Today, and continuing throughout November, I am presenting a series of posts I’m calling The Happiness Plot, which will make up a very brief introduction to storytelling structure. A perfect way to stay in the groove for NaNoWriMo2014.
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Ready to uncover the plot?
To find the beginning of The Happiness Plot, click here or “The Happiness Plot” category listing to the right.
Now, we continue with The Happiness Plot…
Storytelling as Dialectical Argument
But the Controlling Idea is only the conclusion to a story’s argument; it is not the argument itself. Just as the philosopher must supply a set of premises or claims in support of his conclusion, so too the storyteller must supply premises or claims in support of his Controlling Idea.
Yet not even this will be sufficient for the story’s Controlling Idea to be persuasive. For stories, in order to be compelling, must be dramatic, which is to say they must involve conflict viewpoints. The storyteller, therefore, must not only argue for the story protagonist’s Controlling Idea; he must also argue for the Controlling Ideas of those characters who contend with the protagonist.
Philosophers call this type of argument, which takes up various reputable ideas concerning a given topic, dialectical argument. In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle pursues an inquiry into the nature of happiness by considering the leading or most reputable opinions about it. In his day as in ours, many people think happiness consists in pleasure, others in wealth or public recognition. Still others think happiness is to be found in philosophical contemplation. Aristotle sifts through these reputable opinions about happiness, weighing them against our commonly held intuitions about what happiness must be, in order to mine the partial truth in these opinions. In illuminating their partial truths, Aristotle gets a clearer idea of what genuine happiness consists in.
A good story works in the same way. A good story sets various characters and their viewpoints (their reputable opinions) in conflict with one another in order to work out a truth. In Sophocles’ Antigone, both Creon and Antigone think they know what justice and the gods demand, but their viewpoints conflict with one another. Sophocles’ play is the working through of these conflicting opinions in order to get at the genuine truth.