Thanks for Nothing, Aristotle

I’ve been thinking about the Aristotelian story structure of beginning, middle and end lately; how any good story relies on those three parts. And how little we vary – whether in novels or plays or films – from that basic structure of what Aristotle called The Whole. Writers can play around with their stories’ timelines or wander broadly through a lot of twists and turns during the middle part, but ultimately, there’s going to be an exposition and a climax on either end for the plot to unfold in the way in which we’ve grown accustomed.

Readers expect it, don’t they?

But life doesn’t happen like that. Life is nothing like an opera or a play, where the beginning is finite and the end has a tidy denouement. What we experience is whole lot more like singing in rounds, where one damned thing doesn’t necessarily resolve itself before another raises its ugly (or comic) head. And, too often, the end for one is simply a passing, if horrible, episode for another. No cataclysm for all, just a lot of overlapping experiences.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not one of those people who thinks art should be a mirror image of life. Or that a ridiculous turn of events in a story can be justified by saying, “That’s what really happened.” In fact, when I critique a story for a fellow writer and my questions about a particularly ill-fitting scene are answered with the How It Really Happened excuse, I grow disaffected very quickly.

But I wonder if our adherence to the Hellenic story structure in three parts communicates a disquieting message about reality. Is what we experience on the page or screen a message that life well lived has to conclude with a faux finality, at just the right moment? Because that Story End, Once and For All view of life can be a recipe for disappointment at best and horror at its worst.

For example, do the misguided killers who try to emulate violent narratives, whether movies or video games or whatever, believe in the Story End, Once and For All?

I’m a developmental psychologist who’s spent many years studying, assessing, analyzing and diagnosing childhood developmental disorders. I believe I have a firm grasp on the myriad influences, both biological and environmental, and the bi-directionality of nature and nurture in development gone wrong. And most of the time, when writing and psychology intersect in my world, I’ve relied upon what I know about human development to inform my stories. Not the other way around.

Now, I wonder more than ever how our stories influence our psychology. Whether in the form of fairy and folk tales that harken from our collective past, or the mythological archetypes from the ancient world, or the novels of the last few centuries, or the films we’ve savored over the last 100 or so years, or the classic TV dramas we remember from the last half-century, or the stories whose ink is barely dry, does the structure of Beginning, Middle and End genuinely serve us? Or is it simply a form we ‘ve accepted because we don’t know another way?

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One comment on “Thanks for Nothing, Aristotle

  1. Mark Thornhill says:

    I think the Aristotelian structure of Beginning, Middle and End does serves us at some deep psychological level — much like how myth resonates in us. Joseph Campbell, with his ‘Hero’s Journey’ myth takes Aristotle one step further. We seem to have a hard-wire need to frame reality/experience in stories that champion a hero and a resolution . . . We’re all trying to make sense of a very confusing world, and we need resolution. So, yes, I can see an unconscious need to tie together loose ends and draw hope from an otherwise meaningless world.

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