Aristotle on Facts

“Questions of Past Fact may be looked at in the following ways: First, that if the less likely of two things has occurred, the more likely must have occurred also. That if one thing that usually follows another has happened, then that other thing has happened; that, for instance, if a man has forgotten a thing, he has also once learnt it. That if a man had the power to wish and do a thing, he has done it; for everyone does do whatever he intends to do whenever he can do it, there being nothing to stop him. That, further, he has done the thing in question either if he intended it and nothing external prevented him; or if he had the power to do it and his heart was set upon it—for people as a rule do what they long to do, if they can; bad people through a lack of self control; good people, because their hearts are set upon good things. Again, that if a thing was “going to happen,” it has happened; if a man was “going to do something,” he has done it, for it is likely that the intention was carried out. That if one thing has happened which naturally happens before another or with a view to it, the other has happened; for instance, if it has light lightened, it has also thundered; and if an action has been attempted, it has been done. That if one thing has happened which naturally happens after another, or with a view to which that other happens, then that other (that which happens first, or happens with a view to this thing) has also happened; thus, if it has thundered it has lightened, and if an action has been done it has been attempted. Of all these sequences some are inevitable and some merely usual. The arguments for the non-occurrence of anything can obviously be found by considering the opposites of those that have been mentioned.

“How questions of Future Fact should be argued is clear from the same considerations: That a thing will be done if there is both the power and the wish to do it; or if along with the power to do it there is a craving for the result, or anger, or calculation, prompting it. That the thing will be done, in these cases, if the man is actually setting about it, or even if he means to do it later—for usually what we mean to do happens rather than what we do not mean to do. That a thing will happen if another thing which naturally happens before it has already happened; thus, if it is clouding over, it is likely to rain. That is the means to an end have occurred, then the end is likely to occur; thus, if there is a foundation, there will be house.”

Rhetoric. Book Two. Chapter 19.

3-Act Analysis of The Office, Season 4, Episode 9, “Dinner Party”

I love the TV show, The Office. So does my wife. And thanks to Netflix, we can watch it at any time. We’ve seen every episode, multiple times.

A strange thing has recently happened, though. My tenth-grade students—all of whom had my wife last year, but independent of our influence—are watching The Office.

I’ve been teaching tenth-graders for thirteen years now. Usually I don’t know anything about the things they are interested in. When I started teaching, it was Twilight. Now it’s Fortnite. But here’re these fifteen and sixteen-year-olds who are obsessed with The Office and who, like this forty-year-old, have seen every episode. They wear Dunder Mifflin t-shirts. They paint portraits of Dwight in art class. They play Office trivia.

A few weeks ago, near the beginning of a unit on Oedipus the King, we were discussing Aristotle’s Poetics and applying three-act structure and reversals to the novels we’ve read (plus a couple of movies we’d all seen).

One of these Office devotees raised her hand and asked, quite earnestly, if this could be applied to “Dinner Party” from Season Four (yes, she cited the season and episode title). Her reason for asking, she reported, was that she had been thinking about it and the episode seemed to be all bad; she couldn’t place the reversals to good fortune.

I asked for 24 hours, came home, watched the episode, and here’s the answer, delivered to the student the following morning:

The Office Season 4, Episode 9: “Dinner Party”

The runtime is 22 minutes. Like most episodes, it begins with a pre-credit opener. Often, these are separate from the main plot, but not this one. In this one, Michael elaborately tricks Jim into revealing that he and Pam have no plans that night, forcing Jim to agree to come over for dinner. This is the INCITING INCIDENT (at minute 1).

Credits

Act One begins with Jim and Pam’s arrival at Michael’s condo. In fact, all of the Act divisions are marked by the arrival of a new couple. Jim and Pam arrive at minute 3. Andy and Angela arrive about one-third of the way in (end of Act One). Dwight and that lady arrive about two-thirds of the way in (end of Act Two). They all literally cross the threshold, which signifies a change or entry into a new world. At the end of Act Three, two cops arrive.

In Act One, Jim and Pam get a tour of the condo, which sets up the ready-to-boil-over antagonism between Michael and Jan, demonstrated by their growing passive aggressiveness. We see this develop throughout the party, and we can all see that this relationship is over.

In the Act One climax, Andy and Angela arrive. REVERSAL: the party seems to be progressing toward its conclusion (how much longer could it last?), but Jan reveals that the dinner won’t be ready for hours (good to bad).

At the midpoint of the episode, Jim seems to have resolved the entire conflict by faking a flooding, but in a good to bad reversal, neither he nor Pam (who comically betrays him) gets to leave.

