I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the story I’m living. How can I live it better?
How can I retain heroic qualities, even when things get heated on social media?
How can I optimize my life as if it were page 63 in a novel needing revision?
Often, I find myself searching for those core elements that make the best stories flow. But where might one find those elements? Surprise, surprise! Our old friend, Aristotle, has the answers again.
I really wish Aristotle had an affiliate program, because I find myself citing him quite often these days. In Poetics–that essential ancient guide for storytellers–Aristotle breaks down what works in the best plays, both content-wise and structurally.
We’ve talked about Aristotelian structure before. For now, let’s talk about the elements of story and how they relate to the overarching stories you and I live out. The elements Aristotle lists in his writings are plot, character, theme, language, rhythm and spectacle. He claims that these six elements are all present in the best of ancient Greek tragic plays. Aristotle takes it upon himself to list them in a hierarchy of importance, starting with plot. This decision of his continues to spurn dissent from academic types, both legit and simply attention-seeking.
The first element of the best stories is plot. This refers to how the individual parts of your story are arranged. It includes problems that are clearly defined, which tends to be a bummer for your main character. The problematic situation is rarely as bad as it seems, though, and it certainly beats the alternative. After all, what’s a problem-free character to do? Nothing that interests an audience, that’s for sure.
As a character in the real world, don’t always shy away from conflict. Conflict is essential to the best of stories. Your life is no exception. Identify the greatest challenges that are important to the overall story arc you hope to live out. Then, take the necessary steps to knock out those challenges in your most determined, most heroic fashion.
If you’re like me, you’ll find that the most paralyzing of fears, when faced, can unearth an incredible amount of courage. These faced fears can unlock tremendous opportunities you hadn’t previously allowed. Stand up frequently to those obstacles getting in the way of your progress toward the end goal. Though heroes don’t always prevail, they often react to failure in the same way: tenacious determination to keep trudging ahead to the goal. That is the secret to living out a compelling plot.
Character is the sticking point for many academic types like Lajos Egri, who makes a pretty good argument that characters are more important than plot. Egri’s contention is that, without the actions of characters, there is no plot. To me, it’s just another chicken/egg scenario. We can still all be friends and agree that both a story’s plot and characters hold a great deal of importance.
The characters in a story should be intentionally-chosen to interact with the story in a dynamic, forward-moving way. In that same line of thinking, the people you choose to allow in your life should be there for a reason. They may serve as allies, or they might just be representations of an important challenge that you’ve got to overcome. Sure, you’ll have intimidating gatekeepers guarding the thresholds of what’s important, but gatekeepers rarely stick around past the time it takes to pry open the gate. Try not to spend so much energy on the conflict they create.
You should also examine yourself, the central character of your lived-out narrative. Nobody likes a perfect character, nor do they like one that’s aloof and completely alien to the society around them.
In your own life, accept the fact that you are flawed. Accept that those very flaws are what make you relatable to others who might be inspired by your actions. No interesting central character is loved by everyone in the story (because then you miss out on some great potential conflict). The best-written characters, instead, have some component that makes them likeable. Though people pleasing may not be your top priority, if the way you act causes everyone in the world to hate you, you’re gonna have a pretty tough time living out the achievements you wish to accomplish.
We humans, as scientifically-minded organisms, seek patterns. It’s how we’re wired to survive. If the addition of A (a new berry I discover on a backyard bush) results in B (the a complete loss of control of my bowels), you can bet I won’t go berry hunting in the backyard again. In the stories we create, those patterns that develop become themes. Themes reveal an overarching truth to our audience.
What would you say is the theme of your life right now, based on your patterns? What do you want it to be? If the habitual choices you make now, at this particular juncture of your life, don’t add up with the theme you’re trying to live out, it’s time to trim the excess from your story.
