Monday, 29 September 2014

Story Structure: Pity, Fear, Catharsis



More than 2000 years ago Aristotle deconstructed drama in his Poetics. I only just came across it (well, the abridged version), but better late than never.

His ideas on what makes a good story boil down to pity, fear and catharsis, which more or less constitutes beginning, middle and end.

Greek notions of theatre back in the day weren’t exactly varied (I believe they only had three television stations—primitive times) but I think his core ideas still hold true today.


To start with, feeling pity for a character is the most direct way to get an audience to engage with that character and make them want to root for a happy outcome. Basically he’s saying to make the character sympathetic.

In Aristotle’s time what elicited pity was seeing a person of noble birth brought low by their own foolishness or maybe by a whim of the gods.

And has much changed in the intervening years? A sympathetic main character in a situation you wouldn’t wish on anyone (especially yourself) is still the starting point for 99% of all stories.

Once you have the audience willing the character to somehow get themselves out of whatever predicament they find themselves in what follows is much more “Oh no, he’s not going to make it” rather than “Hooray, it’s plain sailing from here.”

The fear Aristotle refers to is there to make the audience feel bad. You want them uncomfortable and not sure of the outcome. This means conflict, struggle and insurmountable odds.

The more the audience fears the worst, the better. The more the character suffers, the nearer he comes to losing everything, the more engaged the audience will become.

This doesn’t mean you have to pile on the misery page after page, but it does give an indication of what the middle of a story is about. Middles tend to be the hardest thing for most writers, and knowing the underlying purpose of it can help shape your ideas.

The reason for creating suspense, tension and even anxiety in the reader is so when you get to the end, you can let it all go. Catharsis is about releasing everything that’s built up over the course of a story, something you very often can’t do in real life.

In real life, problems persist and can last years if not a whole lifetime. You just have to learn to live with it. In fiction you get to simulate those feelings and then simply let go. This is why happy endings (even if it’s just the words “And they lived happily ever after”) are so satisfying. It gives the reader permission to not have to worry anymore.

Of course, it’s possible to write stories with unhappy endings and as long as they feel like a conclusion has been reached they also provide a similar release. More vague and open-ended endings, while often intellectually stimulating, tend to be less emotionally satisfying.

So while audiences are undoubtedly more sophisticated these days (well, some of them) the basics of storytelling are pretty much the same, I think. Pity, fear, catharsis. Sympathy, struggle, resolution. 

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9 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That does break it down to the basics.
The resolution doesn't have to be really happy for me, but I admit I prefer a positive one to a negative. But as long as it really does resolve the main issue, I'm all right with it.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Oh you just had to include a picture of Elsa from Frozen didn't you?

mooderino said...

@alex - happy endings just make it that much easier to release the tension, but by no means the only way.

@Mike - couldn't let it go.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

I know the whole misery thing is 'the rule'...torture your darlings and all...but I'd rather pile on the excitement and conflict.

Maybe I'm just thinking out loud

Chemist Ken said...

The hard part is keeping the struggle part interesting during the middle of the book. Thanks for the post.

Lady Lilith said...

Makes the foundation for a real treat jerker.

Al Diaz said...

And this reminds me the old saying "There's nothing new under the sun."

mooderino said...

@Mac - it's conflict either way.

@Ken- the middle is the bit i find most difficult too.

@Lilith - never heard of treat jerker before. Trademark it immediately!

@Al - indeed.

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