The awkwardness of the party game (caused by M and J’s passive aggressiveness) leads to a parallel reversal. Pam is able to escape the ugly scene to the kitchen (the archetypal female haven) with Jan and Angela, but, in a good to bad REVERSAL, she is erroneously confronted by Jan about dating Michael. In a parallel scene, the boys escape to the garage (archetypal male haven) but, in another good to bad REVERSAL, Michael awkwardly asks J and A to invest in Jan’s candle business.

Act Two ends with Dwight and the lady arriving. The major REVERSAL here is that Jim and Pam now have more buffer and some entertainment (Pam says, “Awesome!”), but the arrival instead leads to a bitter and personal fight between Michael and Jan about having children.

Act Three begins with the dinner scene, and the climax is Jan breaking the little plasma TV with a Dundee, followed by the cops arriving.

The denouement (unravelling) is the musical montage (Hunter’s song) of all the couple’s after the party.

Using 4 Minutes of Toy Story 2 to Teach Anagnorisis and Peripeteia

My three-year-old watches a lot of Toy Story. Daily, you could accurately say, sometimes to the chagrin of the six-year-old, the thirty-five-year-old, and the forty-year-old he lives with. But a couple of weeks ago, during that week’s fifth-or-so screening of Toy Story 2, I came upon a teaching idea.

My 10th-grade students were reading Oedipus the King and had just received a lecture on Aristotle’s Poetics during which we defined the terms anagnorisis (recognition) and peripeteia (reversal), those definitions, according to Aristotle, being as follows:

ANAGNORISIS = RECOGNITION = “change from ignorance to knowledge”

PERIPETEIA = REVERSAL = “a change of the actions to their opposite”

Here’s what Aristotle had to say about these:

“A recognition is finest when it happens at the same time as the reversal, as does the one in Oedipus.”

Cue Toy Story 2. I showed my students a short clip that starts at around an hour and four minutes in and ends a bit past an hour and eight minutes.

In the clip, Woody’s friends have come to rescue him from Al’s apartment and bring him back to Andy, but Woody doesn’t want to go. Instead, he wants to go to a museum in Japan with his new friends, the Round Up Gang.

Woody’s friends try to persuade him to come with him, but they fail and then leave. After they’re gone, Woody sees an old videotape of a little boy playing with his Woody doll. As Woody watches, his eyes widen and his mouth opens. Suddenly, he calls after his friends; he wants to go with them after all, and he has very nearly convinced the Round Up Gang to come with him when Stinky Pete the Prospector blocks them from doing so. End of clip.

I asked the students to tell their neighbors what they had just witnessed, and because we had just reviewed the aforementioned terms as well as Aristotle’s opinion as to their “finest” application, the students were able to report that Woody had a recognition (anagnorisis) that he couldn’t abandon Andy, and this recognition caused and therefore occurred simultaneously with a reversal (peripeteia) in the action.

So: Toy Story 2 ended up being a great setup for the students’ reading of Episode Four of Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus experiences the simultaneous recognition and reversal that Aristotle had deemed “finest.”

Rethinking Shakespeare’s 5-act Structure

For most of my twelve years teaching high school English, I’ve taught a lesson on the 5-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays.

 

I even put it in a book.

 

But I don’t think any of it is right.

 

Two weeks ago, as we waited in a church pew for our oldest son’s preschool graduation ceremony to begin, my wife, Liz, and I got into a debate about the climax of Hamlet, said debate beginning with my above-repeated admission that what I’ve been saying to students about Shakespeare’s 5-act structure I no longer believe to be true.

 

What I’ve been saying—off and on for twelve years—and what I also included in a chapter on Taming of the Shrew in our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (co-written by Liz and me; she wrote the Hamlet chapter), is that Shakespeare’s 5-act structure can be roughly mapped onto the familiar plot diagram as follows:

 

Act I = Exposition

Act II = Rising Action/Complications

Act III = Climax

Act IV = Falling Action

Act V = Resolution/Denouement

 

I, of course, am not the first nor the only teacher to teach this. It all started with Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century German novelist and playwright, who diagrammed the five story parts above (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) using a triangle, now known as Freytag’s Pyramid, which looks like this:

 

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As an example, Freytag mapped the 5-act structure of a Shakespeare play onto his pyramid (said mapping making its way from Freytag through generations of teachers and teacher resources to me, around twelve years ago, and on to my students, some of whom now teach, and into an additional teacher resource, co-written by me).

 

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The last couple of times that, out of habit, I drew the above diagram on my whiteboard, I knew there was something wrong with it.

 

This was perhaps because it did not square at all with the diagram I had been drawing for students during my short fiction unit.

 

About halfway through my teaching career, I figured out that Freytag’s Pyramid, as shown above, is problematic when applied to fiction writing, particularly short stories, and particularly when trying to help students draft well-plotted short stories.

 

I started drawing this, instead:

 

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The biggest difference between Freytag’s diagram and this one is the latter’s lack of symmetry (reason to follow).

