Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters

Michael Tierno's "Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters" delivers those rare goods, rising above the usual how-to level by plumbing the philosopher's masterwork for truths relevant to today's Hollywood scribe. Enlisting "Poetics" as a guide to dramatic writing is a well-worn tool for teachers, but Tierno makes it his own by targeting the silver screen.

How often do you get good advice from a man in a toga? Michael Tierno’s “Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters” delivers those rare goods, rising above the usual how-to level by plumbing the ancient Greek philosopher’s masterwork for truths relevant to today’s budding Hollywood scribe. It makes the precepts accessible with easy comparisons to contemporary hits. Enlisting “Poetics” as a guide to dramatic writing is a well-worn tool for undergraduate English teachers everywhere, but Tierno makes it his own by targeting the silver screen.

The book may favor neophytes, but that doesn’t mean that ol’ Aristotle has nothing to offer the seasoned pro. There really aren’t any bad pointers in the book, and even the most world-weary among us could use a reminder of what this master of drama had to offer before we face the word processor in the morning.

Many of Aristotle’s “tips” are more than Post-It-worthy: “The story shouldn’t be made to say what the writer wants to say, but what the story demands,” he wrote. “(D)ramatic unity is achieved using a plot that represents one complete action.” A plot, he posited, should have “its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin the whole.” His summation of the writer’s development is equally important: “Talent for writing dialogue and character comes first. The ability to plot comes later.”

Aristotle, and by extension Tierno, is most helpful with story structure, focusing for the balance of the book on the approach that has made Robert McKee and Syd Field household names to the devotees of screenwriting tomes. He introduces the concept of the action-idea, or the screenplay’s “mission statement,” as he defines it. He uses it to validate the approach laid out in the rest of the book.

Covering the basics such as the three act structure and dramatic unity, Tierno also focuses of some more specific pearls from the “Poetics”, such as the differences between tragedy, epic, drama and comedy, as well as the importance of reversals of fortune, and surprise.

Few would argue that Aristotle is a slouch, so what value does Tierno add? First and foremost, he has created a slim, digestible and focused primer to some of the best advice on writing from one of the best treatises ever written on the subject. He also illuminates this ancient analysis with examples from contemporary films, further solidifying its relevance.

But the very things that make the book so accessible also limit its appeal. Focusing only on recent movies like “American Beauty,” “Titanic” and “Road Trip” (yes, that “Road Trip”), he has clearly chosen to go after an audience who certainly does not flip between the covers of these hollowed pages.

In an unfortunate effort to add his own voice to the proceedings, Tierno often ends chapters with little quips about the films he has used as examples. Such as his admonition, as he cites the tightness of “The Terminator” script, not to pile too much into one story “causing your screenplay to be targeted for termination. And that’s gotta hurt!” In fact, the book contains more than its fair share of exclamation points!

After singling out “The Godfather” as a prime example of dramatic unity, he exclaims, “Maybe your screenplay will be an offer Hollywood can’t refuse. Which means you can break in without having to sever any horse’s heads, because like statues and story action, Hollywood folk like their horses to remain unified.” I’ll spare you the book’s “Angel Heart” puns.

As a story analyst for Miramax, Tierno has certainly read plenty of scripts good, bad, and truly dreadful. One wishes, though, that he would share a bit more of his own experience in the trenches.

Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Nov. 21, 2019.