Aristotle claims that plot is the most important component part of tragedy, and so it is important to discuss the qualities and structure of plot.
Again, Aristotle points out how important plot is in tragedy, and he offers a comprehensive discussion of what exactly plot is.
5.1 Completeness. Tragedy “is an imitation of a complete, i.e. whole, action, possessing a certain magnitude.” To be “whole,” a tragedy must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning does not necessarily follow anything, but something must follow after it. An end, on the other hand, does follow something, but there is nothing after it. A middle has something before it and something after it. A successful tragedy does not begin or end at arbitrary points, and it follows this simple form.
Aristotle’s definition of what makes a tragedy “whole” seems rather straightforward; however, it is important to remember that Aristotle was the first to put such definitions down in writing, thereby making them official and legitimate. Elevating literature to a scientific level is one of the aims of literary theory. Thus, every possible aspect of literature is defined, categorized, and explored, just as would be done within the sciences.
5.2 Magnitude. An imitation of an object, be that object a human being or something else, must possess all the parts it aims to imitate, and its magnitude cannot be arbitrary. “Beauty consists in magnitude as well as order,” Aristotle says. If an object is too small, its beauty is too difficult to discern. Conversely, if an object is too large, its beauty can also be difficult to appreciate. The problem with objects that are too big is that unity of observation becomes impossible and the sense of completeness is lost.
Aristotle’s statement that “beauty consists in magnitude as well as order” implies that there must be balance within a tragedy between magnitude and unity. A tragic plot must inspire wonder and awe in an audience, but that astonishment must be in keeping with the object it is meant to imitate.
Objects possess a specific magnitude, and they should be readily taken in with just one view. The same goes for plot, which should be of a very specific length and should be easily held in memory. Aristotle defines the magnitude of plot as “the magnitude in which a series of events occurring sequentially in accordance with probability or necessity” gives rise to a change in fortune from either good to bad or vice versa.
If an object is imitated as too large, the unity is disturbed—meaning its beginning, middle, and end cannot be taken in with one view. Similarly, Aristotle implies, if a tragic plot is too big (either literally too long or metaphorically too big), it cannot be held readily in one’s memory, and therefore the plot’s unity is disrupted.
5.3 Unity. Focusing on a single person is not what makes a plot unified—lots of things can happen to any one person, and any combination of these things does not necessarily constitute unity. Similarly, an actor may perform several actions, but these actions might not constitute a single action. This is why, Aristotle reasons, Homer did not include in the Odyssey every last thing that happened to Odysseus. Instead, the whole of the Odyssey constitutes a single unified action—Odysseus’s journey home from the Trojan War—and nothing more.
Here, Aristotle explains that tragedies which focus on single characters (Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Antigone, for example) are not whole and unified just because they focus on a single person. For the imitation of single person to be whole, it would have to include everything that person has ever done, which is impossible. Instead, a plot is unified if it imitates a single and complete action—like Oedipus’s downfall or Antigone’s suicide—rather than a single person.
5.4 Determinate State. An imitation is considered to have unity if it imitates a single object. The same goes for plot, which should imitate a single and complete action. The structure of a plot must be created in a way that if a single part of it is taken out or moved, it changes the plot as a whole. If the absence of a single part does not affect the whole, it is not truly a part of the whole and does not belong.
Aristotle implies that only those events which are necessary for the plot should be included in a tragedy. Events that do not pertain to the plot take up space in the audience’s perception and memory, making unity more difficult. Getting rid of unrelated events helps ensure that a plot will have unity.
5.5 Universality. It is not the poet’s job to write “what has happened,” Aristotle claims, but to write what “would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity.” The historian and the poet are not different because one writes in verse and the other prose; they are different because one writes what has happened, and the other writes what would happen. Even if the works of Herodotus were written in verse, Aristotle claims, Herodotus would still be a historian.
Aristotle again underscores that the subject matter, rather than the kind of writing, is what separates history from poetry. It is important to note that Aristotle’s definition of tragedy includes what is probable or necessary, not what is probable and necessary—meaning that what might be necessary isn’t always probable.
History expresses particulars, but poetry expresses universals. A universal is speech or behavior that matches what a certain kind of person would most likely do or say. Because poetry is universal, it is more serious and philosophical than history. The plot of a comedy, for instance, is constructed based on probabilities, and then characters are selected. This process is different from the construction of a lampoon or tragedy, which often focus on a specific person. What has happened is possible in tragedy, Aristotle says, but even in such cases, only one or two characters are familiar and the rest are inventions.
Unlike comedies, lampoons and tragedies often include actual historical figures. This is not to say that a tragedy is an imitation of a specific person; instead, Aristotle argues that a tragedy is an imitation of a probable action, and since what has happened is probable, it is fair game for a tragedy. The difference between history and tragedy, Aristotle maintains, is that history expresses what has happened (including people who have existed) in a given timeframe, whereas tragedy imitates a probable action that would happen.
A poet is “a maker of plots,” Aristotle clarifies, not a maker of verses, and the object of a poet’s imitation is action. If a poet does write about the sort of thing that has happened, they are still a poet. If something has happened before, it is obviously the sort of thing that could and would happen. Writing about the sort of the thing that would happen (whether or not it actually has happened) is what makes a poet.
This passage, too, reflects the importance of plot in poetry, since a poet is a “maker of plots,” not necessarily of poems per se. Again, if an event has happened before, it is probable, which makes it fair game for a tragedy; however, Aristotle also implies that even things that haven’t happened can be probable in a tragedy.
5.6 Defective Plots. Episodic plots are by far the worst of the simple plots, Aristotle argues, which means the sequence of the episodes occur in such a way that seems unlikely or implausible. Bad poets compose episodic plots, as do some good poets for the purposes of “competitive display,” during which a plot can be extended past its potential, wrecking the entire sequence.