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Aristotle's Poetics
for Screenwriters
Storytelling Secrets from the
Greatest Mind in Western Civilization
Michael Tierno

NEW YORK

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Preface
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f, scarily enough, your screenplay happens to get read by
a Hollywood studio, the story analyst will sum it up using
a "coverage" form that looks something like this:
Log Line:
Brief:
Plot Summary:
Comments:
Idea:
Story:
Charaeter:
Dialog:
Producnon Values:
Absolutely everythingsubmitted to a Hollywood studio
is boiled down to its bare merits and discussed using these
nine topics of analysis. The form allows a story analyst to
write a quick summary ofthe screenplay before zipping said
summary off to an overworked story editor, who sendsit to
an equally time-taxed studio executive. Based on this cov-
erage sheet, the executive decides whether or not to look at
your script. What the items on the sheet represent are the
no-brainer essentials of a screenplay-its idea, its stbry, and
XVlZ
so forth. But you'd be surprised to find out that the criteria
Hollywood executives use to evaluate screenplays are exaetly
those the legendary philosopher Aristotle thought were the
nuts and bolts oL1ncient drama more than 2,000 years ago!
Aristotle carefully examined the fundamentals of dra- I
matic story structure in the Poetics, which is still considered
to be "the bible of screenwriting" by many Hollywood pro-
fessionals today. Sharing this view, 1 use the Poetics as a
guide to write scripts and make films, and haveused its
truths to analyze and write screenplay coverage notes as a
story analyst for Miramax Films. Since the Poeties has he!ped
me irnmense!y in both endeavors, 1 fee! obliged to share its
insights with anyone interested in writing better screenplays.
Don't worry,this book is not an academic study. It's an
introduction to tl1e Poeties ~ i m specifically at scnienwrit-
ers, that seeks tobreak down many of Aristotle's brilliant
concepts nd demonstrate how his techniques. of dramatic
story structure are still used in modern movies. 1 know how
hard it is to read the Poetzcs in its entirety. There's that
translation-from-ancient-Greek issue, not to mention the fact
that many of the plays Aristotle refers to hav vanished or
are rare!y performed. Sorne of the conventions he describes
have no bearing in today's cinematic world, including talk.
of"dithyrambs" and other outmoded forms of dramatic writ-
ing. However, the Poetics is still useful to screenwriters be-
cause Aristotleexplained why well-structured dramatic
works affected audiences the way they did. He analyzed plot
devices, character, and everything you'd find in a Hollywood
xviii
Preface
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Preface
story coverage sheet today. In fact, 1 think it's safe to say
that Aristotle, besides being the greatest mind in Western
civilization, was the world's first movie story analyst!
Aristotle's examination of plays. such as OedipusRex
demonstrates time!ess urnversal truths about dramatic sto-
rytelling. In analyzing great movies like Rocky and American
Beauty, I discovered that they followAristote!ian story stI'UC-
ture, which is not to say they simply follow a bunch of rules.
On the contrary, in. these works, the art of storytelling is
alive aIldfresh, and perhaps that iswhy they emergedlike
beacons from the cluttered marketplace. In each great movie
I analyze, the screenwriters an.d directors have understood
how audiences respond to drama, which is what the Poetics
is all about. This understanding is what makes c!assicfilms
time!ess and awe-inspiring.
The passages from the Poetics I cite in the subsequent
chapteI's contain the soundest principIes of screenwriting
technique ever articulated. What parentheticalemphasis I
have added or any rearranging I have done I felt was nec-
essaryfor the sake of presenting Aristotle's thoughts on dra-
matic structure as clearly and simply as he intended. You
will notice that throughout most of the book, I demonstrate
these principIes by citing actual movies rather than screen-
plays. I fee! that screenwriters must first understand how
drama works in great movies on screen before they can make
it happen on papero
A word about the semantics of the Poetics needs men-
tioning. When Aristotle says "tragedy," he means "serious
Xl'
drama," so whenever you see "tragedy" throughout the book
(notably in the Podcs excerpts), it meansjust that-not nec-
essarily "tragic drama," in the conventional sense modern
viewers hold. In Aristotle's day, there was a hard-core split
between tragedy(drama) and comedy. Tragedy was about I
serious issues-the "tragic deed" and higher-Ievel person-
ages falling from grace. Comedy, aboutbuffoons and lower-
leve! personages that were not to be taken seriously,
amounted to a sort of "vaudeville." Aristotle informs us that
the sadder dramatic works are indeed the most potent kind,
a notion that carne to define classical "tragedy," as cham-
pioned by Shakespeare with works such as Hamlet and Kng
Lear. But all of the principIes about tragedy laid out in the
Poetcs apply to most moviestoday, even comedies like Cal-
axy Questo.
And now the moment we've all been waiting for; ..
storytelling secrets from the greatest mind inWestern civi-
lization.
xx Preface
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INTRODUCTION
The Action-Idea
Orestes is made to say himself what the poet
rather than the story demandso
_, "e the story is a concept that should
wall. It's probably
the pearl of wisdom from '!he Podcs, which Aristotle gets
at in the aboye passage. Here, he's referring to the Greek trag-
edy Iphgena n Taurs, a play that he feels is flawed because
the author (Euripides) made the mistake of letting his own
agenda seep into the story rather than having every plot inci-
dent come together to create a tight unified structure. In fact,
the ability to plot well or create strong story structures is not a
minor talent, and accordingto Aristotleit comes with maturity:
o. obeginners succeed earlier with the Diction and
Characters than with the construction of a storyo
According to Aristotle, the ability to plot, or to create a
-_..
powerful structure, is the most important aspect of writing.
___________ . __ ......-' .. __.. .._. __._-'-.__,
Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own
;g:nd.:s. Byth;;nd-;;rtls ;;;;;k:-;;;;;II
-------...--
portant to say what the story demandso You'11 be able tojudge
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Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters 3
for Jaws is an ACTION llpon which the entire story is built.
We could reduce the ACTIONevenfurther to read, "stop-
ping akil1er shark," an ACTION that is greater than any of
the characters in the story, even Chief Brady.
Your ACTION-IDEA should beable to move listeners
who merely hear it just asthey would be moved if they saw
an entire movie made fram your screenplay. It takes afull-
length rnovie to bring.anaudience to "catharsis," or pro-
.. ......"..;..,..."....,,"-
found emotional release,but the ACTION-IDEA should be

able to evoke a little bit of that same deep feeling on itsown.
.. So, if your ACTION-IDEA must doall this work, itmust
be a simple summaryof a story, strong enough so that when
it's expanded into a complete screenplay, it will hold and
move a.n audience. Let's Jiow give tit ACTION-IDEAil try.
Say we want to write about someone who likes cars.
That'SIlOt an ACTION-IDEA. Oby, how about sorneone
who not only likes cars but who likes them so much that he
steals thm. "Steals" is heder than "likes" because "steals"re-
fers toan action, whereas. "likes" refers to a state of inind.
But the idea of a hero who merelYsteals cars isn't in and
01 itself capable of moving an audience to a catharsis. It
needs something. So, a better example of an ACTION-
IDEAwould read something like:
THE ..lOE SCHMO STORY-JOE SCHMO
steals cars to help kids in his neighborhood go to
college. but he eventually decides he's setting abad ex-
ample, so he goes to college himselfso that someday he
4 Miehael Tierno
can get a real job and earn the money to put his kids
lhrough schoo!' Al college he slruggles lo lranscend his
SO 1.0., but instead of bribing teachers to pass his c1asses,
he decides to pass on his own merits, setting the ultimate
example tor his kids.
Bravo! We did it. We crealed an ACTION-IDEA suit-
able for building into a full-length film. And notice that the
finishing touch was adding the fact that Joe Schmo, the agent
of the action, got to make amoral choice, two important
Aristotelian concepts. Admit it, with Joe's decision to pass
college on his own merits to set an example, you can't help
but feel for him. And that's what it's all about, getting the
audience to feel and to conneet with your characters.
Of course, you might get cute and ask, "If the
ACTION-IDEA is capable in and of itself of doing emo-
tional work on an audience, why make them sit through a
two-hour movie?" The answer couId be, "What else are we
going to do on Saturday nights?" The real answer is that
undergoing catharsis through a full-length story is a richer
experience than listening to the mere summation of a story
in a few sentences.
Aceording to AristotIe, catharsis (which literally trans-
lates to "emotional purging") is the whole point of dramatic
single story event is working
to achieve in the audienee. Your movie should take the au-
dience on an emotional and psychological journey-that is
Arstotle's Poet;cs for Screenwriters 5
what they pay foro A good movie reveals poignant tmths of
the human experience in either a small or big way, depend-
ing on the kind of movie it is.
Just hearing a good ACTION-IDEA can impart a small
feeling of eatharsis, but the bigger drawn-out one experi-
enced during a complete movie is more cleansing for the
human psyche, and even therapeutic. Bear in mind, a secret
_. .--_.-......
to understanding catharsis is that it doesn't happen at the
_ - .. ....... ....... ... ",.,,,....."'''....
end of watching a movie, but builds throughout the entire
__.._.,_',.,....,.,.... .. __ ...._"'." .. . __.._,... ""_
story ando cnd, giving the audience a final
""'-,.r<i" .... '''''"''''''''''"''''''"'-''''''' co __ __
well-crafted story is needed to make an ACTION-
IDEA cathartic. Our task is to take our simple ACTION-
IDEA and develop it into a fuIl-length screenplay, without
abandoning the essence of the original idea. So now, all
that's left is for me to lead you to the master who can point
the way. The task is easier than you think.
1.
Let's Start at the Very
Beginning, Middle, and End
... a whole is that which has beginning, mid-
dle, and end.
T
bis quote from the Poetics has led to the common mis-
o conception held by many screenwriters that the Poetics
preaches a three-act stmcture as the be-al!, end-all template
for a dramatic story. In fact, Aristotle never stipuIates three
acts, but he does taIk about two distinct movements in a dra-
matic story, the "complication" and the "denouement":
Every tragedy [dramatic story] is in part Complica-
tion and in part Denouement; the incidents before the
opening scene, and ... also of those within the play,
forming the Complication; and the rest the Denouement.
By)complication!r mean all from the beginning of the
.".,'''',.,,'''''''''''''''"'"----...--..---
story to the point just before the chanKe in.\!l.".
the
.,.."'",,.,', .. .. "'"'''',...,.,'O_".>p"..... .
change to the end.
.''",..''''',..,."'",,'1,.,,...---'''"''''._.
In einematic terms, the complication incIudes everything
that happens in the back story that pertains to the pIot, and
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Michael Tierno
Aristotle's Poetics far Screenvvriters 9
continues through the opening of the movie until right be-
fore the change in the hero's fortune occurs. That said, how
does beginning,. middle, and end apply to story structure?
Let's go to the a.ctual excerpt:
Tiagedy is an imitation of an action that is whole
and completen itself and of sorne magnitude ... a whole
is that which has beginning, middle, and end. * A begin-
ning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything
else, and which has naturally something else aft it; an
end is that which is naturally after something itself, either
as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing
else after it;and a middle, that which is by nature after
one thing and has also another after it. Awell-constructed
P
lot therefore cannot either begm' or end al any point
, . ."" ,', .
one likes; beginning and end in it must be of the kind
just described.
In other words, it is the plot action that has a beginning,
middle, and end. The plot's beginning "is riot necessarily
after anything else"; that is, the beginning of the plot action
cannot be caused by something outside it. It starts up by itself.
It's a self-initiated action, a virtual "big bang" that sets the en-
tire plot in motlon, that can be committed by either the pro-
tagonist or and that is an act of pure will. For
example, in TIeGodfather, Sollozzo tries to kili the Don so
*Emphasis added. All such emphasis in italics in the. "excerpts has been
added by the author throughout the book, unJess otherwise noted.
that he can usher in drugs, an action that sets the entire plot
in motion. But this action was muy necessary from his point
of view. In Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating shows his stu-
dents old photos of now deceased students and tells them
"seize the day," urging them to take action before it is too late
and to follow their dreams. Nothing in the plot has caused
Keating to challenge his students in this way. Because this
kind of inciting incident is not caused by anything else in the
plot, yet sets the entire plot in motion, I call it a "first cause"
__... """ __0',,,__,,.
of action. These inciti!,g in TIe Godfather and Dead
,,''''"''... ... ..,-=, , ""
Poets Society are perfect examples of first causes of action. , ,
It is important to understand that action 11-e
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must occur after the moviebegins, not in the back story. But ;;,z.J:'::j.,
..., _. __ -'_ ,-- .' '""... ... ..., " ,""', ; .. o', .. , ," ,_, , .... ..
the mnst be- !h. ,. e:
__ ... ,"
cause it must be solely responsible for setting off the chain of
events that drive the plot. To give writers sorne space to work
with before the first cause of action kicks the plot off, Aristode 1
offers us a tool ca.lled the A prologue connects
the back-story part of the complication (e.g., what happened
to the hero before we meet him) to the "front story" (story af-
ter the movie starts) and otherwise sets the stage before the
,-,.""._-_.--',-,.
In TIe Godfather, the wedding
" .'
sequence creates atmosphere, introduces characters, and pro-
vides a tranquillead-up to the gunning down of the Don. Ih!;," 1\
1h&
This middle (); gtJn
is completely driven by the first cause of action and naturally , Vr
v
, '._'
follows after it in a cause-and-effect manner. Andjust as the
first cause of aston is a dynamic jolt of energy" that drives the
middle of the story, it builds to create a "seco;ld cause of ac-
tion" which
.. '-,
"_"'-'-,",;..-- ..'-,. ......._.__ .._........
For example, in The Godfather, the middle of the pldt
terminates whel Michael becomes .. This change
n !lis fortune ptarks the beginning of the dellouement, dur-
ing which Micli.ael has enemies from within family killed.
The continues until the last fraIIl.e of the movie;
it's not just a fi.i)al punctuation; it's an movement
It takes time. like the triiddle, it naturally unfolds in a
cause-and-effeCt way. But Aristotle is veryspecific about
what must happen in this denouement and \varns us not to
screw it up:
10 Michael Tierno
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Aristotle's Po'tcs for Screenwriters
Therellre many dramatists who, afterjgood Com-
plication, fjl in the Denouement. But it is necessary for
both points;of construction to be always duly mastered.
In the deeouement, al! the plot action that got "wound
up" in the middle unravels. For example, iilThe'Godfather,
the denouement begins with the change in Michael's fortune,
which is the jolt that causes the unraveling.But what really
unravels in this denouement? Wel!, since Aristotle believed
drarnatists must depict not merely life but
hero, what
____ : -, ,. ._ _.. . __ .. _._._
cern the hera's moral conflict that developed during the

