Amazing Time at my first UFVA Conference
On July 22nd, I flew to Las Cruces, New Mexico for my first University Film and Video Association conference. The experience might have started with some annoying flight delays (and ended with some flight cancellations), but my time spent at New Mexico State University was filled with amazing panels, meeting incredible new friends, eating fabulous food (and way too much tequila), and generally having a terrific time all around. I even got to present my first paper when I participated in the panel "Storytelling Lessons through Time" with some truly incredible film teacher colleagues.
I learned some valuable lessons about effective teaching techniques and got a new sense of what a career as a film educator is like. I can't wait to do it again!
Here is the text of my panel presentation, where I got to introduce participants to my book (and hopefully get it adopted for a few programs).
At UCLA, as well as at many other Screenwriting MFA programs, we tell our students that the very first instructional manual on how to write a dramatic narrative was Poetics, in which Aristotle looked at the “imaginative fiction,” the tragedies, epic poems, dithyrambs, lyric poetry of his day and prior and asked: what do the successful ones have in common? What are the observable patterns and essential elements that they all share, and that are absent in the ones that fail? All in an effort to determine HOW these stories were best told.
And these writing programs, UCLA included, have the first year students in their first class read Poetics, discuss it profoundly, and the promptly forget all about it to deal with more relevant contemporary screenwriting concerns (how to write a pg-13 love scene or under budget motorcycle chase). I’m constantly meeting fellow writers who tell me, Oh yeah, we had to read Poetics in school, never really understood why.” Or more often, “Yeah, we were supposed to, but couldn’t ever get through it. Beause it’s really just about how to write a Greek tragedy right? I don’t write those. I write superhero, bodyswap, serial killer comedies.”
Which is a shame.
Because as I tell them, what’s most interesting about Poetics is not what Aristotle had to say about Oedipus Rex, but what he had to say about Star Wars and Some Like It Hot. Because the observable patterns and essential elements that he identifies and explores are not at all specific to Greek tragedy, but to EVERY successful dramatic narrative that’s ever been told.
And that is because, as Aristotle ultimately concludes, there is a RIGHT WAY to tell a story, one that persists today because it is built into our very DNA, because it gets to the heart of WHY we tell stories in the first place.
And THAT is really the fundamental question that Aristotle asked 2500 years ago in Poetics. Not just what elements go into telling a good story well, but what is the function of storytelling in the first place? Are stories primarily an entertainment? A chance to escape our dull or troubled lives for a little while? Or is there perhaps a deeper, more significant purpose?
For if we can understand that purpose, then as writers, we can figure out how best to go about fulfilling it.
And so Aristotle begins his exploration with the simple observation, “We all tell stories.” From the moment we first arrived on this planet and would sit around the campfire telling the tale of that morning’s Great Saber Tooth Tiger Hunt, up to firing up the Netflix and chilling with the latest installment of Glow, regardless of where we are in the world or when we existed in history, we tell stories.
It is in fact, the primary thing that separates us from all the other species on the planet. Not language or tools or opposable thumbs. What distinguishes us and simultaneously connects us as a species is that we tell stories.
And then, over the course of the work, Aristotle proceeds to demonstrate, through meticulous analysis, the assertion, re-enforced and expanded upon thousands of years later by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Chirstopher Vogler, and Howard Suber, that when you look at all the stories that have stood the test of time, that we agree to venerate as worthwhile, artistically or commercially as dramatic forms have changed and evolved, we start to see the same recurring principles (with regard to STORY and PLOT and THEME and CHARACTER and STRUCTURE) repeated over and over in story after story.
And what this tells us is that only do we have a need to TELL stories, but to TELL them in a very particular way.
And that’s what my book is about, identifying and exploring those universal principles that Aristotle first identified in Philoctetes and The Odyssey and showing how they are still present and just as vital in Get Out and The Incredibles 2.
And that once we recognize and understand these principles, what I call Aristotle’s Guiding Precepts, we can utilize them in our own creative endeavors to make them more universal, more successful.
And chief among the storytelling principles he examines, the one from which all the others derive, is the one that answers the question asked by all great philosophers and annoying 4 year old boys:
What NEED of the individual, of society, of the SPECIES, could possibly be satisfied by the shared desire to sit around that campfire or Theatre of Dionysus or Cinerama Dome and hear a tale, whether of the aforementioned Great Saber Tooth Tiger Hunt, the downfall of King Oedipus, the madness of Lear, the death of Willy Loman, or the talking butt cheeks of Ace Ventura?
