by Rollan Wengert, Guest Blogger
Centuries ago, Aristotle discovered the six substances of compelling art. Why art? Sure, Aristotle coined them for drama, but these elements apply to all forms of art. They are the elements that draw us to mediums: movies, music, paintings, speeches, etc. I like to apply them to writing. Like a general contractor wielding raw materials, these elements determine the type of structure we will create, and make it livable, or even more importantly make it enjoyable.
What are the elements and their purposes? How much of each is one to use? That depends on the type of structure we want to create. Continuing with the structure analogy, let’s explore each element’s purpose.
Plot (The frame and the foundation)
Some buildings have an elaborate frame segmenting various types of rooms, some are minimal and more open. The same goes for the plot. In a story, plot determines where everything goes. Plot-focused works are like an office building. Plot points are rigid. They need to be placed in proper order (not necessarily chronological) to keep a story compelling. Mystery and Thrillers tend to be heavily plot-centric. Other element-focused works may be more like a studio apartment (or a tee-pee). Even then, if the sequence of events flow illogically or dully, it can kill a story. Even static visual arts carry a plot or tell a story. Well placed elements draw focus to particular plots and helps move an audience through the piece in order to absorb the story.
Character (The walls and roof)
Frame, walls, and roof are the essentials of a building. They are enough to protect us from the elements. (Not enough to make us want to live there.) Add walls and a roof, then a house looks like a house. Likewise, add characters to a story, then you have the elements to drive a plot. I mean, how can you have conflict without characters conflicting. But, character is more than a driving force for the plot. It’s a work’s personality. It’s an audience’s means of injecting themselves into the medium. We want someone (or something, people aren’t the only ones with personality) to identify with. Dramas and comedies are often character-centered.
Diction (Wiring and Plumbing)
A structure’s wiring and plumbing work out of sight, as does diction (sort of: depending on its purpose and how well it’s done). An oversimplified definition of diction: word choice. The purpose of diction is choosing and organizing words in a manner that lets people fully understand your message. A connotative understanding. It’s the seeking and straining for the right words to express our thoughts, to get other to feel the way we what them to. We do this primarily via grammar and voice. Grammar, eh, following those universal rules that the masses have agreed to adhere to. Voice adds the shades of meaning that enable an audience to get inside the artist’s head to understand them deeper. And, diction’s function is not to draw attention to itself.
Nothing invokes certain moods in a house more than the décor. The color of paint, the plushness of the furniture, the fabric of the curtains. Décor creates an atmosphere, as does music in art. Music, however, is not solely our denotative understanding of the word. In Aristotle’s understanding, it is the overall flow and rhythm of a work. In painting it is the length and shape of the strokes. In writing, it can be word choice according to the way words sound or flow. Sentence and paragraph lengths. I sometimes find diction and music butting heads. One word describes something better, while the other word sounds prettier, or harsher, or more monotone (all depending on the mood I’m going for). A great book that explores the elements of Music and Diction is Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale.
Theme (The Family)
Yes. A house is still a house even if no one lives there, but it is pointless. And, a story is a story, even if it doesn’t have a theme. Themes are what we have to say. What we want others to learn. What we want our audience to think about. I don’t know how many struggle with what they want to say, but I struggle with how to express my themes. I could go right out and say, “I believe you should…” But, compelling art gets people, even those who rabidly disagree, to ponder themes. The more radical the theme, the harder it is make our expression of it compelling.
Spectacle (Wow Factor)
A flashy car pulls into the garage, an infinity pool whooshes in the back yard, and marble counter tops make even spoiled fruit look tempting; these all get the neighbors to drop their jaws. But, they are not necessary. Aristotle said spectacle was the least important of the 6. Although, many modern-day action flicks start with spectacle and then build the other elements around it. Well… Who doesn’t love a good explosion? So, what is spectacle? Anything that makes us say, “Whoa, that was cool.” In writing, it might be a detailed fight scene…or a graphic scene…maybe, it’s a good gimmick.
And, while I understand that these elements are the keys to compelling art, the implementation of each is a subjective wilderness. Are there any tricks you use in each of these areas? Which is your forte? Let me know.
Author of Caveat Ties, Soul Shocked, and Zaide: Mozart’s Lost Opera, Rollan Wengert spent hours in his room typing stories as a youth. Stories of all kinds. Stories that were never finished. Then, he grew up. Hints flowed, that maybe, he ought to choose a ‘realistic’ career path. So, he did what any confused teen would do: joined the army. Four Army and another four college years later, he began writing again.
Contact Rollan at email@example.com.