\
An end is that which is naturally after something 1
.. er.. as its nec7ssary or usual consequent, and. j.\
WIth nothing else after it. '.
...,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
To summarize, let's touch on the key points of what
constitutes a "beginning, middle, and end." The beginnin
g
of the plot action occurs soon after the movie starts with a
"first cause of action," which is a self-initiated, incitinfin-
cident that is apure act ofwil!-nothing causes it, or makes

12 Michael Tierno
it necessary. This action heralds the middle of the plot ac-
tion, which moves forward through cause and effect, real-
fhd
"l""
izing the first movement o t e rama, or comp lcatlOn.
The middle which naturally springs from the first cause of
_________--'_, ,, . .. ...._....,.-_'.__ , __ .. _._.- __.._y __._ , .......
action drives the story until right before the change in the
.. .. _.. .. ....." __'=_'__'_"_''''=''''_'_...__ ., .. '._,'_ ,"_', _, e._' ".. __o.,' .. "_", ,,_.' _. _.. .. ,',
hero's fortune. . is.the
t1-; In the
_.. .." ... ..""
denouement the plot action that got wound up in the com-
plication and .that centers on the moral conflict of the bero
unravels. As a result, the conflict resolves and truth is
gained,
th; auclience that it has
and that the plt action will not continue. Al! of these major
points of dramatic story construction can be clearly deline-
ated in a simple ACTIN-lDEA as demonstrated here:
I@
.,T':lEGODFATHER-Afteranatte
ITl P
tonDON
,,,
. A CORLEONE's Iife, MICHAEL, who had forsaken the
family Mafia business, killsSOLLOZZO and POLlCE CAp
TAIN MCCLUSKEY to Save his family, then takes over the
family business, kills alLhis rivals, SQan risesto the top of
the American Mafia, and becomes the new Godfather. He
then kills all the enemies he has inside his family. His tate
as Godfather is sealed.
Expressed properly, a strong ACTIN-IDEA-with a be-
ginning, middle, and end, a complication and a denoue-
the best springboard for writing a screenplay,
Why You Want Your Movie
to Be a Bomb!
A tragedy, then, is the imitation 01an action that
is serious, has mar;nitude, and is complete in itself.
e
are must be taken not to misread the eloquent but
unfamiliar language of the Poetics. If you quickly read,
"A tragedy is an imitation of a serious action, one having
magnitude," you might say to yourself, "Yeab, so what else
is new?" But then you might look again at this sentenCe and
say, "Wait a minute ... an 'imitation' of a serious action?
What is Aristotle talking about?"
Good question, because you'll see the word "imitation"
used throughout the Poetics.. For the answer, we need to slow
down and deconstruct Aristotle's sentence a bit. We've al-
ready discussed that "tragedy" means all serious drama, so
let's jump to a tougher concept, that drama is "an imitation of
a serious action," The stumbling block for a screenwriter at-
tempting to use this concept might be to think "imitation"
means a direct copy ofsomething. Therefore, an "imitation of
serious action" could make him think he's supposed to mimic
serious events as they might "really" have happened. Remem-
ber the scene in The Player when a Hollywood suit thinks he
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Michasl Tierno Aristotle's Poetcs for Screenwriters 15
can copy newspaper events as they are, puttfem directly on
screen, and make a good story? Well, that's wrong way to
)go about drarn.atic writing. Any seasoned screenwriter or de-
lvelopment exic will tellyou that "reality" is ften quite boring
jand not dramatic enough to produce the kilid of engagement
!and your audience is loo)qng foro
l What Ar1stotle by "imitation" ifsomethingquite
different from'J)1st copying real-life events. Por him, the word
"imitation" rfers to howthe "imitative arts"<such as painting,
music, and dtama really work. These arts re;i:reate reality but
must be deli\ierate!y ordered and shape lIl
ake
-
believe worldto induce emotion in their audiences. Viewers
",. ,', .. '-.. -: __,,',.
are to have

the
_, ...... ,'.. : ,,:. ',.. .' ,,',,',', .... "0' ,:/.:.:. ,..:__ ....,,", ..._.\.. ..:.,,>,\,..,. _.,.,_c,""': ",' .,_c. '"O- "" .... ,.'. _' .... ". _., .."""",,:_:,:,:.:, .,.,. .. '''' ",-o <:.' .. ,-'.- .-i.:. .. ..........
'responds ")ltatively" aswell, as ifto real events,
.' .. "", :... .' <.-.,--:'.:.:: ,.. -""0.', .""",-. ""', .. .. -",.' ,:" ,'" ,- " " ".,.,,'.,.."'., , ,"-.. -<-" .',-. ,-...,.,.)
aroused to astate ofactibn. .-
" said it bestwhen he claimed
that if a bombunder atable suddenly explodes out of no-
where in a movie, it's not a great ,:,!ovie. That is, the audi-
ence needs tI) know beforehand that a bomb is under the
table and that it is about to explode. This information ac
tually puts their brains into a state of action by raising the
tense dramatic question, "Whenis the bmb going toex-
plode?" That the
. ,.'. ,.,::'.' ." .' '.' .. . .
bomh engages the audience's attention and compe!s them to
heightened mental participation in the story action.
But werieed to know how to make more than just one
scene work, more than ho',\' to have just one bomb explode
under atable. We need a way for all the action in our story
to be unified and to develop into "onebig idea," one single
connected story. The besfway to do this is not by raising
a bunch of little questions, but by raisinZ
l
developing, .and
.. ..
answerirtg one central drmatic question in the. audience's

brain. So, let's see how Dead Poets Sociely planted its bo,:,!b.
this movie, events ;l'e chosen and shaped to raisethe
question, "Will the boys lern from Keating to live life to
the fullest and follow th?ir dreams, or will the soulless
schoolnasters win and turn the boysinto life!ess drones?"
This question takes us all the way through the story. It keeps
the audience interested in.the outcome and contributes to
its ability to experience the.\'imitation" of emotions it wO)1ld
fee! if threatened by a realsoulless schoolmaster. In fact, it's
a goodidea to state the ACTIN-IDEA in a way thati.m-
plies a central dramatic question:
f@
.,DEADPOETS<SOCIETy-prOfessorKEAT-
,,, .
. ING inspires young students to live for their
dreams, which causes them to start a poetry society. One
boy, NEIL, defies his FAl'f:lER and takes up acting, then kills
himself when he's trans'ferred to military school, which
causes KEATING to getfired. The boysstand on theirdesks
andhonor their teacher,as'he exits.
The whole design of Dead Poets Sociely raises the central
dramatic question beautifully, using a very strong first cause
17 16 Michael Tierno Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters
of action. When Keating takes his students to look at 100-
year-old photos of deceased students and conveys his mes-
sage to them, "Carpe diem" (seize the d y ~ t k e actionnow
to live life to thefullest-the "bomb" is clearly planted under
the table. The .audience is hooked as it begins ticking .. ~
AlI ihe scenes that follow are connectedto this cause of
action, through what Aristotle refers to as "probable" or
"necessary" incidents that help move the plot along and
develop the central dramatic question. Each scene arises
from the previous scene in a way that plays to the audience's
mental participation and focus, and dramatic "imitation" of
action succeedsin provoking an emotional response. Keating
doesn't just say words to inspire the boys, he makes them
rip pages out oE books and stand on their desks to read
Whitman (in "real" life, an inspirational teacher might not
be quite so dramatic). These events eventually spur the boys
to form their own Oead Poets Society. They hide out in the.
woods, where they write and read poetry aloud, bang
drums,play saxophones, dance in circles, paint their faces,
and invite girls to read poetry. The action develops as Knox
tries to date Christine and gets beaten up by her boyfriend,
and Todd throwshis desk set off the roof, in symbolic de-
fiance ofconvention and orderliness (and his parents).
As the story moves on, the bomb ticks louder. The
serious magnitude of the action in Dead Poets Society builds
to a peak when Neil gets the lead in the school play, setting
his sights on an acting career. But Neil's father is going to
make sure bis son becomes a soulless master of the universe
and pulls him out of school, enrolling him into a military
academy. Because he sees no other way out of his situation,
Neil shoots himself. The bomb has exploded!
At this point the audience is asking, "Now what's going
to happen to Keating and the boys?" Even though the action
has now gained serious magnitude, the central dramatic
question is still hanging. When the boys are forced to play
Judas and blow the whistle on Keating (blaming him for
causing Neil's suicide), the glorious answer is prepared: The
boys stand on their desks to honor the fired Keating, despite
the old schoolmaster's threat to expel them. This final action
is one that might never happen in "real" life, but it sure is
a great "imitation" of life that induces deep, cathartic emo-
tions in the audience. And itbrings home the boys'-and
the audience's-emotional journey.
Write your screenplays to raise, develop, and answer
one central dramatic question so that your reader or audi-
ence will stay hooked. Hopefully when your screenplay is
covered, the bomb of your central dramatic question willbe
heard ticking in the story analyst's head as well. And some-
day that ticking will furn into the ringing of a cash register
when you fina11y sell your script. How's that for a serious
action with magnitude!
,'3.
The Subjectils an Action
Not a Person
, , , the story, asan imitation of aetion, must
represent one aetion,

