The novelist’s handbook: Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s advice on the craft of fiction in ‘Poetics’ is as good as any modern creative writing course

April 30, 2022 04:00 pm | Updated 04:50 pm IST

I have been trying my hand at writing fiction, a novel. I thought writing it would be fairly straightforward since I write for a living. It turns out that this is not the case. Writing a novel is not the same thing as writing non-fiction, and indeed as different from it as writing non-fiction is from writing columns (which is why most columnists cannot write a book).

What is different? The primary problem concerns the core of the novel — not the plot but the story. While the plot is about externals, the story is about the individual, the protagonist. In the words of the author Lisa Cron, the story “flows directly from how the protagonist is making sense of what’s happening, how she struggles with, evaluates, and weighs what matters most to her, and then makes hard decisions, moving the action forward”.


The tension is produced from “the protagonist’s impossible goal: to achieve her desire and remain true to the fear that’s keeping her from it”. Meaning that it is an internal struggle and only if the reader is hooked, and experiencing the same things as the protagonist, does the novel work.

Inducing catharsis

I didn’t know this before starting to write. I should have, because I had read the same advice much earlier, in an ancient text: Aristotle’s Poetics. It is a short work, less than 50 pages in my Penguin Black edition. In it Aristotle discusses tragedy — the most important theme for Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Aristotle says that tragic plots must have someone transitioning from happiness to misery. He also says that the individual must be shown to be consistent in character, so that the audience can identify with him. The misery bit must come from some error that the protagonist himself has committed (for instance, Oedipus killing his father), which cannot be rectified.

“Aristotle says that the craft of writing lies in keeping the plot tight and unified”

Such a story will stir in the audience strong emotions, such as pity or fear, and induce catharsis. Aristotle says that the craft of writing lies in keeping the plot tight and unified. Aristotle divides tragedy into plot, character, thought, diction, melody and spectacle and discusses these (as he also does with epic poetry, like Homer’s). He concludes that tragedy — think of the OresteiaOedipus RexAntigoneThe Bacchae and Medea — are superior to epic poems, possibly because they have more strictly controlled plots.

Ultimate tutor

I read Poetics many years ago, long before I began my current project of writing a novel. At that time I thought I fully understood what Aristotle meant. Not so. I didn’t apply the principles he put in place. Because of that I wrote things that have turned out to be less than useful, a polite way of saying it is rubbish.

I knew that the novel was going nowhere fairly early on. However, I didn’t know why and turned to the four volumes I have of the Paris Review interviews, in which authors speak about their craft and the way they write. This produced some illumination on the process of writing, but little, if anything, on the fundamentals. Above all, they didn’t tell me much about the most important element of storytelling — it is the character of the protagonist and the changes in her that hook the reader.

I do not know if I will ultimately write a novel or whether it will be any good if I do. I do know however that if I fail it will not be because of lack of tutelage. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle told us how to write a book and broke it down to its elements in a way that is still relevant.

Aakar Patel is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works @aakar__patel

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