Aristotle ultimately comes up with two explanations which, when combined, form the basis of his understanding of the vital function of storytelling, and of everything subsequently required to accomplish it.
He calls them: Mimesis and Catharsis.
So the question for us writers and writing teachers should be: what precisely did he mean by these two important concepts, and more importantly, how do they relate to the contemporary craft of screenwriting? Glad you asked.
First, mimesisis defined, depending upon your translation, as “imitation” or “representation.”
“The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons…[and] to learn gives the liveliest pleasure… Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.'”
So a fundamental quality that separates us from the other animals on the planet is that we want to learn. We have questions. Who are we? Why are we here? What is our place in the universe? And we get PLEASURE from seeking answers. And according to Aristotle, the primary WAY we do that is to observe ourselves and our world reflected back to us.
It is no coincidence that even in English, that word “play” has a dual meaning. As adults we go see plays, the plays that Aristotle is deconstructing, imitations of life and actions and the agents of those actions represented on stage. Similarly, when we are kids, we playcops and robbers, play house, play Han Sol and Queen Elsa.
As Aristotle says, our earliest lessons are through imitation, and that continues throughout our lives. Since it’s through imitation that we best learn about the world and our place in it. And exploring those universal, existential questions scratches that itch for answers that is built into our DNA, that allows us to recognize not just “Ah, that is he,” but “Ah, that is me” which occurs whenever we experience a representation, whether gazing at a painting or sculpture, or watching a movie.
Still, the question remains, whymust that pleasure from learning come through representation and not simply through direct experience?
Perhaps it’s because the distance between the observer and what is being represented allows us to be objectivein our analysis, something that would be more difficult if the experience were actually happening directly to us. Maybe we learn most effectively by adopting a more circumspect vantage point.
Or perhaps the answer has something to do with Aristotle’s assertion that we get the same pleasure from watching something that is joyous and beautiful as we do from watching something terrible and horrifying, that the distance afforded by imitation allows the experience to be safer.
Or maybe it has something to do with the communalnature of the experience. When something is happening to us alone, we might imagine the experience is unique to us. But when we are looking at that painting or sitting in the theatre, surrounded by a group of people experiencing the same representation, we can say not just “Ah, that is me,” but take pleasure and comfort in knowing that “Ah, that is US.”
Which isn’t a bad segue into the second reason we tell stories.
Catharsis, defined as “a purge, specifically of emotions.”
This concept is a bit more problematic to nail down, mainly owing to the fact that Aristotle mentions it only once and never actually defines it. At least not in Poetics. And as a result, it has been the cause of much debate over the centuries.
The most common understanding is that the phrase refers to an emotional cleansing of the audience. This idea is based upon the observation that while we have entered into a civilized society, we are still basically animals, with the same primal natures and drives of our fellow creatures.
Experiencing a drama then is a chance to have an appropriate outlet for our strong but bottled-up feelings, that would then allow us to continue living in that civilized society. In other words, catharsisis a way to have a safe, communal forum for expressing and releasing otherwise troublesome and detrimental emotions.
Though a fairly common explanation for catharsis, the problem with this interpretation is that there’s no evidence whatsoever that Aristotle found emotions the least bit troubling. It is Plato, his teacher, who had issues with emotions. And for some historical context, a primary motivation for Aristotle writing Poetics, was a direct response to Plato’s critical attacks on tragedies, which he derided for causing those onerous emotions to be felt. And Aristotle strongly disagreed.
He thought emotions were good, vital even. But he believed in moderation. His idea was that you NEED fear. Not so much that you shrink away from the slightest challenge. But not too little that you stupidly plow right into any dangerous situation. It was all a matter of having the correct balance.
So a second common reading of catharsisis that it is a way to achieve that balance, to let off any EXCESS emotional steam and restore a healthy and proper harmony of emotion. So there is something therapeutic about seeing a play or going to a movie since the emotional experience they provide resets us to an emotional equilibrium.
A problem with this interpretation is that it implies that those with a greater imbalance of emotion receive a greater benefit from the experience. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case in reality. Having a disproportionate amount of emotion is hardly a prerequisite for enjoying a drama, and unstable people don’t necessarily get more out of a play than the rest of us.
So still a third approach to this question is that Aristotle is talking about the purging of emotions in a way that is similar to his more defined description of mimesis— that catharsisis also rooted in the pleasure we feel at representation, not simply in the way things appear, but in the way we respondto them.
In other words, the emotion we experience while watching a movie is an IMITATION of that emotion in real life.
Think about it. When we watch Alien, we are terrified as Ripley walks through that long, dark tunnel. Something is lurking in the shadows. Something is going to jump out. We are going to scream. And then we are going to laugh with relief that such an emotion was provoked, but we are in fact still safe and sound.