b,elieved thaba drama,tic.story mus,t unity


Ir It'S gomg to move an audlence and bnng lt to ca-
tharsis. He also knew that dramatic writers were often fooled
into thinking t!Iatbecauset!Iey used one hero t!Iroughout
an entire story, this alone.lmified t!Ieir plots. Screenwriters
make the same mistake today. But the appearance of Her-
cules in every frame of a movie about Hercules, according
to Aristotle in no way ensures dramatic unity:
The Unity of a Plo( does not consist, as sorne sup:
...,.... ".... "-..."'".,_" .......,.,,.. ,'.,_",., .. -.-... ._,__ .. ,_, ...._... < .... .. "',_,_. ,,_ _'#co",," .-"'- .. -,"
pose, in its having one man as its subject. An infinity of
__ ......,,'........-"_,_..,,;. ..",._"..
things befall tha! one man, sorne ofwhich it is mpossible
to reduce to unity; and in like manner there are many
actons of one man which cannot be made to form one
acton. One sees, therefore, lhe mistake of all lhe poets
who have written ... similar poems; they suppose lhat,
because Heracles was one man, the story also of Heracles
must be one story.
19
20 Michael Tierno
Aristotle's Poetcs for Screenvvriters 21
..
.. By presenting one strong
unified action fro;;;'' you depict the hero. For
example, if on a job interview, a potential employer asks you
to teIl him about something that depicts "you," you'd teIl
him about something significant you'd accomplished. This
would "sum you up" better than teIling him a million an-
ecdotes about what yourpersonality is like. Screenwriring
works the same way: You write a single unified acrion as a
"through line," which becomes the story's subject. Then a
hero takes the lead in that action, which has a "oneness" and
connectivity so elear that Aristotle compares it to a statue:
In the other imitative arls (like sculpture] one imitation
is always ofone thing, soinpoetrythe story, aS animitationof
action, mustrepresent one action, a complete whole.
When we see a statue of aman, it's easy to see what
the one whole thing is ... a statue. That's how tight and
unified a story's acrion must be. But while a statue is frozen,
a story moves through ti.me, so for acrion to be unified and
form a "whole," its incidents must have what Aristotle
termed a probable or
.,- --.,,'"'----_.,-, ..-
In writing an Odyssey, he did not make the poem cover
al! that ever befel! his hero-it befel! him, for instance, to
get wounded on Pamassus and also to feign madness at
the time of the call to arms, but the two incidents had
no probable or necessary connexion with one another-
instead of doing that, he took an action with a Unity of
the kind we are describing as the subject of the Odyssey,
as also of the [liad.
Homer chose for the "subject" of The Odyssey an acrion
in which each incident foIlows the previous one in a nec-
essary or probable way and at the same rime causes the story
to go forward. Such cause-and-effect linkage makes the story's
acrion coherent in the same way a statue's parts fit together to
form one image. However, there are key differencesbetween
probable cause-and-effect incidents and necessary ones.
Incidents of necessity always happen afler a given cause
of acrion and propel the story forward. For example, if you
came home and found your house broken into and robbed
you would always caIl the' police; calling the police is an
acrion that necessarily foIlows the incident of discovering
your house robbed. As we discussed previously, The God-
father's inciring incident is SoIlozzo havingthe Don shot,
j which causes Michael to kill SoIlozzo and Captain Mc-
Cluskey. SoIlozzo's action causes or makes it necessary for
I Michael to kill SoIlozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant..
Probable dramaric incidents also cause the story to go
forward but are only likely to happen. They aren't incidents
of dramaticnecessity, in terms of how the eharacters view
example, in Rocky it makes sense that
after Rocky gets a shot at the boxing crown, Mickey begs
him to be his manager, but this didn't have to happen. How-
22 Michael Tierno
Aristotle's Poetics:for Screenwriters 23
ever, notice this probable incident the story ac-
tion togo forward: trains Rocky, causeshim
to RockYitaking O?ialso helps the
audience andsince Rocky is our/hero, we have
to likerim irt!?rder to hiIh.
RockY'$relati?nship withAdrienne is similarly construded,
in that their courtship is a sequenceof prob"ble events.
Because Rpcky uses lIlore probable thannec-
essary ones its chain of events' feels looser
than The Godjaiher's, butit's still a tight, U1ied plot. Le
take a look at'its ACTION-IDEA.
. RPCKY-ROCKYdesires tobe a bum
frqrrhe neighbClrhood and tries to acc;Oinplish this
inmany He gets offered achanceto fi9!itthe champ .
APOLLO CREED, ahd decides he only wantsW last fifteen
rounds tcf'prove- he's no! a bum. Hetrains ffthe-match
an"d does',kistflfteen r6unds.
,: ',,'
The boxilfg matchbecomes an goal for
Rocky__if hewins, he proves he's more a bum,but
everything ththappens in the plot is abotithim becoming
more than a l>1llll (his ultimate goal).
Roeky IlDonly has Rstrong plot, but if also develops a
great characte,ro fulfilling two essential critera for moving an .
audience. A tight plot need not be like a predictahle row of
dominoes knocking each other down. It'smore important
that the incidnts that form the plot have either a probahle
1 or necessary relatiolfship t6each other
, to. move forward. Rocky dating Adrienne, Paulie puttingad;'
Mickey training him__all of these
are and cause ROFky to grow, and drawhim closer
tohis change in fortune.
does; Itdepicts of a hero's fortune'<lIld,
.' '<"-'";"',"'"'_">'":__
the b0xrlg match with Appllo Creedis the supreme way it
finally happens for Rocky;
Aristotle tells us that
irtcident, thewhole would literal!Y.--
. , ,.,
'.,'"""' '"',.-,'''
.
! [The plotshouldh'ave] its severa! incidents
'J ,',:, ,,' " ", ':':',",-
I closely cnnected that ,the transposalor withd:awal 0['
i' ,,:,,' ,',
I anyone of themwill disj6inand dislocat" the whole. For
makes no by
i ence.or absence is no of the whole.
,,>-' __ ...... __ __ .O_,_..... ..
\::-,,-:<-:
There is another passage of the Poeticsthat
pertainsto developing tight, unified dramatic action:
From what we have said it will be seen that the.'
poet's function is to describe, not the thing that has hap-
pened, but a kind of thing that might happen i.e. whaE.
is possible [or like Jife] as being probable o" necessary.
Here, Aristotle reminds Us that making a plot action unified
requires not only that theindividual incidents be connected
24 Michael Tierno
!
1
through probable or necessary cause and effect. He insists
that the entire chain of plot events must form a story that
seems "probable" or "necessary."
For exampk, the incidents of The Godfather and Rocky
have an overall, archetypallogic to how theyare connectd.
The that unfold ther
..

of hulllan lives" and actions. For

Corleone is, it makes sense that he reacts in the way that he
does; the events that occur in The, Godfather would
"always",?r "necessaril(
real
life doesn't happen in a tight, unified cause-and-effect man-
ner the way movie action happens. movie stories
must present a believable world based on an imaginary chain
of events. This is the paradox of screenwriting.
The lesson Aristocle teaches us is this: .
f?rcebehind every scene and

a. l'ht which is both logical
;;;;:';k:;"the kind of script Hol-
lywood movie executives will definitely notice. And who
knows! Maybe your screenplay will be an pffer Hollywood
can't refuse. Which means you can break in without
to sever any horses' heads, because like and story
action, Hollywood fol!< like their horses to remain unified.
4
Forget Sub-plotting-
the Best Plots Have
One-Track Minds
The perfect Plot, accordingly, must have a
gle, and not (as some tell us) a double issue.
A
ristocle's Poetics can't teach you to write all kinds of
screenplay plots, just' the ones that work. As we have
seen, effective plots are uJiified-they have a single, not a
double, as Aristocle puts it, "issue." That is to say: no
sub-plots. Aristocle argued way back
p':;;';; abad technique in dramatic writing, and it's still
abad technique in screenwriting. While it's easy to see
how The Godfather has a "single issue" plot (the war
waged on the Corleones), you could be fooled into think-
ing that American Beauty has many "issues," or sub-plots.
It doesn't. It contains a single issue, one unified action,
and no sub-plots. AlI the action, no matter how many
characters are running around performing "sub-actions," is
related through either probable or necessary cause and ef-
fect. This is important, because as Aristocle warns us in
this famous passage:
25
26 Michasl Tierno
Aristotle'sPoetcs for Screenwriters
27
Episodic [pIols] are lhe worsl.I caIl afIol episodic
when therfis neilher probability nor necessity [causality]
in the seqtence of ils episodes.
Th.e "s.ing..I.... e.. issue" ae.... t.ion. thal ti.e. .S ... 'can Beauty.... to-
gelherl; simPlr lhis: Thpereeptionof beauly and thel'ffeet
it hason lives anaetionin whi;h al! lhe .ehar-
aeters. in way partieipale. Rieky Filz eomments on
this when he shows Janey afIoating bag and
reeounls how;this image prompled mm to thatthere
is so mueh b<lJ.lty in the worId, he feels astJ:ough hishearl
may burs!. single issue, the pereeptionof beauly, with
the longing it entails, beeomes.tl1e story's "one-
traek the eharaelers are driven Jiy lhis mindse!.
.. .. " .
Lesler ehasesAngela, Janey goes for Rieky, Angela wanls
Lesler,Leste.. wife Carol hooks up with and Col-
onel Fitz Lesler. Obviously, a unifiedchain of evenls,
, Fr the there is sorne separatecause and .effeel
in thesub-aeti()ns of lheseeondary eharaelers going on, bul
lhese sllb-aetipns converge lo make the slqry ONE COM-
PLETE AC1JON. AH the aetion eonneets lo Lester, the
hero who lakcs the lead; For a demonslration of how this
works,let's fit"l review ils ACTION-IDEA:
JJij AJYlERICAN BEAUTY-LESTER, a middle"
aged man, whose wife and daughterthlnk he's a
loser, haslost all desire for Iife, LESTER gels infatuated
with sixteen-year-old ANGELA, eausing him get fired,
smoke pot, and work eatehes theeye of his neigh-
bor COLONEL FITZ, a Nen-Nazi homophobe. After rejeet-
ing a sexual advanee fron1.\he COLONEL, LESTER almost
has'sex with ANGELA bu{larns she's a'.yirgin, decides not
to havesex withher, a'nd:regains hisc:lignity. ThenCOL.,
ONEt FITZ murders in his dying momentsLester
rea'Hzes the beautyof jusfbeing alive.
Beauty usesinformation shown in the Sllb-
aelionsof the plot lo feed lhe audienee informalion about
whal Lester's going lhroug.h and why. Aristotle teaehesus
lhat while an audienee can, automalieal!y "get" lhe selup (a
man in mid-life crisis ehasing a teenagegirl), there. are detiU
Is
aboul this aetion that an <ljdienee can't assume,
enee needs to ?erive the

". "''"c"-
..'' "-,....;'""
, A tragedy, lhen, isthe imitation of an aclion thal
serious, has is compIele)n ilseIf.
, In olher words, whaleverinformalin isn't universal (that
whieh an audieneeean "Mt" aulomatieal!y) must be to
be deduced from lhe slor}' world through events n that itory
world, even if this infoITIation comes through sub-aetins.
For example, a big cause6f Lester'sinfatuation wilh Angela
is the his marriage has. did. But what waS the
28 Michael Tierno
I
Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters 29
nature of this love Lester lost, which is causing his crisis?
The audience can't know what he lost; this cause of the
action must he fed to them. This is done through Janey and
Ricky, their young innocent love providing a model of what
Lester once hado Ricky'spersonality, his very "being" pro-
vides the audience with information that helps it imagine the
youthful spirit Lester had, that's gone. The .details relating
to what causes Lester's mid-life crisis, like what he's lost,
must he telegraphed to the audience through minor scenes,
such as Lester huying dope from Ricky as he fondly remem-
bers his teenage years, when he flipped burgers all surnmer
in order to buy an eight-track player. The actual i;"cidents
of the story must convey the nature of what's "causing" the
character's actions: You have to "show it",lJ,Q.tjusU,cll.it..
""""'.',,",.. .. """'."_,'c'_ ..-..,,,-.,. ........ '.'
To furtherunderscore how American Beauty's plot has
a one-track mind, consider how aH the characters "share"
in Lester's murder: Carol brings home a gun and charges,
into the house, ranting about "notbeing a victim," as if she
were whipping herself into a frenzy in to kill Lester.
Then she discovers his body and guiltily hides her gun.
Janey and Ricky were in the house and had previously talked
about killing Lester. And Angela, who is I()oking into the
bathroom miITor when she hears the shot, was "involved"
by mere virtue of her beauty, which caused Lester's re-
awakening and set off the chain of events that eventually
leads to his death. Finally, there is the colonel, who actually
kills Lester. So every character either contemplated Lester's
murder or had sorne causal relationship to it. This tragic
deed resolves aH the action in the story and makes it ONE
COMPLETE ACTION in a very concrete way.
American Beauty has no sub-plots, only sub-actions
driven by a single issue and thereby connected
action, all of it ultimately forming ONE COMPLETE AC-
TION, which is neady resolved by the murder of the hero
at the end.
Abandon the concept of sub-plots, structure your
screenplay as well as American Beauty is structured, and you
may end up with a cinematic beauty, and maybe evell an
Oscar.
5
Plot 15 Soul
The firstessenti4l, the lije and soul, so to
ofTragedy isthe Ploi; and that the Characters
come second-comp4re the parallel in painting,
where the most beaiitiful colou1'S laid on 'Ilfithoutor-
drJunity] will one tkesame pleasure d& a
simple black-and-white sketch oJa portrait:
,
',',:.:' :::-, -'.,.o.. :':.: -:'."
. . . .'..
N
o",that we know plot action must beunifie<i, 1
. want to turn rou 0
11
.to a core aspect of what is reallr
behindunified plot actien. Until JOU mighthave
thoughtthat plot-driven lll0vies and character-driven mo.vies
are mutu.al.Ir exclus.ive. B..11..t Aristode te.aches how plot.....and
.' _ _ _ ::,' _ _. _ _ _ _ _ _ :
character work together VI'0Y berondjust the
of necessar.y and probable incidents. He tells us whYiwe
botherto link action When Aristode insiststhat
randomcolors won't giv&ia spectatoras much pleasurer a
simple I:>!ack-and-white sketch of a portrait, he's not ch?os-
ing his Inetaphors lighdr:He impliesthat the untr ofaplot
.. re1ated
to
..:, ... .. __"::';"''''''''''''''''rc",,=",,.
the deep desiring soui ofyour hero. This is what he means
"'''''''''',_,,+' ..
in the Poetics quote abo.ve, which 1 like to' parap},rase
31
down t(j "plotis When a strong desire of a hero
.. ,_ .. " .. ,.,-:.. ,.,.: ',- ',' '... __ .. _.. ,.:.,r' __ __ __
r relates to al! of the action, then the plot can depict a simple
",'c,-, - :_,,_,_..:_:":"_"""':"': "..>,'" ':""'-""',..:.. ,-,,,,,,:,- ..-,'",.".
"portrait" of the hero.
..;__.",:.,_.,,,,,,,,:,::,.. .,.,,,:,,.,.'_,.;,..,,,,,
The action of Rocky is connected to Rocky's desire to
make more of his life. He dates Adrienne, argnes with
Mickey, and attempts to save a twelve-year-old girl from the
streets. Then he learns Apollo wants to fight him, and
Mickey trains him for the match. Rocky confesses to Ad-
rienne that he can't win the fight, but only wants to last
fifteen rounds so that he'll know he isn't just another bum
from theneighborhood. With this great line of dialog and
in a stroke of screenwriting genius, the story's action is gal-
vanized and its dramatic unity becomes crystal clear, because
the hero's desire. has been stated. importantfortheau-
dience tb understandthe emotiond"
","". -,. ..--'_,.,-,",. '...-".-.... -''''.''''"-.,,,-, .. "-'.,--./..
for the hero, which, to be moving, must be connected to a
, strong,
,'.:,.,.,.-.<,-" .... ..._., .._.. ;,:,.;-..'.I."}.-,,",,:.;<"<,.,.:,,,,.,,,-,,"",,,,,>,,,,.!,:"'_,,..
experiene the audience an get trom a movie will be akin
to the hero's emocional experience, a good rule of thumb
for the screenwriter.
In Rocky, when the movie final!y cuts to the boxing ring
for the final action sequence, the finale is completely charged
by the movie's ACTN-IDEA. Every punch Rocky throws
and receives is connected to every story incident that pre-
ceded it and is emotionally linked to his desire to become
somebody.
not from its spectacle (the visuals of the fight). And that is
what makes it a cinematic masterpiece.
32
Michael Tierno
I
l
i
I
6.
The Ends Are Always in the
Means of the Plot
So that it is the aetion in it, i.e. its Fable or
Plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy;
and the end is everywhere the chief thing.
A
ristotle calls the plot the story's "end" and purpose,
because to him, "plot is soul" and it's the plot struc-
ture that arouses emotions from the
.. <,,,=,,,,.,,,",,,,,,,,,,:,,.,,,...
totle uses a term like "end" to describe plot, he's saying that
the ACTIN-IDEA, or plot, must always be in your mind's
eye when you are writing scenes. In other words, writing a
plot is more thanjuststitching scenes together. For example,
say 1 wanted to build a tree house. The visual image <if the
tree house wonld be my "end" or finished product, and
everything to build this house would be a means to this end.
In al! the activity of cutting down trees and hammering wood
together, I would be thinking about the final product of the
house. This image wonld serve as a point of focus gniding
the activity.
Plotting a script requires the same kind of foens froma
writer. For an example of this, let's examine The Breakfast
Club, starting with its ACTlN-IDEA:
33
remain in theaudience's brain and be usedto develop the
story's magnitllde and emotional impact onthe audience. It
accomplishes this without adding anything that needs to be
focused on in terms of basic plot lineo like a heart is
always present in a living bodYi strong scenes that happen
in a movie always stay present in the audience's brain and
impact everything else that happens.
Keep theplot a simple ACTIN-IDEA. Add scenes as
organs that develop its emotional impact on the audience,
without complicating it. Otherwise, you might add extra-
neous "organs" or scenes to it, and your plot will grow a
hand out of its head, causing your screenplay to be targeted
for termination. And that's gotta hurt!
40
Michael Tierno
8.
The Four Species of Plot
There are four distinct species of Tragedy ...
first, the complex Tragedy, which is all Peripety *
[reversal offortuneJ and Discovery; second, the
Tragedy of suffering ... third, the Tragedy of char-
aeter . .. The fourth constituent is that of "Specta-
ele," exemplijied in The Phorcides, in Prometheus,
and in all the plays with the scene laid in the
nether world.
A
ristOtle tells us there are four "species" of dramatic
story. For us, this breaks down into four different
types of dramatic movies.
1. Complex (containing a "Reversal of FortunefDiscov-
ery"). Examples of complex plots are Angel Heart and
Rosemary's Baby. These movies are the kind where a

