We all know that language changes over time, and the use of terminology is particularly subject to change. In science, in particular, this can reflect improvements in our understanding of the world – ‘germ’ was a term gaining popularity in the mid 19th century, replacing the idea of the ‘miasma’ or bad odour causing illnesses. From the all-encompassing and still current ‘germ theory’ of disease, we now have bacteria, viruses and fungi, and not only that, we have a ‘microbiome’ which is our own (hopefully) healthy collection of ‘germs’ that apparently outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1.
It’s no different with the theory and craft of writing. While ‘plot’ and ‘character’ are simple terms that have stayed the course for many centuries, the focus of writing craft advice has changed over the centuries as different thinkers illuminate different aspects of stories made with words. One term that seems to have fallen out of fashion is ‘incident’. I came across this term in a couple of older writing texts (I think maybe Henry James and EM Forster) and wanted to learn more about it. I believed that it meant something like ‘event’ but it had an appealingly purposeful ring to it. I wondered if it might fill in a knowledge gap for me in the construction of a story, and I traced the term back to the source, which by a series of connections I can’t remember now, I learned to be Aristotle’s Poetics.
If this all sounds a bit vague, it’s because I’m trying to reconstruct a journey of curiosity over quite a few years which has just this week resulted in me actually picking up the Poetics, hunting down the passages relevant to modern-day fiction writing, and trying to understand them. I’m sure I can be forgiven for procrastinating on that. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to glean anything from Aristotle’s writing, but as it turned out, the relevant bits were beautifully lucid. (Perhaps some of the less lucid bits are relevant too, I may never know.)
The ‘formative elements’ Aristotle says, of a tragedy (which I interpret as ‘serious story’ or ‘drama’ rather than drama with a tragic ending as we use the term) are Spectacle (stage appearance of the actors), Character, Fable or Plot, Diction, Melody and Thought. I won’t go into my interpretation of all of these, because Aristotle quickly goes on to say that:
‘The most important of the six is the combination of the incidents of the story. Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery. All human happiness or misery takes the form of action; the end for which we live is a certain kind of activity, not a quality. Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse. In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the Characters for the sake of the action.’ (1450a15)*
He goes on about this for quite some time, concluding, just in case you weren’t sure, that, ‘We maintain, therefore, that the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of Tragedy is the Plot; and that the Characters come second—compare the parallel in painting, where the most beautiful colours laid on without order will not give one the same pleasure as a simple black-and-white sketch of a portrait.’ I think we can all agree on that. (1450b)
It won’t be any surprise to my friends that I take all this as a happy endorsement of the importance of plot, that is, that interesting things should happen in a story. But however much I love a good plot, I still don’t feel I’ve mastered it, despite reading numerous books on the subject of story arcs, beats, and the interplay between character and plot. This is where I hoped that a better understanding of ‘incident’ would come in.
Aristotle came through with the following words of comfort: ‘A further proof (of the importance of plot) is in the fact that beginners succeed earlier with the Diction and Characters than with the construction of a story; and the same may be said of nearly all the dramatists.’ (1450a35) I have certainly found this to be the case, with dialogue (which is what I take it he means by Diction) and character coming more easily to me than the construction of a satisfying story.
Aristotle goes on next with his advice on the construction of the plot. He goes very Aristotelian for a while in describing the beginning, middle and end of the plot in a way that I’m not entirely sure adds anything to the general understanding of those terms. (‘A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it’ etc, etc. These definitions could be worth meditating on, but would take a lot of patience. (1450b20-30)) Once the beginning, middle and end are identified, the plot has to be in the right order. It has to be a certain size or ‘magnitude’ and he talks a bit about the length of a story. He talks about the plot’s unity, and in this section there’s some really interesting stuff about ‘incident’.
The Unity of a plot, Aristotle says, is not about it being all the things that happen to one person. A fan of Homer, Aristotle says that he ‘evidently understood this point quite well… In writing the Odyssey, he did not make the poem cover all that ever befell his hero…[T]he story… must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.’ (1451a20-35 my emphasis).
Now I must admit to having read this kind of thing before in modern books on writing, that no part of the story should be redundant or unnecessary, but somehow the connection with the term ‘incident’ makes it clearer to me. An incident, to me, is an important event, rather than any old event. So, rather than simply putting together some interesting or quirky or readable events to make a story, the aim is to create meaningful events—incidents—that link together in a whole, such that every single incident is critical to the story.
There is more to this section of the Poetics. Aristotle talks further about plot and incident, including some rather hurtful comments on episodic tales—‘Actions of this sort bad poets construct through their own fault’. (1451b35) Ouch! I’m quite fond of episodic stories and have been known to write them, but I suspect the episodes of some of my favourite authors of this kind have more connection underneath than is apparent on the surface. I’ll leave it there for now though, and perhaps come back to the further advice on construction of the plot in another post.
The section on Unity of the story was really eye-opening and I felt that something had been illuminated. As with all these flares of insight that I get from reading good writing advice, I can only hope that its translates into a real improvement my plot construction.
*Like the Bible, detailed text numbering will help you find your way regardless of the edition. I used ‘The Basic Works of Aristotle’ edited by Richard McKeon, and published by Random House in 1941.