During my final year in college we had a module on screenwriting. I loved this class (probably more than I loved any other class at the time) and we were taught by this wonderful lecturer I’m going to nickname Joe (after Meet Joe Black, one of my favourite movies of all time). Now, he was fond of introducing us to the larger concepts of story, and how to tell it – the entire first semester was devoted to learning about different styles, methods and conventions in writing and screenwriting.
One of the lectures that really stuck with me and has proved more useful than I can truly convey was about Aristotle. Or, as Joe would say when referring back to him, Uncle Aristotle. This lecture was about his principles of dramatics and how it still applies in today’s world. Because it’s so important and foundational when considering adding story to anything, I’m going to share it with you now.
Poetics and the Principles of Tragedy
In a moment we’ll go through each principle individually and discuss what it means and how to apply it in our pursuit of 3D Mastery, but first its important to understand Poetics (where these principles appear) as a whole.
Aristotle wrote these principles in reference to Greek theatre, which at the time meant the telling of a story through words, ‘scenes’ and acting. These are essentially his outline and belief about what makes a good drama when performed and the components that go into making it so enjoyable to watch. Because of this, it takes a little bit of extra thinking to apply it to modern storytelling (where we can just show whatever we want on screen and don’t have to narrate or even, in some cases, act) and even more to apply it to pieces of artwork. However it is well worth the effort.
“The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul
of a tragedy…”
Succinct. What Aristotle is conveying at this point is the overall importance of plot to the entirety of the tragedy. This is what makes it, and without which the tragedy itself will fail. Lack feeling. Meaning. Life.
Relating this to 3D Mastery and our pillars; Plot is the soul of the story. And story is the heart of ‘Emotion’, the lens through which we communicate and feel what’s going on. As such, when improving your storytelling the first place to which you should devote time is to making a plot that makes sense and works well.
“Character holds the second place. A similar fact is
seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will
not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus
Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with
a view to the action.”
Here Aristotle is talking about having characters that make sense within the world and context of the story; how they should act as agents for the tragedy and unfold the plot. He’s also taking care to point out that tragedy is imitation of action, and the characters are there to convey that action to the audience.
It’s not enough to spend time on plot alone if your characters then don’t communicate that plot. Because of this it’s really difficult to separate plot and character when planning a story, and often not recommended. To master ‘character’ you should ensure that every action they take makes sense within the story and their own motivations or the type of person they are. For 3D Artists a character can be interpreted as the subject; whether that’s a person, monster, building, vehicle, landscape or some other object.
“Third in order is Thought- that is, the faculty of saying what is
possible and pertinent in given circumstances. In the case of oratory,
this is the function of the political art and of the art of rhetoric:
and so indeed the older poets make their characters speak the language
of civic life; the poets of our time, the language of the rhetoricians.
Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of
things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which do not
make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not choose or avoid
anything whatever, are not expressive of character. Thought, on the
other hand, is found where something is proved to be or not to be,
or a general maxim is enunciated.”
There are a few different possible interpretations for ‘Thought’ and Aristotle’s view on it, but the one I tend to subscribe to is this. Thought is the context within which the plot takes place and the characters live. In essence, it’s the world-building aspect of the story where you determine the rules for what should exist, and what cannot exist, within the realm you create.
In practical terms this can mean checking your scenes for consistency of time (not having futuristic weapons in a scene set prior to their existence unless making a point), place (coral growing out of the desert or in a rainforest may not work unless an artistic choice), and context (an alien strolling around in a romantic comedy, unless a choice, is jarring). Because of our medium all of these typical uses of material can and have been used in odd ways to elicit an effect; the difference in this context is choosing to create that jarring effect instead of simply making a mistake in creation.
“Fourth among the elements enumerated comes Diction; by which I mean,
as has been already said, the expression of the meaning in words;
and its essence is the same both in verse and prose.”
Narrative and Dialogue. The points in the tragedy where, instead of being shown what’s going on and advancing the plot in that manner, a pause is taken to explain surroundings, factors, thoughts, and so on. Aristotle places this fourth, I believe, because if you’re handling the prior 3 principles correctly and well this isn’t strictly necessary for enjoyment of the tragedy.
In our world, this can translate as dialogue for the sake of explaining something that should be readily seen, or narrative to set the stage. It can be considered lazy to tell your story in this way however there are times when this is the perfect tool for advancing the plot, and where it is congruent for the characters to have explaining discussions. Or where it would be impractical to set the scene by showing the events that happened prior and they require something more than can be alluded to, hinted at, or informed as we go. The introductions to the Lord of the Rings movies are a good example of this.
“Of the remaining elements Song holds the chief place among the embellishments”
Not much is really said about song, although given the time period its reasonable to assume that this is in reference to singing and vocal effects in place to advance the story, stir the audience, and elicit some form of emotional response where the writer could have used one of the prior methods and chose not to do so. Whether for artistic reasons or to quickly solve a plot issue and advance the tale.
Today, we can take this to mean sound effects, literal songs, and so on within movies in particular. These enhance the story as its already being told and can help to bring the correct set of emotions to the fore. Even though it is only the fifth principle, when done well this can hook up your story to lightning rods and make it breathe. With that said you can only do sound design well if you know where the plot is meant to be taking your viewers, who the characters are, and what emotions to elicit.
“The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but,
of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with
the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is felt
even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production
of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist
than on that of the poet.”
In Aristotle’s time this would mean extra sound effects, pyrotechnics if an advanced play, masks, scenes, and other visual embellishments designed to enhance the story and assist the audience with their imagination regarding events. Essentially by placing this last he’s not stating that it’s a worthless skill, merely that it can be used as a distraction and doesn’t necessarily reflect the merit of the tragedy itself. You can have fantastic effects and a terrible plot.
Visual Effects is the modern day equivalent and we’ve become extremely good at dressing up any plot we’ve been given. Creating effects that can cause your jaw to drop, bringing magic literally to life on the screen. The argument is that, as beautiful as these effects often are, they don’t provide the soul. You can have a beautiful movie or piece of art that means nothing. These are the times where your average viewer is leaving the cinema (or wherever) gushing about how amazing the effects were, instead of talking about the story itself and how they got caught up in it.
How You Can Use This
Now that you know the order of elements required to make a good story, movie, animation or piece of artwork then you’re in the best position to improve your own work hundred-fold.
By starting with the plot instead of designing the appearance you can build the meaning before you get caught up in the details. Then any decision you take afterwards can be taken deliberately to strengthen the story. When you strengthen the story you strengthen your message, whatever that may be, and its more likely that people will understand the message or feel something when looking at your work.
Next week we will delve further into how to make this work for a still image or portfolio piece. Right now, if you want to take advantage of emotion in your work you need to start thinking about story, plot and character, before you begin any other form of designing. Remember that day or two you set aside at the beginning of each project? This is what its for.
If you jump over to the newsletter by Friday you’ll be in time to receive my step by step method for crafting a plot that makes sense.