from extremely (Tood to extremelv bad instantly (or the
.. ,_";".",_.",'',,.,.. . ,,,,,,,,,",,,,,,,,,,,,,,_
opposite), based on a discovery or recognition. The rec-
'" . """"",C'''''"''Y'''-''
ognition invo ves a switch from extreme ignoraJ:.1ce to
. --" ,-,.'.> .. ... ..
*Peripety -means "the change of the kind described from one state of
things within the play to its opposite."
41
3. Tragedy of character. Mike develops hisplots
throllgh improvisationswith actors. The reslllt is liy,ely
char.a.cter studies tha.!. beco.me films like Naked C.a.' .r ....
,'o ,'-" ,,' ",,':
Girls, aIld Secrets 1ld L.ieS. Thes.e.films are more in ...t.. er-
ested in. developing theinuances.
in a looselyplottedway that
personality and character traits.
the Ycry soulof lhe drama. Ingmar Bergman's workin-
volves so much psychological suffering on the prt of
thesharacters (and aUdience) thathis stories coul3be
called "tragedies of suJfering," Aristotle might saythat
in Bergman's work, "s.uffering isthe. soul." You night
want. to check out some of his masterpieces on vigeo-
tape, works like Persona, Cres' and Whispersand
, "
nroitgh a Glass Darkly.
4. Moviesofspectade areyery abundant ittto-
day's cinema. The most recent example of such a
is Moulin Rouge. StaIlley Kubrick's work also thrives on
spectade and visual atmosphere, especially 2001.
tade refers to the effect of the vi.suals that is thecos- ,. ,.
turnes, the scenery, and the actors.This brings ton#nd
the term "mise-en-sceIle," which is French for "putinto
a see:ne." Everything that isn't plot, character, chal'acter
thought, dialogue, Ofmusic track, is rnise-en-scene.Re-
melllber, spectade ir(;cinema is not just
sound effects, for example, playa huge role in today's
43 Aristotle's POEdics for Screenwriters
are eilher simple or complh, since tile
actions lhey repreSent are natUrally ()f tbis twofold
desc-iption. The action, proceeding jnlhe way de-
one conti[luC)us whole 1 when .
lhe in lhe fortunes takesplace without
fa of fortuneJ or Discovery;ndcomplex,
whehit involves o"e or lhe olher, or
Clerh day in the life of a young'onveniencestore
derk to show up to his job on his
off with allthe irate custo[llers that coIIle in.
It'$ a story that uses,the degrading environment of the
lower "slacker'>type jobs to the gloom that
Arnerica'syouth feels toward the reality of the
work w()l"ld that awaits them and is example f
a .simpleplot.
Michael Tierno
This type of plot favorite,and
will be the principal sort of plot that we'P study through-
out tlrisbook. . .
menti?ning thatAristotle also describes
what hecalls the "simple" plot:
2. Tragedyof suffering. Aristotleteaches us that aUgood
tragedyhas suffering, and most gooddramatic movies
containscertain amount of intense rhysical or mental
or both. Some movies suffering to
such a gegree that it would seem as iflhe sufferingwere
42
44 Michasl Tierno
Aristotle's Poetics for
45
spectade-driven cin"ma. Try and imagine Jurassic Park
without its brilliant sound e!fects. This is of interest to
screenwriters because they need to have an understand-
ing of the power of the medium they are writing foro
Their tme medium is the printed page, which is a fright-
fully reductive way of representing the richest, most lav-
ish medium of all time, the cinema.
That said, it's important to note that all four species
of drama can be used together in the same work, as
Aristode reminds us:
The poe!'s mm, then, should be to combine
every clement of interest, if possible, or clse the more
important and the major part of them. This is now
espeeially necessary owing to the unfair criticism to
which the poet is subjected in these days. Just be-
cause there have been poets before him strong in the
several sPecies of tragedy, the critics now expect the
one man to surpass that which was the strong point
of each of his predecessors.
Although Aristode tells us that we might use all four species
of drama, he reminds us not to feel obligated to do so. It
seems in his day critics were pushing dramatic writers to
create plays with every kind of pleasure in them, which he
thought was undue pressure. Indeed, most mortals are lim-
ited in the kinds of stories they can write, but a great ex-
ample of a move that does use all four species of drama in
one film is Titanic, a complex drama complete with a re-
versal offortunejdiscovery, spectade, and su!fering.
So you may want to combine all four species of drama
in your screenplay. The point is, you should know which
one or which combination of them you are using and what
kind of dramatic e!fect you expect to achieve if your screen-
play is to survive in the process of Hollywood selection.
g.
What the Poetics Says
1bout Epics Uke
Lordof the Rings
There is, however, a differenw in the Epic as
compq,red with Tragedy.
". "
A.
'..ccor..d. . i..n
g
.to An .. stode, ..... e.....
p
ic poetry...l. ...s.... a . nto 1ts.. e1.f.
andhas ,ts own set of lessons forwntmg.What Ar-
o istode me<ms by "epic" is stqry like Homer's The
liad, orThe Odyssey:
[1'lie poet] eitln'f(l )speakatone moment in
narrative and at another inan assumedcharacter,as Ho-
mer does;or (2)one mayremain thesame throughout,
without anY such ehange;Of (3) the inIitators may rep-
resent the whole story dramatically, as though they were
actuallfdoing the thingsdescribed.
In the. . epic genre, a nar.I'.a.tor can sW1. . tch back and fQr.. th
" ,": o" ,','---..', "",'.-'
between the story("once upon a linIe....")
using thei"firstperson," 'YWch is assllnllng tlIe voice <tlld
point of yiew of tlIe hero. or an epicpoem can lock iiIto
one of these two modes of storytelling<tll the way tlIro#gh
47
the story. Epic poems can also be acted out dramatically on
stage, like tragedy.
Movies often use such techniques from ancient epic po-
etry; consider how Charles Dickens's novel Great Expecta-
tions became the David Lean moVie of the same name, The
movie opens. on a shot of the physical novel and we hear a
voice-over ofPip, quoting from the novel and telling us how
he came to earn the name Pip, and so forth. Lean connects
some of the narrative dots by using Pip as a "narrator,"
combining techniques from both tragedy and epic poetry to
depict ficton.
In some ways, a movie is a play on the screen (hence
the term "screenplay), but the cinematic medium has huge
potential for elaborate and exotic locations, from the bowels
of the Titanic to the center of a meteor approaching the
earth, as in Armageddon. In fact, Armageddon recalls ancient
epic poems, containing multitudes of peoples, great wars,
and so on. Part of the reason such works belong to the
spoken epic genre is their scale, which made them ludicrous
on stage. In short, epic stories didn't lend themselves to the
staged dramatic medium and were best if spoken by a nar-
rator.
Whenwe think of "epic" movies, we think of them as
grand and sweeping, depicting not so much an everyday
reality but an exaggerated reality or fantasy. Even if an epic
story tells of a realistic period, ir still uses a sweeping mode
of presentation. Epic cinematic storytelling might rely on
The Epic, however, affords more opening for the
improbable, the chief factor in the marvellous, because
in it the agents are not visibly before one. The scene of
49 Aristotle's Poetics for Screenvvriters
[Epicaiso differs from tragedy] in its length-which
is due to its action having no fixed limit of time, whereas
Tragedy endeavours to keep as far as possible within a
single circuit of the sun, [24 hours] or something near
that.
spectacle and visual effects, as well as flashier editing and
sound design, but also take place over long periods of time,
while dramas work better with compressed time:
The best tragedies take place over a single day, as in
Oedipus Rex. This makes the plot events more intense, giv-
ing the change in the hero's fortune the greatest magnitude
and the audience the biggest rush. It's easier to make a story
"one complete action" and uniIY all irs incidents through
causality if the story happens over a day, or close to one
day. Some movies compress time to less than twenty-four
hours, like American Graffiti. Butgreat movies like The
GodJather II span decades. The GodJather II is a fusion of
tragic and epic storytelling, with an emphasis on tragic. Also
in tragedy, Aristode tells us to keep "improbable" deeds
(unrealistic ones) outside !he play (in back story). But this
doesn't apply to the epic:
Michael Tierno 48
50 Mi-cheel Tierno Aristotle's Poetics tor Scieenwriters 51
thepursujiofHectorwould be ridieulous()rt the stage
the Greel>shalting instead of purstIing mlll,and Achilles
head to stop them; but in thepoernthe ap-
surdity is(jverlooked;
Epcs, .h<lpause theyiwere narrated, aJJ()wed. wrt$rs to
use anYmpr()hable story$vent they GouJd (ireamof, hecause
the "gents"were urtseen. Personany, 1 still prefer lfl0vies
that use mYrI1agrtatort(lkeThe BlairJYitch
Project) arty day over seeirtg a gazillclU speq<il effects thrown
up Ort the to mOVe me. Some of JmtatOlis Ar-
stodei puts?n tt'agc storygrew out of hs concemabout
whatcouldhe dorte on$tage versus what couJd be done
througp epcs. You cart't re-sr.eate the Trojart
War on way you cart f you have merely
t<llk about it
Theselrntatorts have vanished off th6faceof theearth
for modern screertwrter. 1am cortvincedthat Hollywood
cart a1ul wre-create farttastcal reality ever penned f
t feel. the st()ry wll make a great movie and a large profit.
.It seemS thatthese days, "the bgger the better."
For a gr"t exampleofart epe movie,iwatchLordofthe
Rings. Specal effects keep gettrtg better,rtd there sIloth-
rtg h(}ldrtgproduGers back from puttnggteat epc master-
peces cm thescreen. So r your wsh is fantasy,
knock yoursW out-llonywood digs blockbusterepcs!
However, beadvised, screenwriters who.wrte Hollywood
epcs mnstremember that whle they may embellish epc
. stories nways that they cart'tirt straght drama,epcs"Ild
dramas share certairt structllral requirements:
'1'he eonstruction ofits [epic]storiesshould elearly
..,.",".. ..
likethat of a drama; based on a single \
;.,1'< ..., ..,.".,'". , .' . .. "
actin; one that is a completewhole in itself, with a be-
.. ..
ginning, middle, and end, so as toenable . to'
'i,q".;".. .. ,,",,,,,.",_;,,,:;_,,,;,,,,,,,,, ;,.';',:.>'.>.'" ,.e.""" ';:." ... , . '. -

