Aristotelian Detection

The Poetics by Aristotle is one of the foundation documents of Western Literature ™. It is a document that tries to reconcile the emotional reactions of the audience with the structural form of Tragedy as it was practiced in Aristotle’s day, with a bit of justification for the whole enterprise included for good measure. In very rough terms, Aristotle specifies a story template for Tragedy – in roleplaying games we might call this a “meta-plot” and it is similar to what is meant by “plot” by the critics of detective fiction. This derives from an ambivalence between “plot” and “story”, which has and will be the subject of other posts at other times.

Paraphrasing or adapting Aristotle is always a little risky, but for my purposes, we can pull out four different types of scenes. Aristotle doesn’t discuss these as scenes, but since they all deal in dramatic currency, converting them shouldn’t fundamentally break his scheme too badly.

  • Memesis or representation scenes
  • Peripiteia or the moment of reversal
  • Anagnorisis or the recognition
  • Hamartia or miscalculation

By identifying these as “scenes”, what I mean is that we represent characters doing four different kinds of things that are essential to tragedy. We need to establishing shots and context, which is Memesis. We need there to be a miscalculation as this causes the unhappy actions that are the core components of tragedy. We need to have the moment of reversal, where what seems to be good turns bad. And we need to have the recognition that it’s all gone wrong.

These basic actions are also applicable to detective fiction, but in detective fiction the structure is doubled, because it mostly exists in two stages: the establishment of the situation and execution of the crime followed by the investigation of the situation and the revelation of the criminal. The story opens with “memesis”, establishing the characters and their habits, then we often have a miscalculation on the part of the victim that allows them to be murdered, we have the “peripiteia” where life is turned to death, then the recognition of the murder, then we have the establishment of a detective and his inquiries. The murderer does not usually make a dramatically obvious mistake in the way the victim usually does, but as a character, they do usually have a flaw, a blind spot, which allows the detective to find them out. Then finally we have the reversal of the murderer’s fortune. We could possibly even argue that this emotional roller-coaster fulfills Aristotle’s desire for “catharsis” – a highly contested term.

We can most comfortably think of these as structural actions – they do not have, in and of themselves the kind of moral weight that Aristotle infers for Tragedy, and they do not necessarily have a particular emotional valence – sometimes we feel good about the murder, sometimes about the murderer being caught. Most fictions operate inside a moral framework that does construe both moral and emotional implications to each structural step, but you can have a perfectly functional detective story with their opposites.

If we compare these scene functions to Robin Laws’ beat schema, we see that all four of these scenes are sub-types of his primary scene type: the procedural. Aristotle is primarily interested in structure, and the other kinds of scenes are mostly about creating an emotional response, rather than getting from point A to point Z in a plot. That is not to say that the situation can’t change as a result of a dramatic beat – it definitely can – but that it doesn’t advance the plot, it has no plot functionality.

Aristotle’s favourite play is Oedpius Rex by Sophocles, and he offers a close text reading of the play within his scheme. If we conduct instead a detailed reading using Laws’ scheme we will find all beat types present, except a Gratification beat. I don’t propose to post my analysis here, but let me know if you want to see it.

Oedipus Rex is also sometimes offered as the very first detective story, but is usually rejected because of what are essentially aesthetic and connotative differences in the play. Oedipus is both criminal and detective, but while he learns the truth, he does not “investigate” as such: it is the testimony of the shepherd which clinches the story in an almost straightforward fashion. However, if we consider the skeletal outline I offer above as more-or-less valid, then we exclude the play mostly on the basis of not quite matching the basic narrative structure, because it is not doubled.

If we are thinking about the plot in this highly abstract way, we run the risk of losing what are valuable distinctions between genres, based on the kinds of actions which prompt the different structural movements. Other ancient tragedies come fairly close to meeting Aristotle’s structure that are clearly not detective fictions, in fact, Oedipus Rex is very much an anomaly.

So the point here is not to fold tragedy into detective fiction, but to observe how similar plot structures are put to different ends. This is where Laws’ scheme can help retain an awareness of the structural similarities, while simultaneously pointing out the crucial moments of divergence. One of those divergences is the mix of beat/scene types, with tragedy featuring a low proportion of procedural compared to dramatic, and detective fiction the other way.

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3 Responses to Aristotelian Detection

  1. Clare says:

    Interesting. What is Robin Laws’ beat schema exactly?

  2. Pingback: Red Harvest: Beat Analysis | My One Contribution To The Internet

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