As the patterns of character choices reveal the theme in a story, your actions identify your values as a person. Proactively change those harmful habits that merely distract from an otherwise epic legacy. The old adage for writers is “show, don’t tell.” This is particularly important for determining theme in the stories of our lives. Regardless of your flowery words and the piety of your rants, the patterns of your actions will always resonate far, far more than anything you say.
The primary form of communication in a stage play is through spoken dialogue. The word Aristotle used for this is language (or diction in some translations). Sure, when you’re watching a play, you see a lot of pretty costumes and scenic pieces, but it’s the dialogue that directs your attention to the particular noisemaker that you’re intended to notice. The language of a story conveys what happens next or how one character views the story unfolding before her. Naturally, these spoken words took great importance for Aristotle as he made feverish notes while watching the onstage stories unfold through dialogue.
Though your actions do resonate, your words still mean something, too. Otherwise, why would so many separate people groups from across the globe each see the need to communicate through vocalized and meaningful sounds?
As a living protagonist, make sure the words you use mesh with the themes you’re trying to live out. Ensure that they’re consistent with who you are as a redeemable & relatable character. Occasionally, those words will conflict with who others want you to be, and that’s okay. If the words you speak further your plot and align with your overall goals, you’ll be fine.
Life is all about rhythm, which explains why music has always been so vital to the human species. Music implies plot conflict, characterizes characters, denotes themes and blends wondrously with vocalized language. What makes great music so effective, though, is that it’s purposefully arranged to provide the auditory stimulation we crave when flipping through stations or tracks. Purposeful pacing is incredibly important to storytellers and those who live resonant lives.
If every day is packed with dramatic high notes, you’re living but a slice of life. As a result, the narrative of your existence is bound to be shorter than you want.
If every day is characterized by comfortable routine and the avoidance of conflict at all cost, you’ll live an irrelevant life. That life, however long it ends up, would be devoid of any significant acts of heroism.
The rhythm of a story implies the various moods an author is trying to convey in that story. When you pace yourself in life, not only does it become easier to find spiritual equilibrium, but you’re also able to affect the moods of others. When you affect the moods of others through intentional, responsible pacing, that’s often the first step to making a lasting positive impact. And making a lasting positive impact is the kind of thing that heroes do.
The final element of Aristotle’s favorite stories is spectacle. Might I take this opportunity to remind you summer-blockbuster-loving popcorn munchers that this, according to the master, is the least important of all the elements?
Sure, I like my big, IMAX, 3D explosions as enjoyed from a reclining chair in a quirkily-themed multiplex as much as the next guy. But are all of those elements necessary for me to enjoy the story I paid so handsomely to watch? Nah. They’re just icing on the cake.
On the other hand, cake without icing is just bread, and man shall not live by bread alone (not when there’s so much greater potential in the realm of spectacle.)
In everything you see or hear around you–the people, the objects, your location and everything else imaginable–what can you tweak to make your story really stand out? How would your life’s story play out if you gutted about 90 percent of the clutter in your work space? How would it affect your narrative if you started going grocery shopping in white business suits with handwritten words of affirmation scrawled all over it in Sharpie?
Though all those quirks don’t define you, they certainly would change the overall perception of your lived-out story. So once you do all the dirty work of streamlining your basic trajectory, identity, actions, words and pacing, don’t forget the icing! Boldly be the you that doesn’t fit in with all the villagers you walked away from in the first place when you started this heroic journey. When you start with an intentionally substantive foundation, spectacle can be an incredible tool for personal branding and much-needed spontaneity!
And those are the six elements of great stories (according to Aristotle). Live out those elements boldly. Make them relate to your life, consciously and habitually. But don’t stop there!
I’ve found that these elements don’t just relate to our own life strategies, just as they don’t apply only to ancient Greek stage plays. Try applying these six elements to your business or other strategic pursuits. I have, and it’s manifesting in some pretty interesting new ways.
Every human being is poised to live an incredibly heroic life. The more obstacles, the better the story! Keep these six elements handy. The next time your life doesn’t add up to your expectations, whip ’em out and start living the best story anyway, in the midst of it all.
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