._,;.,,,.,,,,:,.",.,''","',., ...
unityof a living creature;
"",.,' ","<"__.""'..... '"'<"''''...'''"..
Thspassage s not merely a refresher on dramatc uIlty,
tlets usknow thaLeven a great epc screenplay must have .
the "dramatc unity of a livttg creature." This even goesfor
puJlingrn epic story frOIllgstory anddramatzngt forthe
screen, lke Done With theWind:
Nor should one supppse that is anything like>
them [a story which is a.natnrally unified action] in our,
usual histories. Amstoryhas to dealnot with oneaction,
but with one period andall thM in that to one
or morepersons, the ,several
events may have been. as twO events may take
at the same time, e.g. the sea-fight off SalanIis and the
batdewith the Carthaginians n Sicily, without converg"
ing to the same end, sOa!so of twoconsecutive events
one may sometimes the other with no one end
as their common issue.Nevertheless most of our epiei
poeis,one may say, ignore the distnetion.
52
Michael Tierno
Sorne bad ancient poets had no regard for creating a
tight plot when depicting history beeause they were fooled
into thinking that because events had a "unity of time" (were
about a historical periQd and followed oneanother chron-
ologically), this meant that there wasan automatic dram'atic
unity thoseevents. In an epic story, you can have multiple
story lines but (hey must al! have the same end and resolve
the same issue. A recent example is the epic movie The
Mummy Returns, which has three separate plot lines moving
through it, but all converge on the of the vil
mummy and the by him.
But remember, this strUcture differs from more somber, re-
alistic tragic structure.
Epic movies can have filler episodes surrounding the
main action for embellishments, but this doesn't stop the
story from being mostly about one action:
.. ,.,..,-,.._..
lhen, lo repeal whal we have said befare,
we have a further proof of Homer's marvel!ons superi-
ority lo the resl. He did not attempl to deal even with
the Trojan war in its entirety, though il was a whole with
a definte beginning and end-through a feeling, appar-
ently, that it was too long a story to be taken in at one
view, or if not thal, too complicated from the variety of
incident init. As it is he has singled out one section of
, , --
the whole; many of the other however, he
episodes, using the Catalogneof lhe Ships,
for inslance, and other episodes lo relieve the unifortnily
Aristotle's- Poetcs for Screenwriters
of his narrative. As for lhe olher epic poets, lhey treat of
I
oneman, or Qlle period; or e1se of an action which, al-
though one, has a multiplicity of parts in it.
This is probably the best advice for a screenwriter looking
to adapt a book intoa screenplay. Aristotle tells us that even
thoughthe Trojan Warnaturally had a beginning and end,
Homer singled out one section of it and made one complete
aetion of it to depict the war. He added other kinds of scenes
as episodes to break upthe monotony, but The Odyssey has
a simple ACTIN-IDEA as narrative glue. Le!'s take a look
at Aristotle's definiiion of The Odyssey'sj\CTIN-IDEA:
A certain man has heen ahroad many years; Posei
don is ever on the watch for him, and he is al! alone.
Matters at home too have come to this, that his substance
is being wasted and bis son's death plotted by suitors lo
hiswife. Then he arrives there himself afler his grievous
sufferings; reveals himself, and falls on his enemies; and
lhe end is his salvalion and their death.
Aristotle informs us that this ACTIN-IDEA, which holds
together the massive poem The Odyssey, is all that matters
and everything else is filler:
Tbis being al! lhal is proper lo.lhe Odyssey, every-
thing else in il is episode.
53
54
Michael Tierno
Tlalrrative epic poem allows formoreJicense to thrOw
m direcdy related to the ACIION-IDEA, but
a simple still holds it aJItogether. $0 no
malttej' howi!lavish and grand-sweeping ariiepic you want to
write, lo consider the fundamentals of
otc,rvlldlinlJ' 'A.I"st'ltle teac:hes us, in get your epic
on
/
la.
Destipv Is an Accident
V\laiting to Happenj
........ ... ' .i
Even matters chance seem most marvello1fs if \
t
r
j
mei.mzng. ' '
A
.,. .nstode's favonte is
pens when you trytoescape destmy, as Oedipuslearns
tbe hard way. All to escape bis
(that he< would kili bisfatherandmarry bis mother)lead
him closer lo fulfilling tllis destiny. Many of theeventsthat
happen.in Oedipns Rex to be chance incidents.How"
'ever,as Ihe plotunfolds, itbecomesclear tbat
dents .. are anything butphance. Oedipus fulfills his <;l;stiny
and loses bis eyes because he didri't regard the
dictiori as a senous factQrin shaping his life.
Heignored destinY.And while you might
modero audiencesare t?O sophistifated to desire the;9ues-
tion of destiny tobe in movies,
chance incidents in Witch Project feed
"meaning" of what's gqing on, namely, that there is
an .evil Blair Witch lurking in the .. dark Maryland
55
57 56 Michael Tierno Aristotle's Poetics tor Screenwriters
messing with the students. It's not a coincidence that those
fihu students lose their map and fipd Josh's ear after he
disappears. It al! starts to form a definitive "meaning," as
Aristotle says.It's not a good meaning for those film stu-
dents, but it's certainIy a "marvellous" one for the audienc'e.
The theme of destiny also pops up throughout the hip
film Pulp Fieti01z.For example, when the drugdealer shoots
and misses Jules, Jules interprets this fluke accident as a sign
from Cod to leave crime. He discusses his newly awakened
sense of destiny .lo Vince as they drive along, but this notion
is smashed whefl their car hits a bump, causing Vince to
accidentally shoot and kili Marvin in the hackseat. Now
events are portrayed as pure accident, almost in response to
Jules's earlier encounter with "destiny."
Story incidents that happen by chance are another build.
. ing block of action, connecting the action through cause and
effect the way incidentsof necessity and probability do. In
Pulp Fietion, the appearance of design in the story's chance
elements allows Jules t<y read his luck as destiny, although
he also witnesses Marvin's luck run out because of a fluke
accident. But perhaps, unlike Oedipus, Jules will go through
life with rus eyebal!s intact, spared from his own violent end,
.which would come about if he ignored the "signs." IfJules
had continued bis criminal behavior, he would hav de,
served whatever misfortune that would have then followed.
This is his one chance for salvation. Don't forget, as we are
watching the ending of the movie, because of its non-linear
chronology, we have already Seen Vince (Jules's partner)
getting killed by Butch the boxer, in another chance inci-
dent. This information (that only the audience knows) leads
the audience to "agree" that JJlies should heed the sign and
leave the life of crime.
Pulp Fietion is not a classical take on destiny but con-
nects story incidents of chance, necessity, and probability in
a way that enhances the story's ACTION-IDEA, as well as
its unique hipster sou!. The fluctuation between chance el-
ements and fate allows viewers to make up their own minds
about destiny. This is why the movie is much more than a
"cool flick" about two hoods spouting jive. Its structure
makes it a masterpiece, and earned Quentin Tarantino an
Oscar for best screenplay.
Evoking destiny by using the tools of chance, destiny,
~ ~ ~ _ .. .-- ...,
necessity, and probability to form ONE COMPLETE AC-
TION is a provocative way to shape screenplays. Shape
yours this way, and someday you may be strutting down the
aisle to accept an Oscar for your screenplay. And that would
be no accidento
11.
Keep It in the Family ...
The Tragic D.eed
l
once "'ftched aCNN reporter ask amilitary
.definnvhat the"centej(!f gravity" war,s.
Hecouldn'tanswer the reporter, but lfel! in 10'le withthe
concept of "centerof gravity" as an analogy for an importmt
aspect ofwhat Aristotle teaches us abOtlt dramatic storyand
screenwriting. !he.centerof gravity in dramatic story issim-
.L", ..
pIe: It's The tragic deedis
in story.!t
caused bythe hero, or to the hero, andit
an action of a or painjU! nature, such aS
murders, tortures, and the like.
It's agood idea to statethe tragic deed in the ACTIQN;
_'r... .. ". __
IDEA soyou can keepthe center of gravity of your

in mind. Fr anexample of this, let's take a look a.t an
..: ,
ACTlN-IDEA of another classic:
. .
ROSEMARY'S BABY-ROSEMARY'S hus-
band makes a SATAN WORSHIPPERS to.;
haveher raped by the devil and breed his child, So that he
59
Thal Rosemary's misery is caused by her own husband
greatly adds tothe pity and horror we feel forher. Ifa sleazy
pomo directortricked her, the scene wouldbe scary, but it
In Rosemary's Baby, Rosemary's husband (Cuy), after
slipping her sleeping pilIs, delivers her to the devil worship-
pers and offers her body to Satan, who impregnates her. No
two ways abOllt it, the devil having sex with Rosemary is
the tragic Aristotle emphasizes an important aspect of
what makes it so horrific:
61 Aristotle's PoeUcs for Screenwriters
. wouldn't have the same magnitude. Thetragic deed always
illv()lves. the to the hero.11
..

... ._.__.,,'" .' .... ,.... ,." .,' .., ...,.,..... ".'. ,'.'. "",.. ;.-".'> " ... ,,_.,. ,. ;". " ,,'.. "',", _'-, ;'-." ,-,'"".,"" ..' '"'C"... "'__ "'-"''-'''',,, .... ..." ,.... ..,.. , ,'" .,. ".-._e-,,, .,. .
elIites.
<',","",'- ,\
TheoreticalIy, the tragic deed can happen anywhere in
the story. It can even happen in the back story, before the
actual movie begins, as in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus had met
his father on the road and kilIed him, without knowing.it
was his father. This deedweighs the entire story down
and ultimately connects to Oedipus blinding himself at the
end of the play. The physical pain Oedipus feels when he
gouges his eyes out matches his psychic pain. As Aristotle
teaches us, lhe tragic deed usually involves the hero ex-
periencing very intense physical suffering because of it.. In
ne GodJather, the tragic deed is that Michael must kilI
members of his family because they are lraitors. In Ti,
tanic, the tragic deed is Jack freezing in the icy Atlantic
waters as he props up lhe wood raft to save Rose. (Aris-
totle implies thal if the tragic deed doesn't actually happen
to the hero then it should, happen to a family relation or
to someone like farnily, as jack is to Rose in Titanic.)
farni1y, and use it as a strong
rich, dramatic
depth. 11 can happen in the beginning, as in Rosemary's
Baby, or al lhe end, as it does in Titanic. JUSI make sure it
happens.
r
can advarice as an actor. Afterward, ROSEMARV tries to
her pregnancy is difficult, and what herweird
neighbors want from her fetus, until she gives birth to the
devil's childand decides to mother t.
Michael Tierno
In a of lhis description the parties musl nec-
essarily be ',either friends, or enemies, or indifferent to
one another. Now when enemy does il on epemy, there
is nOlhing to move us lo pity either in hisdoing or in
his meditating lhe deed, excepl so far as the actual pain
of the sufferer. is concemed; and the same is lme when
the parties are indifferenl lo one anolher. Whenever
.. . . "
lragic deed, however, is done within the family-when
'murde;:o;'lhe'I;keis d;e(;,. ;"edilaled brolher on
t
brolher, by son on father, by molher on son, or son on
mother-theseare the siluations the poel should seek
afler.
60
1
Oops! 10(::auSecj'Mv Own
.Undeserved Misfortune
Again
/An imitalion nfl only of
of inddents arousing fear . pityis
o((asioned by andfear by
thatof one like .. .. the (hange in the .
hero'sfortunes . . .iirtust lie notin any depravity,
bui in somegreatefror on hispdrt.
T
.'. . p.,oeties .S so us.e...IUI to scree.n...writers. b... ecause...... A. ,ri.s-
tot!e explans whywe humansrespond/to draI)latc
story. we to dramatic story when we can
relate to it. We. need tofeel.. that 'lIlsfortune
suffers s
.....,...",...
pty and We mustpty the hero's misfortune andJeel

