Aristotle's seven golden rules of story telling - February 4, 2008

By Jan Janroy aka Jalal Jonroy

The following are from notes the author used – in
conjunction with
Why Write? - while coaching graduates for
their final thesis films at Graduate Department of
Film & Television: Tisch School of the Arts
at NYU- New York University.

Hollywood actors Persian American Shiva Rose (Layla) & David Moscow (David) in David
& Layla

Aristotle 384-322 BCE, in his seminal treatise ‘Poetics or Poetica’ concluded there are
seven golden rules of successful story telling. These rules or principles in his days
pertained to ancient Greek theatre. Incredibly, today the same seven elements are
essential to writing successful film screenplays. Whenever I asked film graduates at NYU
if they could guess the seven principal elements of good story telling, they would between
them quickly answer correctly the following six elements, which Aristotle prioritized as:

1.  Plot
2. Character
3. ‘????’
4. Speech (Dialog)
5. Chorus (Song/Music/Score)
6. Décor (Production Design/Art Direction)
7. Spectacle (Special Effects- SFX.)

But only very few would eventually guess the seventh (the third) essential element ‘????’

Could you guess?

It is: the ‘
Idea(s)’ or the ‘Theme(s.)’  Why bother? What is the story all about?

Aristotle put the ‘Idea’ as the third most important among his seven principal elements of
good story telling.  

How many films nowadays have lasting, worthwhile ideas relevant to our world, lives,
troubles, nightmares, dreams, hopes, loves, joys and pains?

Aristotle put ‘Spectacle/Special Effects SFX’ as the number seven, the last of his ‘rules’,
judging it to be the least important element of successful story telling. Even in his ancient
Greek times, Aristotle observed that SFX - spectacular actions, fires, sensational stunts…-
is not only the least necessary but the most expensive and potentially dangerous!

It seems currently too many Hollywood films start backwards, perhaps in part due to the
advent of ‘un-dangerous” but enormously expensive digital computer effects technology:

1. Stars
2. Special Effects/Computer SFX  
3. Production Design/Art Direction
4. Music
5. Dialog
6. Sentimental or Fantasy ideas appealing to impressionable kids
6. Speech
7. Character & Plot.

Sadly, too many hyped up, mega-star Hollywood films seem to be devoid of any
compelling, relevant ideas.

Layla (Shiva Rose) at Mosque awaiting the Imam in David & Layla

If you wish to read Aristotle’s Poetics, be warned that it is written in such an enigmatic and
philosophical manner that it may take you several patient readings to fish out his seven
golden elements of story telling. Reading the Poetics may remind you of the saying - “It all
sounds Greek to me!”  Do not expect to read a “How To- Idiot’s Guide To Good Story

Why?  What is the Idea?

‘Nothing is new under the sun.” So goes a Latin proverb. This is probably true. There are
only a limited number of basic myths and archetype stories told over and over.  Still the
same ‘basic stories’ can be retold again with new twists or in fresh, original ways. Layla
wa Majnoon, a 7th C. Arabian, tragic love story is essentially the same as the older Iranian
poem of Shirin O Farhad and the same as the much later Shakespeare’s 16th C. Romeo
& Juliet.

Nezami (1141-1209) the greatest Persian romantic poet complained, “How
could I translate a love story set in arid Arabian deserts? When his patron Shah offered
more gifts, he agreed on the condition he reset Layla wa Majnoon in the colorful and
magical mountains of Iranian Kurdistan – Nezami’s mother was Kurdish – thereby
rendering the tragic story to be more colorful and poetic.

Ask: Is the story worth telling or re-telling? Is it written (re-written) in a fresh, original,
meaningful, enlightening, and relevant manner? Or, at the very least, is the story
compelling and memorably entertaining? Otherwise, why bother yourself, let alone
everyone else!

Layla (Shiva Rose) calming David (David Moscow) at the Mosque in David & Layla


Plot, Character, Pictures/Movements (Movies!)

“Sure, a story should have a beginning, a middle and an ending, but not necessarily in that
Jean-Luc Goddard, French auteur write/director, one of the pioneers of the French
Nouvelle Vague- 1958 to 1964.

Aristotle placed ‘Plot’ as number one above ‘Character’.  In practice, experienced writers
would agree that Plot and Character are, so to speak, the two sides of the same coin.

Sometime a story or a plot idea comes to a writer first, and then the writer imagines,
selects and develops characters to fill out and drive the plot.

