't be afraid to push boundaries, combine genres, and explore new ideas.
That’s where the magic happens.
PS: You may be wondering why the title Poetics. To Aristotle, “modern” aka ancient Greek storytelling stemmed from Homer’s two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey.
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Digital Storytelling of the Week
I have a new favorite YouTube channel, Lessons From the Screenplay. Here’s what stood out:
The personal touch before digging into the analysis
The focus on just two specific scenes in the movie (he didn’t try to do too much)
The actual analysis of how the movie builds suspense is fantastic, I especially enjoyed the look at IG’s brilliant 17-minute opening scene
A message from... Me!
The interest in this tweet blew me away...
One way to become a better storyteller:
Take your two favorite authors. I recommend one non-fiction and one fiction.
Copy, word for word, their best work. Do it by hand.
I chose Paul Kalanithi and Neil Gaiman.
It’s the single exercise that improved my writing the most.
— Nathan Baugh 🗺️ (@nathanbaugh27)
Jan 5, 2023
In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:
Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)
Practice, practice, practice
I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.
And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.
Check it out:
🔥 Tactic: A killer brainstorming process to crush boredom and writer’s block, from author and YouTuber Abbie Emmons.
☁️ Quote: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at 9:30 every morning.” — William Faulkner
I’m good for this maybe every other day. Trying to get better at the routine.
📚 Book: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
George Saunders’ masterclass instantly hit my top-5 most recommended books on storytelling alongside some greats by Matthew Dicks and Steven Pressfield.
📜 Essay: 40 Lessons From 30 Years
I roll my eyes and keep scrolling when I see this kind of title or hook, but from my friend Nat, I had to read. Did not disappoint.
Related point: The more you tell your story and build your reputation, the less your hook matters. I trust Nat to deliver, so I read. Lesson there.
When you’re ready to go deeper, here are two ways I can help:
If you want a practical way to improve your writing and storytelling in less than 25 minutes a day, check out StoryWork (95+ students).
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