deeply about t, becausethat misfortune s undeserved, and
... _.,,_,.:.:." "")"""':_
cold ha]Jpen to us. and fear are <tpart
n watchng ...
, ',", :.,", " ",'-, -'.'._,','...........: .'
dramatc story, be t The Godfather,or Amo/'ican
Beauty;
Bu! how do we relate to move heroes when wedon't
fight n gladator with the devl, or battle the
63
64 MichaelTierno Aristotle's Poeticsfor Screen\Nriters 65
Evil Empire of the Death Star? The answer is that like he-
roes in drama, we make choices that cause our own misfor-
tune. We realize (after years of therapy) that we can't blame
anyone else for our fate because we ourselves have caused
it! No one was standing on the sidelines telling us' whai
choices to make. So because bad us asa
result of
,; ", '" -."." __
Take a quick hypothetical example: Jane tries to be an
actress, risks her wholelife on (his dream, and at fifty-seven
hasn't made it and has nothing. She has caused her misfor-
tune; she made a choice, an error in judgment, and kept
pursuing acting. But she doesn't really deserve such misfor-
tune either, because at the time she made her decision to be
an actress, she didn't know that she didn't have a chance to '
make it. Although she persists in pursuing her dream against
all odds, we still feel tl-lat she doesn't deserve her misfortune
and misery.
When misfortune that befalls a hero is both undeserved
and caused by the hero,it arouses "pity" and "fear" in the
audience. The hero must use reasoning (wrong reasoning),
because drama works by illuminating the plight of conscious
humankind. Despite the gift of creation that is our higher
mind, we humans still screw up our lives. Aristotle points
out that in drama, of!!,!isfortune can't be deprav-
,/, .'''"''',,'''"'''''' .. .... -.-----.,_.. .... 'o, .", .,',-
ity, because then the misfortune would be a result of our
nature and therefore not interesting. You can call
such bad judgment a "tragic flaw" if you like, but make sure

you understand that Aristotle is clear on this concept: It is
poor reasoning, not primal urges, that causes the hero's mis-
. -.0 -...., ",-.,
o," beauty of an error in judgment is that you can use
it to impact every single beat of the story, or just one time
to set plot up. In