 

A similarity is that they both begin and end with a flat line.

 

The flat line on the left-hand side represents the ground situation (I also discovered, about halfway through my teaching career, that I’d been teaching exposition wrong, telling students that it’s the part of the story in which the author introduces the setting, the characters, and the conflict. All of that is true, but what is more helpful to students who are drafting stories is to tell them that the exposition has two vital components: the ground situation [the state of things, often teeming with potential conflict, before the conflict is incited] and the inciting incident [just what it sounds like: an incident, often but not always the addition of a character, that incites the conflict and sends the previously flat-lined diagram angling upward]).

 

The flat line on the right-hand side represents the new state of affairs after the conflict has been resolved and the knot unraveled.

 

This post-denouement state of affairs does not/should not/cannot return to the same state of affairs represented by the ground situation. A change must have occurred, otherwise no story has been told, hence the lack of symmetry in the latter triangle (this is not original; it is a modification to Freytag’s triangle suggested by John Barth in his metafictive story, “Lost in the Funhouse” [and probably elsewhere, too, by others]).

 

The other big difference between the two triangles is the elimination, in the latter, of the falling action, one discovering when studying (or simply consuming) stories that the resolution often comes on the heels of the climax (another reason for the lack of symmetry: there is usually much more story before the climax than there is after it).

 

What I like to say to students about the above-drawn diagram is that it is a formula that allows for infinite variations. It is inexhaustible. And it is.

 

I said the same thing to a roomful of teachers at February’s CATE Conference, where Liz and I were leading a workshop on teaching contemporary short fiction.

 

After I had said the above and had used one too many Pixar movies as an illustration, a participant, as a sort of friendly challenge, asked if we could apply the same structure to “The Flowers” by Alice Walker (a one-page story describing a single incident), which we had earlier in the workshop read on the lookout for concrete details.

 

I wasn’t prepared for such a challenge, nor had I previously attempted the suggested application, but the clever teachers in the room quickly discovered, despite all of the differences between “The Flowers” and Finding Nemo, that the structure did indeed fit both. Perfectly.

 

So, then: Shakespeare.

 

Liz’s and my church pew debate came at the end of a week in which I had listened to dozens of high school juniors, during their oral examinations, explain that the Mousetrap (Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, manufactured to reveal Claudius’s guilt) is the climax of the play.

 

When, in our pew, I asked Liz what the climax of the play is, she answered that it is the Closet Scene, particularly Hamlet killing Polonius.

 

The students’ reasons were fuzzy (for many, they were unstated altogether; the reason that was the climax was that their English teacher had said so).

 

Liz’s reasoning, on the other hand, was fully- and well-articulated (she is brilliant in many many things, but particularly astute when discussing Hamlet): that, to poorly paraphrase, by killing Polonius (believing he is killing Claudius) Hamlet demonstrates the resolution that, two acts later, allows for resolution.

 

Both the students’ and Liz’s proposed climaxes occur in Act III (scenes 2 and 4, respectively) and therefore fit the Freytag map of Shakespeare’s 5-act structure.

 

Freytag supposedly leaned heavily on Aristotle, but it is precisely the lessons in Poetics that lead me to question Freytag and my own previous teaching.

 

Aristotle says that the Complication (what we often call the Rising Action) is a causal sequence of story events (or scenes) in which, scene to scene, the stakes (and thereby drama) increase and increase until we arrive at the climax (which Aristotle describes as a reversal in fortune [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).

 

After this final reversal, Aristotle says, there is nothing but the unraveling.

 

How, then, can this causal sequence reach its peak in Act III, with two acts to go?

 

From our pew, I argued that the climax of Hamlet is the duel in Act V. It all builds to that. Hamlet dies (final reversal), after which there is only the unraveling (Fortinbras takes over, honors Hamlet, etc.).

 

Freytag, those juniors, and Liz are right about one thing, though: Act III is climactic.

 

That is because each act has a climax (or reversal, or turn [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).

 

Aristotle says that lengthier works need at least three turns to keep the audience interested (Walker’s one-page “The Flowers” needs only one), hence the three-act structure often found in movies and plays and novels (most of the novels I’ve taught are divided into three parts, or three books, or their number of chapters is divisible by three).

 

When we map this 3-act structure onto our modified triangle, it looks like this:

 

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Three turns, probably alternating (good to bad to good, bad to good to bad, etc.).

 

Shakespeare’s structure is similar, but with more acts. Five turns, each building toward the final reversal in Act V:

 

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So, right or wrong, the above is my new way of drawing Shakespeare’s 5-act structure. It makes sense to me. At least for now.

 

In our pew, after the third time I said, “Aristotle says,” Liz said that John Green says that Aristotle got almost everything wrong. I was about to say something in response, but the ceremony began.