Other times in a writer’s imagination, active characters start to weave their plots. Some call
these scripts, ‘character-driven’ plots. In fact any good plot needs appropriate strong or
unusual characters to drive it.  But in Hollywood, a character-driven screenplay is often a
trendy producers’ parlance for promoting ‘star-driven plots!’

Some screenplays are adapted from novels, short stories or even poems. A screenwriter
has to construct a plot by focusing only a certain storyline and subplots and by selecting
only certain character(s) for the leads and supporting cast, perhaps adding new
characters to make the story work for cinema. He or she may also start and end the story
differently from the original story.  In my
Gilgamesh script, adapted from the 5000 year old
Sumerian epic, I’ve added principal characters. Moreover, the story begins and ends quite
differently from the poem while hopefully keeping the spirit of the original poem.

Some languages translate ‘
Plot’ as a ‘Knot’ meaning an intriguing story or scenario and
how it unfolds, how it unties- le dénouement in French. Plot in English means many things
such as design, scheme, plan, story line, outline, strategy…

Plot also means ‘a parcel of land.’ This is a telling image. An architect designing a
building is limited by a specific parcel of land, the affordable materials available and a
style perhaps to work with the existing look of the surrounding environment. Similarly, a
screenwriter is obliged to tell a story in pictures and dialog in a certain style to suit his story
(or deliberately in mixed styles) typically in about 90 to 120 minutes maximum, unless he
is called Coppola!  (This time limit probably originates from the experience of how long an
average person can sit in the dark without having to rush out to answer calls of nature.)

When a screenplay is written in a standard Hollywood format, a page equals about a
minute of screen time. So the roughly two-hour cinema limit obliges the screenwriter to
economically design the most interesting/exciting structure to tell his story in only 90 to 120
pages - how to start, develop and unfold the story and characters - to totally capture the
viewer from the start to the end. Hence the words ‘plot’ or ‘structure.’

Whether Character or Plot comes first, the writer has to construct the plot and shape the
characters into an organic, believable whole. The lines between Plot and Character
become blurred. It matters little whether ‘Plot’ or ‘Character’ is the first most paramount

It is more meaningful to ask:

Is the story revealed in an engaging, moving (movies!) cinematic, active way as opposed to
a boring, linear, and passive, expository fashion?

Is it a well paced, page turner from page one, or at least from page 5 to 15, onwards to the

A Picture is worth a thousand words.”  Often silence – of silent visuals - is more
powerful than any words.  Is the screenplay visually engaging? Is it dramatized with
tension and conflict? Is it suspenseful, leaving enough gaps, anticipations, reversals,
surprises and questions for the audience to ponder and to get involved with, wanting to
connect the dots?

Who and What?

Characters’ Arcs & Whose Point(s) of View(s)?

Within the story’s genre:

a.      Are the key characters well drawn out, developed and believable- individual
characterizations, behaviors, likes and dislikes, with matching specific, authentic,
individual voice/dialog for each of the characters?

b.      Are the characters’ behaviors authentic to their backgrounds and ethnicities? (In the
Kit Runner film, anyone familiar with Afghani and Middle East cultures would find that the
young lead's behavior towards his dad when he gets a heart attack (an excellent actor) and
between the young groom and his new bride did not seem intimate/dramatic enough.)

c.        Do the key characters change/develop believably in the story? The arc of the key
characters. Unlike a novel, a two hour screenplay does not permit for side or stock
characters to also have arcs! (“I wish I knew what is the f-ing arc of my character!?”  An
ironic dialog from The Sopranos.)

Layla (Shiva Rose) interrogated by her potential Jewish in-laws in David & Layla

Whose point of view? Hamlet, like Gilgamesh, has one predominant character’s point of
view- that of Hamlet or King Gilgamesh.  David & Layla, like Romeo and Juliet, has two
points of views- those of David & Layla! Monsoon Wedding has several (six!) points of
views/subplots- all held together around the lovely and accelerating preparations leading
to the ending glorious monsoon wedding.

Does the audience gradually feel for and root for the lead and support roles, wishing them
to succeed?

In drama, does the writer, by contrast, subtly make the audience hate the antagonists, or at
least wishing them to fail?

Who and How?

Action & Dialog

Action speaks louder than words.”  Are the characters revealed the ideal (cinematic)
way: that is more through behavior and action rather than dialog?  Classic silent movies,
such as
The Wind (1928) starring the phenomenal Lillian Gish, told convincing,
emotionally-engaging stories without any dialog, using only a few Title Cards.