flaw" when he refuses to honor Com-

lead to his misfor-
tune: Commodus has Maximus's wife and son killed, and
. Maximus is sent off to be executed; he escapes wounded, then
becomes a slave, a gladiator, and although he restores the
government to the people, he still dies. His pride, for which
you can't blame him, causes his downfall. Now in Maximus's
case, it's a pretty simple mistake. It happens once, and that's
all the story needs. But this error in judgment adds a rich,
tragic tone to all the misfortune that befalls him, preeisely
because he has actively caused his own fate.
Dramatic stories with happy endings use action based
on the undeserved misfortunes of the hero as well. The
obvious difference is that in happy dramatic stories, the hero
overcomes the misfortune, as in Racky. Rocky chooses to be
a thumb breaker instead of a serious boxer, but that's soon
fixed by Apollo, Mickey, and the Rock himself, who is de-
termined to overcome his loser status in life.
Now let's turn our attention to actual misfortunes and
draw on an analogy from life once again. What makes an
undeserved misfortune weighty enough to carry a plot? If
*The following lisl is drawn from The Therapy o/ Desire by Martha
Nussbaum (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1996),
p. 87, which cites the misfortunes that cause pity, as given in Aristotle's
Nicomackean E/kics.
1. Death
2. Bodily assault or ill treatment
3. Old age, illness
4. Lack of food
5. Lack of friends
6. Ugliness
7. Weakness
8. Being crippled
9. Having your good expectations disappointed
you park your new RolIs Royce in a mn-down neighbor-
hood overnight and come back to find your window
smashed and radio stolen, is this an action on which you
can build a story? lt's a misfortune, it's (somewhat) unde-
served, and it's caused by an error in judgment.
an ACTION-IDEA that will arouse pity and fear in an au-
dience must be based on undeserved misfortunes of g;reat
..... ..,,": ... :.:::,. .-,,',' ..,-" -,__ .'",_ "',' "."",.'<-_ ' .. ",." ".,,,,,,,,,,,;, c' ,. "-",,, ... __ .,,,
mag;nitude-on serious life-changing events that make you
..
feel glad it isn't you. (And because it's caused by the hero's
error in judgment, it ould very welI be you!) Here is a list
of undeserved misfortunes that Aristotle, elsewhere in his
writings, outlines as subject matters that arouse pity and fear
in audiences:*
67 Aristotle's Poetcs for Screenwriters
There are severa! undeserved misfortunes just in the
ACTION-IDEA: Maximus's family was murdered, he be-
comes a slave, and being a star gladiator wasn't afate to be
desired. But again, tbis chain of events is set in motion by
10. Having good tbings come too late
11. Having no good things happen to you
12. Having good things happen but being unable to enjoy
them
GLADIATOR-MAXIMUS, a brillianl Roman
general, refuses to honor COMMODUS, and is sen-
tenced to die. He escapes execution, and becomes a slave,
a star gladiator, and returns to Remeto avengethe murder
of his family by COMMODUS, He kills him in the arena
after being mortally wounded in the back by him. restoring
Rome to the senate as he dies.
Undeserved misfortunes destroy heroes like Maximus in
Gladiator,
big
undeserved event, buildaU the significant
, ""0'
To do this, you can use a series of misfortunes, ones
from the twelve itemized aboye, in individua! scenes. Let's
see how undeserved misfortunes work in Gladiator, starting
with its
Michael Tierno 66
his error in judgment, occurring when he refused to ac-
knowledge Cornmodus as Caesar, for which we can't blame
him and so we pityhim when al! these bad things happen
to him. Plus, because Maximus cares about his family and
refuses the advances of Lucilla, he seems honorable to I us,
andhis humanity makes him someone we relate too In other
words, he seems like us, in ourmost tragic-heroic image of
ourselves, so we fear his bad fate can be ours aswel!.
The numeroustnisfortunes that befall Maximus serve
nOt only to propel the plot of Gladiator but to connect its
scenes thematically.For example, Maximus kilIs the barbar-
ians (death) and wishes to return home but can't (having
good things happen. but being unable to enjoy them). He
refuses to honor Commodus and is sentenced to die (death),
but he escapes and is wounded (bodily harm). He then is
captured as a slave and trained as a gladiator, where he must
defend himself against further bodily harm and death. He
fights other gladiators, who also don't deserve their misfor-
tune, and has to kilI them (death). Finally at the end, Com-
modus wounds him (bodily harm) and then he dies,
returning to heaven to join his wife and child.
. Notice that in Gladiator, all the scenes are organic and
that they make sense in relation to the movie as a whole.
They are of similar tone and style and blend together wel!,
and they create ONE COMPLETE ACTION.
Even though the ending of Gladiator isn't really tragic
. because Maximus goes to heaven when he dies, the movie
itself is still a classic tragedy. Maximus lives up to the mantra
69
68 Michael Tierno
Aristotle's Poetics for Screenvvriters
of "strength and honor" that he utters in the opening scene
as a general for Caesar. Because he suffers so much during
the story, his life becomes a tragicdemonstration of this very
mantra.
The tnistake in a hero's reasoning, leading to the hero's
subsequent related tnisfortunes, is a great tool in building
story action and in conveying profound tmth to the audi-
ence. But remember: Aristotelianprinciples are not rules,
they are starting points to understand how and why audi-
ences respond to drama. Examining these principIes and
how they work will hopefully give you a hanclle on how to
apply them to your own screenwriting.
May strength, honor, and peace be with you and your
future audience!
13
Howa Little Moralizing
Turned a Gladiator Gore Fest
inta Best Picture
Tragedy is essentidlly an imitation not of per-
sons hut action andlife.
I
n the movie Gladiator, Gl-'neral Maximus tells his
to "unleash hell" upon t1Iebarbarians immediately befare
his army's bloody clash with'them. This sequence
. Jike any gratuitous battle scene should-blood splashing,
. limbs flying, swords clanging. Then the action on the screen
.turns into slow motion, the pattle sounds dim, and the doly-
fuI musical score cranks up, The music is sad rather thall
thrilling because the movieis commenting on the fact that
slaughtering these men raiseswhat 1 call a moral contradic-
tion: It is both right for Ma#mus to kili the barbarians, ap.d
wrong at the same time because it's just that-killing.
That is how a moral contradiction works in a dramatic
story; is and. ato the same ))
time
.. .. ,.,,...,,,:,... ..
is a secret ingredient to dramatic story that the Poetics
teaches us to use, enabling the audience to see Jife imitated
through the life of a hero, who is morally compromised in
71
sorne way. Because Gladiator used this technique so effec-
tively, it won Best Picture at the 2001 Academy Awards,
despitebeing very gory-a decidedly unusual vote by the
academy.
In Gladiator, there .is no doubt that Maximus and his
armyare right in attackihg the barbarians. Not only do we
hear Caesar say that they are savages, but we watch the
Germanianshold up the messenger's severed head and later
send back his headless corpse as a response to Caesar's
request fora peacefuL surrender. But bloodshed is still
bloodshed, and the tragic batde plays asa dark comment
on the way human beings get things done. To paraphrase
Caesar, the barbarians will have civilizationbrought to them.
Ironical!y, d>e "civilized" ends of the Roman Empire must
justifr their brutal means.
Aristotle knew that his audiences were interested in
moral questions, and when he told his students that tragedy
is an "imitaH?Ilofaction aIld life," theyautomatical!y as-
sumed
.,.",.,,.':"..'. """t':: - A,_.''"".. , ... "..,.>"._."_._".'.=.
Mn;imus washes blood off his hands after the batde and
stares into the bloodied water, the audience feels his anguish
for having to kilI the barbarians even though they are ruth-
less savages.His moral turmoil helps the audience relate to
him even thugh it might not relate to the specific situation
that he is in (i.e., slave-turned-glad.iator).
Al! the action that brings change in the story must raise
the central moral question. What brings change in Gladiator
is fighting and killing. Albeit those of a brilliant general,
Maximus's actions, as we have seen, are inherendy "right"
and "wrong" at the same time. That the gladiators he must
slaughter in self-defense aren't al! enemies but have been
victimized like himself, raises the same agonizing moral con-
tradiction. AlI this "moralizing" helps us relate to the movie.
In our day-to-day efforts to survive, we all feel like the
real world is a jungle. In showing a human tendency toward
violence and revealing this as a tragic aspect of human na-
ture, Gladiator imitates life and makes a statement about the
human condition modern viewers can appreciate.
The message to you as a screenwriter is this: Don't shy
away from using to spice up your
screenplay stories. The audience ripht and
the
heartofwIlatit be glad
and strapping on gladiator
gear for another day in the arena. Be glad that your own
moral contradiction probably consists in competing with' an
associate for a promotion. Be glad-yes!-that after putting
on the screenwriting armor of the Poetics, you can race out
into the brutal arena of Hollywood and shout, "Bring 'em
on!"
72 Michael Tierno
Aristotle's Poetcs tor Screenvvriters 73
.,
lS.
Whatever Causes the
Action Better Be Up There
on the Screen
The tragic pleasure is that of pity and fear,
and the poet has to produce it by a work of imita-
tion; it is clear, therefore, that the causes [of the ac-
tion that can arouse pity and fearJ should be
included in the incidents of his sto1).
A
ristotle tells us that the "causes" of the action tIlat
. ar?llse the fear
in
"";;sUlatiilsn"t h"t;)ici;;that a
hro'sfortnne a';dience must experience
a systematic buildup inili;
her's reversal offortune ina tbat arouses their em-
pathy.
--For example, take a look at Citizen Kane. The causes of
the action that arouses our pity and fear are simple, starting
with the first cause of action: Young Charles Kane is taken
from his home because of an inheritance that prompts his
mother to send him away with Mr. Thatcher, a guardian his
mother has hired to raise her son. Charles's undeserved mis-
93
leads Harry closer to rus eternal of fortune (goil}g
tohell). But the fact lhat Harry realizes the moralimplia-
lons of his actions help us feel for him. We have seen that
he tmly regrets his hehavior and haveknown him to bea
moral character, so we relate to him.
To close, I'd like to sum up this chapter thus:
Michael Tierno
fortune affectsihis entireJife; he becomes controlling !;md
selfish an adult and dies an old, lonely mm. Becausewe
understapd why he got way, theplot arouses ourpity
and fear. For aU this is by a very
definitiol of character: I
There.a.re in the na.lural order <if things lherefore'
... ... . .... . . .. ..,.. "
Charaelerand their aelions,
and eonsequendy of their sueeess or faiIure ..in their ives.
To Aristode, "charaCter" refers$tricd)' to the moral
quality of apefson revealed,through his or her thoughts and
the actiqns stfmming fr0I!l these thoughls.For if
you plotito rop a bank, YQU must first "think" about taking
before PSrforming il. Butfs the
behind tllsaclon that reveals your isn't it? In
other words,if you arerobbing a bank to. pay for your
girlfriend's dimond neck1ase, you're a "badperson." BIj.t if
you're robbil}g. a bank too feed the homeless people,that
reveals adifferent "character." lt's thesamein movies:The
"thought" that leads wthe key actions reveal.s the
.'
. ... . .
. hearsEthan teUthe
back stOry OfJIOWJohnny ate a man's heart.to steal russoul.
Harry's . "therught" or retnembrance .of this deed causes
Harry to vomit, telling us that he is morally repulsed,and
lhus his moral characteris revealed. This cause of action
Aistotle's Poetics for Screenwriters
A plt must include causes of the that can arouse
thealldience'sdeepest pity and fear. means
dience must understand hero'sthoughts and seethose
lhoughls aelions, whieh in tum reveal a moral
quality (eharaeter) of thehero. This willhelp the audienee
to relate to the her'o and feel empathy tor him or her.
95
acter Of Mike is on the bad sideof the "dividing line of
goodrtess," because he dumps Amnda for the wrong rea-
son: 1anting to have sex with as many women as possible
before; leaving cfor college. Though he is unsuccessful in
achie0ng this goal, he hasbeen braJlded as the bad guy in
our mirids, becusewe're infiuencedwhen we learn his rea-
sons fr dumping his girlfriend. On;the other hand, Preston
(the hero) hasharbored a crush for years. lt's
his inJ:locent beIief that he and Arnanda are meant to be
togeth9r thatriakes the audience ascribe a positive quality
to himand he takes (e.g.,giving her a love letter).
The same goes for the other characters in the movie, such
as Keriny and Denise, who, after getting locked in a bath
room, <Jjscoyerthat they are not so different ftom each other.
Throug;h th"ir thoughts we cometo undetstand Kenny's
childish, actions and why Denise is so intol
erant of him(he was meanto her in elemeniary school). In
other words, we are allowed to lookbehindihe personas of
all thecharacters, whose actions assume hUfJlor and pathos
as a resulto
Thus we se,e how, within the frameworkpfONE COM-
PLETE ACTI9N, the moral attributes of the "agents" re-
vealedthroughthe reasoning behind.their actions give your
story its ton". ,!n more simple terms: Pay at,ention
because it willenhance thequality of your screenplay. And
remember: lt'sthe thought behind the actions that count ...
118 Michael Tierno
25
How to Cheat If YouCar'l't
Hire a Whole ChOrl..ls
The ChoruS too should be regarded as one ofthe
actors; it shoul4 be an integ;ral part of thewhole,
and take a share in the. action ...
In Aristotle's day,staging a play wolved usinga chorus
". line of paid actors and singers that would stand in front
pf the stage, .sing, and comment to the audience on the
action. This helped develop [the "magnitude" of the
without adding extraneousinCidents to the ACTION-IDEA.
For example, in Oedipus Rex, the chorus makes a statement
after Oedipus is charged byhis subjects to find the source
, of the plagte in the city:
CHORUS of Thebes):
Sweet is the voiee of thegod, that sounds in the Colden
shrine of Delphi
What message has itsent to Theqes'! My trembling
Heart is torn with artguish.
Thou god of Healing, Phoebus Apollo
How do 1 fear! What has thou in mind
119
120 Michael Tierno
Aristotle's Poetics'for Screenwriters
121
To bring upon us now? What is to be fulfilled
From daysof old?
Tell me ths, O Voice divine
Thou child of Golden Hope
The chorus here does not move the plot along but makes
moral comments on what is happening by raising questions.
This ancient technique is not used in modern drama, al-
though modernversionsof it can be found. For example,
in Something About Mary, the two guys who sit in the trees
and sing about the action are as close to a chorus in Greek
theater as has ever existed in modern film. Notice how the
"chorus" in this movie makes appearances, comments on
the action, emhellishes its'meaning and emotional impact,
while not reaJly adding anything to the plot. Notice how this
"chorus" keeps JOu at arm's length from ~ action while
giving you a window into it. The viewer feels like a privi-
leged spectator andat the same time becomes better con-
nected to Ted the hero, who finally gets Mary. Something
About Mary is an example of a comical way to use a chorus,
serving the overall tone of the story.
Remember, the important thing in trying to use a mod-
ern chorus is to understand the chorus's job-to comment
on the action and to reinforce it in the audience's perception.
y ou can have all kinds of secondary characteis commenting
on the action. For a quick example of this, consider The
Terminator, where Reese is held in the police station and
questioned by a psychiatrist, who thinks he's crazy. The
shrink and the cops are a perfect example of "chorus" com-
menting on the action. The questions and comments of the
eops and the psychiatrist help to validate and explain the
reality of the Terminator's mission, of Reese's role, and of
Sarah's role in saving the future of the world.
In constructing theACTION-IDEA of your screenplay,
consider how using seeondary characters as members of a
"chorus" might work to strengthen it. If you're into far-
fetched plots, a <:horus may be key in makingsure the au-
dience understands what in the hell is going on.
How to Create Characters
. .. .
;That Are Really
Re'i:!lIy ReaHy Alive
In the Charaetersthere are f01!crpoints to airT!
ato First and foremost,
Therewill be an ele'fTl,ent ofcharacter in theplay,if
(as hqsbeen observed) what a persortage says or
does reveal! purpose; and a goodt
l
-
emen( of charaeter, ifthe purposeso revealed is
good The second point to make them appro-
priate The third tS to make them like the real;:
ity, which is not thesame as their being good and
appropriate, in our sense of the trm. The fourth.s
to make themconst4't and the Same through-
out ..
O
ne of the many thiIlgs we can tha{k Aristotle fo]' is
his writings on how to create characters that se.em
both realistic and able to captivate an audience. First, make
them good enough that we'.can root forthem. Second, make
them "appropriate,"meaning give them characteristics that
make sense for the type of person they are. Third, make
them human-give them f!nvs or quirksthat make us believe
123
124 Michael Tierno
Aristotle' s Poeticsfor Screenwriters
125
that they existo Finally, whatever characteristics you do give
them, make sure JOu keep them there throughout the length
of the screenplay. As Aristotle says, make sure they are "con-
sistently inconsistent."
,_,_0'-"""', ~ ~ .,.,__~ _,.., ,,"
In another passage, Aristotle elaborateson what le
means by making a characer, realistic. Once again, he uses
painting as an analogy:
As Tragedy is an imitation of persons better than the
ordinary man',we in our way should follow the example
of good portrait-painters, who reproduce the distinctive
features, of a roan, and at ~ e same time, without 'losing
the likeness, make him handsomer than he is. The poet
in like mannei, inportraying men quick or slowto anger,
or with similar' infirmities of character, must know how
to represent them as such, and at the same time as good
roen ...
Rocky, trying in a larger-than-life way to be more than
a bum from theneighborhood, is still oddly recognizable
as a regular guy. 'Lester Burnham from Ameriean Beauty is
the ultimate mid-life-crisis guy who eventually redeems
himself in declining to sleep with Angela. Even Michael
Corleone, the mafia son par excellence, appears noble in a
time of family crisis because he is willing to defend and
honor his family. In their actions and attributes, these
three characters illustrate the realism to ""hich tragic
drama, according to Aristotle, should aspire. Additionally,
he gives us five principIes of life that we can use to create
character in our stories:*
l. Nutritive Life
2. Desiring Life
3. Sensitive Life
4. Locomotion
5. Capacity for Rational Thought
.Because these five principIes all belong to the makeup of a
real-life person's "psychology," they can be used to create
convincing three-dimensional characters. Let's examine each
. ane.
1. Nutritive LiCe. Do you wonder about your characters'
eating habits? Wouldn't that tell you (and your audi-
ence) a lot about them? Don't your eating habits saya.
lot about you? You should braill.storm as much as you
can to get a clear picture of what the eating habits of
your characters might be, to gather clues about who they
are. How do they eat, what do they eat? Do they think
about food a lot? What do your characters' refrigerators
