Aristotle, who knew?

At class last night, Jill Ciment, our instructor, mentioned this idea from Aristotle (you know, that Greek philosopher guy). My philosophy classes never presented the material to me like this. NOW it makes much more sense.

We were critiquing a set of stories from my fellow students (mine’s due next week, I should get cracking!). This story was a good one, but it had some details that, if interpreted one way, would make the story a cliché. If the story went down a different path, it would be much more intriguing and powerful.

Jill told us Aristotle said (and I’m looking for the actual quote as I write this) that in a story, when we get to the end we should be surprised by the ending, and also surprised that we didn’t see it coming.


That’s quite the balancing act. I realize we aren’t all writing mysteries with a whodunit plot, but in a way we are. We want our stories to have that certain something that makes readers want to read it, finish it, and long for the next part of the story, right? That means that it can’t be a formulaic series of events, interesting and unique events need to happen. Sure, you may want a happy ending, who doesn’t? (no snickering from the gutter-minded crowd) But you have to create a tension, conflict. Characters have to want something and want it bad, even if it’s just to live to see the sunrise.

But we can’t just jam a twist at the end without alluding to it. Don’t use deus ex machina to solve your plot woes. Otherwise the surprise is nothing more than some Greater Power (that would be us, the author) pulling the shades back from the story with one finger and declaring “THIS IS HOW IT WILL END. SO IT IS WRITTEN, SO SHALL IT BE DONE.”


 The real art in writing (which an alarming amount of people who *don’t* do this, either by design or ignorance, still get published) is to walk that tightrope. Put your characters in awkward situations, see what they do. If you have an ending in mind, by all means, work toward that end, but don’t tell us that’s what’s going to happen. Hints, subtle and hidden within the plot, can offer hope, but don’t beat your readers over the head with it. Don’t be that puppet master with all the strings in one hand. It’s the difference between using a fishing fly or dynamite to land the big one. Sure, dynamite is effective, but it’s not necessary and tends to piss off the neighbors.
Sometimes our characters surprise us by deciding that there’s no way in hell they’re going to sit in that car and await rescue in the middle of a thunderstorm. They’re getting out and walking home, even if it is crashing with thunder and lightning, pouring rain and ten miles to the nearest sign of civilization. If your characters are like mine, they frequently thumb their nose at me and refuse to do what I tell them. Must be similar to having children.

And this Aristotle guy is full of excellent advice that applies directly to writing. Things to keep in mind:

  • Just in case you’re stuck for ideas… “All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire.”
  • “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

 Advice I should follow myself. Sort of like that old joke about the guy asking for directions on a New York street. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!”

  • And, ain’t this the truth? “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.”

Who knew Aristotle could be so relevant to my madness?


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