Now imagine feeling that same fear in real life. You walk down a dark alley, knowing that someone is following behind you, knowing that something horrible is in the shadows up ahead. Are you feeling that same chill? That same giddy dread? Not at all. Because it’s real. Because that alley has the potential for actual danger and pain.
And if those feelings provide you pleasure or any positive benefit at all, I have the number for a good therapist, you’ve got bigger concerns than how to write a screenplay.
The threat of actual peril does not exist in the movie theatre, so the emotion cannot possibly be the same. Instead, we experience a facsimile, an approximation of fear. The same holds true with sorrow. With joy. With the whole gamut of emotions.
But why would we want to experience an imitationof an emotion?
For the same reason Aristotle says we desire to experience an imitation of an object.
We derive pleasure from learning — and we accomplish that through FEELING just as much, if not more, than by OBSERVING. But as with mimesis, that experience requires a safe environment, with that same objective distance only afforded by experiencing the representationof those powerful emotions.
So, to whit.
According to Aristotle, we have an innate, instinctual desire to better understand ourselves and our world. And we most effectively do that by both SEEING and FEELING representations of ourselves and our world reflected back to us. So mimesisand catharsis, imitations of objects and of emotions, together, allow us to both OBSERVE and, simultaneously, EXPERIENCE the world, and life in general, all while maintaining a safe, objective vantage point.
And because DRAMATIC NARRATIVES provide just that experience, we find them not only pleasurable, but necessary.
Aristotle may have not known the term, but he is in fact describing an evolutionary imperative. We need to learn about ourselves in order to grow and develop, as individuals, as a society, as a species. Therefore Nature, in her infinite wisdom, has blessed us with pleasure in learning, along with a built-in mechanism to accomplish that end, the desire to tell stories.
So storytelling has a purpose, an important one. And that purpose provides us with Aristotle’s Guiding Precept #1:
TO TELL A GOOD STORY EFFECTIVELY, WE MUST A) SHOW OUR AUDIENCE SOMETHING UNIVERSAL OF THEMSELVES AND THEIR WORLD REFLECTED BACK TO THEM, AND B) THROUGH THAT IDENTIFICATION, GIVE THEM AN EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE.
So everything about the craft of screenwriting, from idea to story to structure to character to theme to the choice of the very words on the page must facilitate that experience.
In other words, we must fulfill the dual purpose of storytelling, mimesisand catharsis– to provide the joy of LEARNING through the experience of FEELING.
For Aristotle, Oedipus Rex succeeds because it accomplishes that function. Just as Casablanca, The Godfather, and Star Wars do for us.
These narratives, like all good ones, make us cry and cringe and curse and laugh and scream, feel fear and love and joy and dread, while we see aspects of our own experience reflected back to us, allowing us to recognize important truths about ourselves through the experience of others.
For we may not all be King of Thebes with a tragic prophecy hanging over our heads, but we certainly know what it’s like to desperately desire to forge our own destiny.
We may not have owned a bar in a war-torn way-station, risen to the top of an underworld empire, or rescued a space princess, but we certainly know what it’s like to be jilted, to deal with family conflict, to long for a more exciting and fulfilling future.
To deal with betrayal, compromise, passion, regret, triumph, and self-doubt. To encounter adversity and strive to overcome it.
For Aristotle, successful stories aren’t about the particular facts. They’re about the universal TRUTHS. The truths of the human experience.
And they’re also about:
A unity of action defined by a hero’s dramatizable objective. About conflict and suffering. About a clear beginning, middle and end connected causally by the laws of necessity and probability. About motivated moments of reversal and recognition. A hero who undergoes a change of fortune. Who overcomes his primary flaw or is overcome BY it. And a proper magnitude bounded by a dramatic question posed at the setup – and answered at the resolution.
And they contain all of Aristotle’s Guiding Precepts of character, plot, dialogue, setting, and STRUCTURE necessary to achieve the vital, universal function of storytelling, precepts we can observe in Oedipus Rex and Ant-Man and the Wasp, and just about every successful dramatic narrative in between.
And if you are interested in discussing these storytelling principles or how we can utilize Aristotle’s timeless insights to craft a successful screenplay, please check out Classical Storytelling and Contemporary Screenwriting: Aristotle and the Modern Screenwriter. They have it downstairs at the Routledge table and you can order an inspection copy. And if you have any questions or want to chat about it at great length, I’ll be at the Routledge Booth immediately following this panel.
I’ll look forward to talking to you there.