look like? Not that any of this ever has to make it to
the page, but it's a window into their character. 1 mean,
when Rocky gets up at 4- a.m. and drinks four raw eggs,
*The following list is derived from Aristotle's other writings, mainly De
Anima (On the SouZ).
126 Michael Tierno
Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters 127
isn't that wQrth a notGs
on hi
lll
? That image isso powerful andevocative thit
you know without furthGr elaboration that he is serious
abo\lt this bQxingmatch. Look at Lester B\lrnham. What
doeshe eat?iBy the endof his transformation from
erabl mid-life-crisis guy to seekerof eternal youth, hG's
blending ancl drinking hGalth drinks. What could telllts
more. about. Lester's new attitude toward life? What
could:makeLester seemmoie human?
2. Desiring Life. At the heart of alIaction is the desire of
the .. '.
actets come alive on the screen. In1he Godfather, when
Michael Corleonegoes tO Italy and falls id love with an
Italiallwoman from the mountaills, does\l't that make
. him'seem truly alive? It's a probable incidGnt that fIows
withthe action, iefIecting his deep coIIlIl1itment to his
Itali<n "roots." In Gladiator, Maximus rearns to go
home to his family and,after they have been murdered,
to join them:in eternity. In 1he Blair Witch Projeet, the
kids' ambitidn to tape the Blair Witch and make a film
leads them to their death. Desiring is at the heart of
what it means to be a living, breathing human being.
3. Sensitive LiLe. It goes. without saying that our five
senses. are abig part oEbeing alive. If a human being
faces the prospect of losing sight or hearing, it's devas-
tating. In fact, alI of the five senses-sight, hearing,
touch,smell, arid taste--cdefine our lives at thG most ba-
sic leve!. Lester Burnham spends alot of time mastur-
bating, doesn't he? In fact, it's'how we are first
introdl.lced to him. Whai mOre do we need to sense thilt
Lestef is real and to "know" who he is? In cinema,
perhaps the most important sense in regard to character
development is. visual perception.Great screenwriters
know how to feed infrillatin to the audiente through
the eyes of characters, such as when Lester sees Angela
at thepep 'rally and fantasizes about her. Shwing h6w
characters .actually see ihings with their own eyes ena-
bies. the audienc:e to experience "causes" of (he action.
It also puts touse a powerful aspect of thecinematic
medi
ulIl
, which is the hero's literal point of view.
4. Locomotion. Carefully depictipg movement is vital t a
......... ,"".....- - -_..... , - , , -
screenplay. For 1he Blair Witch is a
rest and locomotion, in which thecharacters'
use of their eyes andears .ls also notably importaJ:lt.
Heather, the lead character in the story, spends a lotof
time rimning around, screaming, and trying to videotape
the ground in front of her. The lifelike aspect of alI the
characters is transmitted largely by their physical mo."e-
ment,as they trudge ihrough the woods.
5. Capacity for Rational Thought.Thinking. about the
mindand thought of people can be a
to brainstorm charactets into existence, In Annie Hll,
In summary,to create a real human beingforan audi-
ence you must have them do things that convince the au-
dience that they are alive, really alive, giving details that even
a scientist like Aristotle would appreciate.
128 Michael Tierno
Alvieis a rational man who has bouts ofirrationality.
This surfaces when a cop pulls him over and he tears
up his license. In Titanic Rose jumps from the lifeboat
to return to Jack,. a slightly more irrational than rational
hey, thisis a love story, and romantic love ls
rooted as much in animal nature as it is in the higher
mind. (Rosels also slightly larger than life, and she's
being consistent with what we've seen of h.)
Dialog 15 a Pieee
of the Aetion
.. . m?rethepoet ofhis stories
or as he is a
by vi;tu; of the in his work, and
it is actions that he imitates.
L
ike everything else in wh.ich Aristotle
. calls "diction," should be part of the action. For Ar-
istotle it's more important to strive to build a tight structure
than it is to digress in the elfrt to compose beautiful dialog
. that isn't part of the main action:
One will have much better success with a tragedy
which, however inferior in these respeds [dialog], has a
Plot, a combination of incidents ...
Pve covered screenplays where the writers will start olf
with great dialog, but by the middle of the script Pm already
bored. I later examine sorne of the mid-point dialog and it
seems of the same quality as the beginning dialogo What's
wrong? The same thing that's always wrong: The plot has
not been adequately built. is part of the action and
129
El<lb0rate Diction, h6wever, is requiredin places
where lhere ii no action, no Character 0f Thought
to be revealed. Where there is Character or Thought, on
the other hand, an Dver-ornate Diction tends to obscure
them.
Not only can elaborate dialog obscure thought, sometimes
dialog that. is "straight on the nose" can sce?e when
whatis on tlleir ;'-
no sub-text to fhat they are saying. In in the
scene where Maximus and Lucilla flirt in the garden, -Ve
sense an intense unstated sexual undercurrent to ther
words. But their dialog is not 'Ion the nose," it's what's
going on insidetheir minds that's intriguingto uso What's
not said, (jr the,nner thoughts of the characters, is often
gets its power frOln the plot, whose e/fect builds In a cu-
mulativeaswellas Dial;g
lifeand energy the action it helps build. tbis
is a symbiotic relationship. For a simple demonstration, iEl
say the line, "They're here," it's not agreat line of dialogo
But in Poltergeist, when it's theyoung child announcing the
arrival ofa house full of ghosts, it's brilliant, because it's
. concise but moVes usinto anew stage of the plot (we now
want to find out exactly wnat's "here"and why this child
,iSBO attun.ed to the new invisible guests).
Aristotle goes so far as to say that although dialog isa
building block of a drama, it can sometimes get in the way:
131 Aristotle's Poetics fer
The Thought of the persons in a play is shown in
alI thafmust be elfected by their language-in every elfort
to or disprove, t arouse emotioic(pity, fear, anger,
and tJ,>e like), or to exaggate or minitnize things.
The only dilferenceis that in,acon the has
to be,produced with the
spoken word it has to beproduced by the speaker, and
resuIt from his language. What, indeed, would be the
However, language can be tricky. If ctions speak louder
than words, they can also speak better:
more dynamic to anaudience, so it'snot a good idea to
characters saying exaetly what's o?their minds butto "
i;Upy are think!Ilg
That's.not to saythat c()nversational dialog isn't impor-
love dialog like that in Fietion ,or Night
on Eartn.I lve dialog more than theaverage moviegoer,
and> myown scripts and films ate dialog heavy. However,
in even thi; most dialog-dependent like My
witn t!le dialog is intrinsic to the plot,
meaning,causality oE the incidents, amI dramatic unity. In
fact, sometimes plot actiondoes require that dialog be 'Ion
the ilose,"as in Gladiator, when Maximus gives his gladiator
team c1earinstructions on how tofight the coming onslaught
of enemygladiators. Aristotle stressesthe J.nportance oflan-
guage at every level of drama:
Michael Tierno 130
132 Michael Tierno
Aristotle's Poetics for Screenvvriters 133
good of lhe speaker, if lhings appeared in lhe required
lighl even aparl from anything he says?
Arislotle:s syslem of lhoughl indudes a concepl called
Sounds like "dialog," doesn'l jI? Tha!'s because'
the lwo concepls .are indeed similar. Le!'s see how they
work.
Firsl, someone makes a stalemenl, a "lhesis." Then an
opposing slalemenl is made,an "anti-thesis." These lwo
slalemenls then coilide in opposition, forming a synlhesis,
",hich is kind of a"we slarl all over again" lhesis:
JOE: (THESIS) We won'l make illhere because you're driv-
ing like my grandmother.
BOB: (ANTITHESIS) Your grandmolher's dead.
JOE: (SYNTHESIS) Exactly!
Nolice lhal inthis exchange, joe makes a stalemenllhal
Bob is driving like his grandmolher. Bob doesn'l jusI re-
spond, he uses the informalion conlained in joe's slalemenl
to make an opposing slalemenl, lhal Bob's grandmother "is
dead." This is an anlithesis: Dead grandmolhers can'l drive.
Joe lhen lakes the mini-argumenl lha!'s laken shape and
"synthesizes" il inlo a new slatemenl, "Exactly," which
ifies joe's real message, thal Bob's driving is falally flawed.
Il's a fusion of lhe two ideas, thal Bob drives like joe's
grandmolher, and thal joe's grandmother is dead. Notice
lhal what gels balted back and forth is simply informalion.
dialog is a kind of fighl lhat uses infonnalion in
lasl slalemenl, and opposes il and moves tlie fighl forward.
I)ialog as dialectic is, in effecl, aclion. Compare lhe previous
exchange lo conversa,tion:
JOE: We won'l make il because you drive like my grand-
molher.
BOB: I'm hungry.
JOE: I hopethis car don'l break down.
Obviously, lhis is more lypical of lwo friends lalking in thal
neither listens lo lhe olher. It's mere conversalion, and does
nol move lhe aClion along.
Of course, you can blencl dialetical and conversalional
dialog any way you wanl:
JOE: We won'l make il there because you're driving like my
grandmother.
BOB: Your grandmother's dead.
JOE: Exactly!
BoB: She is? I was jusI kidding.
B oB: Death is weird ... isn'l it?
JOE: Don't gel deep on me. I lhink we should start looking
for a molel.
BOB: Yeah. Do you know anylhing aboul computers?
.J oE: Keep your eyes on the road.
BoB: I wilL Do you wanna drive afler lunch?
This exchange mjjees dialectical dialog with a mere conver-
to help creare realistic dialog that moves he aetion of
. ' .
tbe story along bW allows a pause in it as welL
Dialog, is dialectic, sometimes conversation.
"'_.- ... .: __ __':'\';""' "__ ':'__ .,' ',"" -,," ---,--, -- ,-"- -,,- .__ .__e,-;,e;.._.._.. _ ... ---- _., .-._._" ..
But it is always astion or part of action: Do your best
to malee languagederive itspo",er from the
the living plot. it.
134
MichaelTierno
28.
Ifthe Pitch Doesn't Fill Me
with Horror and Pity, the
Movie Won't Either
.. ... ("{}erl;
he whos.imply(
hears ,the account 01 them shaU be fiUed with horrQ!
,.,"'-'-" -','",,,.,--,'.- ".- ... " ...-. . ...
and at the incideizts ...
'A'ristotle tells us that plot"
. , listen,ers should be moved by it, just as they would be
. when watching it enacted 011 the What better
, then, to test whether your sereenplay is going to do what
you want it to do than toutter your ACTIN-IDEA to
people andsee what kind ofteaction it gets? Dramatic story
is first and foremost an oratorical art; the hay,,,. to
good to the ear. (and.rnind) if they' to
. . ., ...."
. the success The Blair Witch
Project, where you never the witch. That's because tp.'e
'makers of that movie had me insight to understand the ot
atorieal aspect of dramatic storytelling. The incidents of the
movie sounded so gripping and scary that they spread over
the Internet like wildfire aIld later by word of mouth at
135
colleges. It all worked because the hasic plot, or ACTION-
IDEA, of 'The Blair Witch Projeet was so strongthat people
felt compelled to see the movie. In fact, they were scared
before they saw the movie!
The Blair Witch Projeet had the luxury (as well as th
genius) of using a mock documentary format whereby local
residents are interviewed about the legend of the Blair
Witch, who would make one kid face the wall while she
killed the other and then kili the one facing the wall. Admit
it, you felt.something, even if you hate horror. That scenario
gets played out at the end, when it happens to the two
remaining kids: Michael faces the wall as Heather is killed.
But the incident has already been implanted in our minds,
which makes the repIay of the incident at the end more
powerful.
To take another example, how would a teenager try .to
convince his peers to see Something About Mary? They
would retell the hilarious story incidents they saw. Or, con-
sider how many people walking the American streets today
can make other people laugh by retelling the incidents in A
Christmas Story? Haven't you done that? 1have. 1rememher
once 1 told my screenwriter friend the plot of .creen Card
(a couple has to pretend to be married so one can get his
green card, and they fall in love). He said, "Oh wow." He
was feeling the power of the whole story, just [rom hearing
its ACTION-IDEA.
_ ~ . t o l has always been an oratorical arto Long ago, peo-
pie sat around the fire, telling stories to each .other for
136 Michael Tierno
Aristotle's Poetics for Screenvvriters 137
information and entertainment. The printing press, hooks,
movies, and. TV are relatively recent developments in the
human scheme of things. But how we appreciate the essence
of a story hasn't changed. We sound it out in our minds to
enjoy it. It's that simple. That's why if it sounds good to
people before we write it, it is. good. Saying your idea out
loud should produce whatever effect you want it to have on
screen, or on the page. This is why the "pitch" is so im-
portant to everybody. Let's face it, the pitch is just the
ACTION-IDEA sounded out loud. And if yours doesn't
grab people the way The Blair Witch Projeet's grabbed mil-
lions of fans, your screenplay won't either.
29
The Non-Linear Soul of
Quentin Tarantino
The Plot, in our present sens.e of the term, is
snply this, the combination of the incidents or
things done in the story ...
T
his ehapter will look at the. style of the highly original
screenwriter Quentin Tarantino. We'll examine a very
interesting aspect of lis masterpiece, Pulp Fietion,which is
its "non-linear" plot.Playing with a story's time line might
be something you want to think about when starting to buld
your screenplay's outline. This style of plot is veryprevalent
in today'scinema.
While the Poetics doesn't directly address time-bending
plots perse, it's not a big stretch fromAristotle's "arrange-
ment of the incidents" to the plot rearranging tl.at
characteriies many non-linear narratives. But it's important
to understand that non-linear plots are not composedof
simple flashbacks or told as memory or recollection. Their
chronologieal shuffiing must work to create meaning, and
jolts in the movie's time line must call attention to themselves
(and better be used for a good reason!). Now let's examine
a brilliant chronological rearrangement of plot incidents.
139
140
Michael Tierno
Aristotle' s Poetics for Screenwriters 141
In the first scene of Pulp Fiction, we find Hpney Bunny
and Pumpkin robbing a dinero The story moves on and
different sub-actions with other characters occur, one show-
ing Vince gettingkilled. Then the story returns to a time
when Vince andJules recover Marcellus's stolenmoney from
drug dealers again. The action jumps right to Jules's speech,
which he quotes from the Old Testament before killing the
drug dealers. This is the first time in the "chronological
story" that Jules aunches into this speech bui the second
time in the story we see it. This speech is the pivot and
handle of the whole non-linear structure.
In effect, PufJp Fiction takes the middle of .lhe chrono-
logical story and slices it into the beginning and end of the
plot, giving the movie a unique twist whereby banal con-
versation (the funny dialog in the rest of the story) is con-
trasted with Jules's urgent renuneiation of his ,criminal life
and his quoting of powerful passages from the Old Testa-
ment.
Perhaps the teason Tarantino is able to be convincing
with his unique style of plot bending is because in all his
writing he says what he really feels, from his own unique
perspective. To understand what 1 mean, consider the fol-
lowing Poetics passage:
As far as may be, too, the poet should even aet his
story with the very gestures of his personages. Given
SOme natural qualifieations, he who feels the emotions
deseribed will be the most eonvineing; distress and anger,
for instanee, are portrayed most truthfully by one who is
feeling them at the moment.
Quentin Tarantino is great at ":hat he does because
there is an "authentic feel" to his movies: They seem to
come right from his heart and sou!. Many people have tried
to emulate his style, but the results have been weak. Not
that Tarantino hasn't tapped into other films for his own
ideas, but he manages to blend his own kuowledge of other
films and genres in a unique Way.
y ou, too, have to find your soul and tap into it. It might
not be quite as marketable as Tarantino's, but at the end of
the day, Aristotle would rather see youwriting something
powerful from your own soul than trying to reproduce some- .
one else's cool style. As a story analyst, so would I.
E<:lIl'.l.try to.second-guess what the Hollywood market is
J)()king for.1'1I tel you a ~ t t l e s e r e t that is not such a secreto .
In Hollywood,theydon't kuow what they are looking foro
They kuow it when they see it. This is not to kuock Holly-
wood, because, as William Goldman said, "Nobody kuows
anything. Nobody knows a goddam thing." It's also not to say
go ahead and write something completely idiosyncratic, and
wonder why a studio doesn't want to invest 100 million dol-
lars to produce your fantasy. Instead you should attempt to
write from your soul and move an audience in a way that
comes naturally, but you must have "moving your audience"
as your ultimate end; everything else should fall into place.
Gene Wilder has been quoted as saying that his overall guide-
line fOI iul0""ing,vhat to write is simply this: "1 amgoing to
the movies Would 1want to see this?" . .
Regardless Y',lU write drama, cOIpedy, horror,
science fiction, 0I action, find out what youwrte best, arid
guess what-your range is probably limited. \'ve talked tp
professional who have said thatthe kinds of
scripts they writaren't what.they'd wanted to Write. lt's hafd
'. towritea good sqript, not tomention sell it, whtch Aristody,
unfortuna\ely,sa)ts nothing about. But if you can zero in on
one kind.of you standa better chance o(Clevelopingit
to the highest levyl possible andbreaiung through with it. Be
aware ofwhat Y0l! are actually trying to accomplish with your
scripts. What of scriptsare you trying to write, and why
do you t!link theyfit in? There are certain kindsof scripts that
come more to me than others.1t has tO do with who
1am andwhat 1Ike. Just be honest with yourself, experimeUt,
and be aware. lt )Viii probably save youots of ti,me.
lnstead of "write whatyou k11ow," Aristotle is telling
you to write wh(t you can tru1y feel, or tru1yexperiencein
your heart. Hav readingswith actors or frierds who can
read your screeAplays back' to you, attentively and spir;t-
edly-it will give you a feeLfor your work. lt's probably no
coincidence thatQuentin Tarantino also is anoactor.
Again, whetl1er you use a non-linear plot.or not, write
toexpress your unique selE. And always try tocommunica,te
to an audience (nd move them as an audience. Write from

your soul for an.audience, not for your favorite esoteric film

142 Michel Tierno
.'3 O
If Your Story Were a
Musical, Where Wuld the
Numbers Be?
From the point of Jiew, howe'l)er, of its quan-
tity, i. e. the separate seetions intowhich it is di-
'l)ided, atragedy has following parts: Prologue,
Episode Exode, and a choral portion ...
',,1. n. Aristotle's day, tragedy had music atjts c.ore, the choms'
'. sang and danced. Tragedy grew out of music:
It [tragedy1 certainly began in in:tprovisalions-as
did <!Iso Cornedy; lhe oneoriginaling with the prelude
lo the Dithyramh, the olher 'with the prelude lo lhe phal-
. . ,
lic songs, which srill surviJ
e
as inslitulions in rnany of
our cities.
The dramatic arts grew out of an early religious ritualisti9
chanting called "dithyramb,'t a primitive musical art. i)
sorne ways, as a result, Greek tragedy resembles an extended
song or syltlphony, as the folk>wing passage from the Poetid
points out:
143

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