Do the lead characters take initiative and engage in bold (irreversible!) actions rather than
stay passive or just react? Active characters who take risks cause the enticing incident,
plot points, escalating crisis…They weave the plot and drive the story forward.

Is the dialog concise, appropriate, indirect, authentic, and subtle (not expository)? The best
dialog is often counterpoint to the characters’ behaviors and actions. Real characters often
‘lie’, especially when under pressure. Great dialog belie subtext and hidden agenda which
are often betrayed and signaled by character’s behavior and body language.

Does every dialog subtly and economically advance the story and/or reveal and develop

A screenplay should show rather than tell (expose.) And it absolutely must not show and
tell at the same time!

Here is a dialog from In a
Lonely Place (1950), between the admiring girl and the
Humphrey Bogart writer character:

Girl: But I thought actors wrote their own dialog?
Writer (Bogart): No! Only when they become stars!

Apparently Hollywood stars like Tom Hanks insist on re-writing their dialog to make them
look extra noble, heroic, sympathetic, sweet and cute. This might explain his syrupy roles
in such films as You‘ve Got Mail and Cast Away - the first a full feature commercial for AOL,
and the second for FedEx. (These corporations’ substantial funding of those films was
revealed later.)

Wedding celebration in David & Layla

How? Structure: Enticing Incident, Conflict, Plot Points, Pace, Style/Genre,
Twists/Reversals, Crisis…

Is every character in the story absolutely necessary to tell the story? Is He/She (or It?) well
used to advance the story?

Is it a tight, lean screenplay?  Is every scene necessary to tell the story?

Does every scene and action advance the story and/or reveal and develop characters?

Does every scene opens/starts part way through? The audience can guess/imagine what
has already occurred.

A writer must ruthlessly cut out unnecessary personal/favorite scenes and cute characters!

Within its genre, is the story a believable, well-woven organic whole? Principal story
genres/kinds    are: drama, comedy, farce/satire, thriller, action adventure, science fiction,
epic… Or, mixed genres- drama/satire, as in some Altman and Almodovar films and in
David & Layla.

Note the margin for “
Suspension of Disbelief” (another essay I shall soon post) is much
wider in comedy and satire than in drama. What maybe unbelievable in drama would not
only be fine but desirable and necessary, in comedy, satire and farce! (It is astonishing
how even some film critics compare apples with oranges- when they blithely critique a
mixed-genres romantic comedy drama like David & Layla or Monsoon Wedding as if these
were purely single genre  serious drama!)

Does the audience get emotionally involved with, identify and care about, or at the very
least be fascinated, engaged and entertained by the principal characters and their stories?

Hollywood Persian American Actress Shiva Rose (Layla) starring in David & Layla, an
independent film written & directed by Jan Janroy (next to Shiva)

Resolution: The End!

“The most essential thing for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is
the writer’s radar.”  Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway said he re-wrote the ending of his ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ thirty-eight times
until he was content.

Within its genre, are the characters and their stories credible?

Is the ending believable?

Is the ending satisfying?

It matters not if the end is happy, sad, thought-provoking, open-ended, enigmatic or tragic,
perhaps inducing catharsis as in Greek tragedies.

Most find the current ‘No Country for Old Men’ to be brilliant filmmaking and superb acting.
But the ending is ‘unsatisfying’ for most audiences. It may appeal to some film critics and
film buffs looking for a novel or a high brow ‘film festival’ ending.

In the end, the audience expects and deserves a satisfying end!

I hope to cover the other three principal elements in a future article: Music,
Décor/Production Design, and Spectacle/Special Effects.

Jan Janroy aka Jalal Jonroy, New York.   

Further reading:  1. Playwriting (1961) by Bernard Grebanier, 2.  Art of Dramatic Writing
(1972) by Lajos Egri,  3.  Screenwriting 101 (1999) by Neil D. Hicks, 4.  Story (1997) by
Robert Mckee, and dozens of ‘How To’ formulae Hollywood books by authors such as Syd
Field most of whom have not yet written a compelling screenplay. (The most widely
translated are Syd Field books- translated even in the Middle East under ‘Saeed Feld’ or
‘Said Feld’!)

David & Layla opens in New York during Valentine on February, 15th, 2008, in Chicago,
February 22, and in San Francisco, March 7th, followed by Q&A sessions with Shiva Rose
and Jan Janroy.

Info at movie site: