Aristotle, a Lesson



Steps for creating and refining an action idea, using Michael Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters.

The action idea is not only helpful for screenwriters, but it can help novelists in plenty of ways. It can serve as a summary when querying agents, or when creating a sell sheet, or as a book description when publishing on Amazon etc. But the most important service it can provide is to keep an author on track while composing the first draft. And the process of creating the action idea can help us take a vague idea and mold it into a story.

In the unfinished novel Tulip, master novelist Dashiell Hammett, when confronted by an old friend who had quite an exciting life and wanted him to use some of his experiences told the fellow that all the exciting events in the world won’t become a real story until they find a structure.

So, with that in mind, let’s put an action idea together even before we turn to writing our novel Chapter One.

Assignment: Read Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, or if you are not planning on writing screenplays anytime soon, concentrate on the introduction and chapters 1-7 and save the rest for later. Now create a rough action idea.

Once you have that task accomplished:

Reread chapter 1 and make sure the action idea has a beginning (inciting incident), a middle

(sequence of causes and effects) and an end (a resolution and a sense of how the main character  has grown or changed).

If you believe your story features more than one main character, while keeping in mind that multiple main characters is risky, work with each step of this exercise for each main character.

Reread chapters 2 and 3 and  make sure the action idea describes: 1. how the main character develops between beginning and end; 2.that all the action relates to the main character’s development and that it is necessary and driven by cause and effect.

Reread  chapter 4 and make sure that the whole action idea describes a unifying set of actions that all pertain to the movement from the inciting incident to the resolution.

Reread chapter 5 and make sure the plot action is connected to the “deep desiring soul of the character.”

Reread chapter 6 and make sure that the action idea has all along kept the “end” in mind, the end being what all this action leads to, what the main character has become (which will usually offer the theme of the story.)

Reread chapter 7 and make sure every scene connects directly to the action-idea.

Here is an example of an action idea for book one of the Hickey Family Crime novels I have gone through the above process and am still not sure I have gotten perfe3ct. What do you think?

The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles

1926 Los Angeles.

Young Tom Hickey learns that a dear friend, Frank Gaines, was lynched, yet neither police nor media will acknowledge the atrocity. When Tom and his sister were small and fatherless, Frank had often rescued them from the abuses of their cruel and perverse mother.  Now Tom’s conscience compels him to learn the truth about the lynching and act accordingly.

A neighbor, police detective Leo Weiss, warns him that corrupt cops are dangerous, as are killers and their big shot employers. He also ominously advises that the truth might hurt, though he won’t explain why. No matter, Tom confronts Klansmen and a famous evangelist whose church is only yards from the lynching site. He meets with a broadside publisher who predicts an imminent race war. And he questions the victim’s friends and neighbors, from whom he hears rumors that make him wonder if his own mother could be involved in the cover up.

He confides in his kid sister Florence, who then sneaks out on her own. Later, Tom finds her at their mother’s house in a closet, naked, and bound.  With Leo’s help, Tom and brave Florence lure their mother and her lover to a hotel room and interrogate until she proves herself so deranged her lover betrays her and spills their roles in both the murder and cover up.

Tom and Florence learn that their mother is truly a monster. But in the process, they learn to trust their consciences and recognize their own courage and ability to face the world on their own.  264 words