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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Aristotle



Histo-geographical placement

350 BCE, Greece.

Type of story

What was considered poetry at the time - tragedy, comedy, epic.

Parent Theories


Child Theories

Dramaturgy theories, in particular screenwriting: Five-act model, Three-Act Paradigm.

Brief Description

An initial base for the rules that govern good narrative can be derived from Aristotle's work. We are given an initial breakdown of the elements that make up tragedy, these are in order of importance: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Song. Before specifying the structure of each of these, their relationship between each other can be considered as follows:

  • A plot is the list of incidents presented in a specific sequence.
  • An incident implies an agent.
  • An agent possesses character and thought.
  • An action implies character and thought.
  • From character and thought stems action.

The sequencing of the action must be such that:

  • The beginning action has no probable or causal action before it, but does have one following it.
  • The middle follows an action as a result of causality and gives way to another action as a result of causality.
  • The end is a causal result of an action and has no causal actions after it.

A good narrative must have a good plot, putting all the importance on action. The sequence of actions should arouse/inspire an emotion (ex fear or pity in the case of Tragedy).

Plot with a change of fortune is simple while Plot with a change of fortune through Reversal of Recognition is complex.

Reversal is an action's opposite. Recognition is a change in state from ignorance to knowledge.

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

Poetics provides a "how-to" for what makes a good narrative with a list of rules and definitions. Aristotle's description lends itself well to high level algorithm design. The model of drama provided by Aristotle was modified by Laurel, Mateas regarding IS and a reconstructed model was provided by Tomaszewski and Binsted (2006) whereby:

  • Character and Setting make up the story world
  • The medium (method of delivery) must provide the interaction controls to the user so they can both correctly recognise the signs, language and pattern used as well as correctly control their character, all while maintaining the suspension of disbelief.

"The user's actions at the World level serve as partial material for furthering the Action, while the narrative context of the Action so far provides some constraints on the user. This is just as Mateas describes Agency, though in this reformulated model, the world's objects are placed within the same narrative context as characters. Like characters, modeled story objects often have an internal state that must be inferred by the user from the objects' outward appearances (as conveyed through the medium). Though we are usually most concerned with the affordances offered by the story world, it is helpful to remember that the medium itself must also successfully afford the interaction controls needed to affect those objects." (Tomaszewski and Binsted, 2006)

Systems/Tools using this theory

Many IS systems follow Aristotle's dramatic arc (e.g. Defacto, Facade, Gadin).


Several versions of the text can be downloaded: