If you like live performance and you don’t love Aristotle and his Poetics, then you need to devour this article to understand the basic living structure that creates the being of any worthwhile dramatic presentation.

This “Poetics Primer” starts off with the following foundational ideas we all must use when crafting a dramatic piece of work:

This is simply what happens in the story or the performance.  Who does what when and why.  A plot must always lead to irrevocable change — things can never go back to the way they were when the drama started.

Who are the people in your play?  How were they formed?  How do they pressure those around them?  What are their flaws and their unholy raw spots?  What are their demonstrative emotions and unheralded demons?

What is the “Big Idea” behind the drama?  You aren’t sending a message or teaching a lesson, but you should have a larger ideal that umbrellas the entirety of the play.  That guiding Thought is what keeps the writing on task and it rescues you when you’re lost.

How do these people speak?  Is there a dialect?  How is their grammar formed?  Are there any other ways to provide diction that isn’t heard?

To create an immediate emotional response, music is the reference note you need to sound throughout the event.  You can add background music.  Characters can sing or play an instrument.  You are necessarily pleasing the ear with sounds other than the spoken word.

We end with the idea of “Spectacle” — this is what you see.  Costumes, the set, lighting and anything else that pings the eye is spectacle.  Spectacle is important to include, but it is not the most important part of the process.

Many misinterpret Aristotle’s Poetics by believing it all ends up in the shape of a pyramid with Plot on the bottom and Spectacle on top.  Scholarly books have been written with that pyramid diagram example; and they are all wrong.  A pyramid is a basic, and flawed, misunderstanding of the dramatic creation process.

What Aristotle provides is a specific and linear chain of creation.  The Poetics are steps in a process for making the drama work.  No step is better, larger, stronger, or more important than the other, but each step must be followed in sequence in order to create the most effective and perfect drama.  You cannot miss a step or reorder these steps.

Plot is always first, followed by Character, Thought, Diction, Music and ending with Spectacle.

Many live dramas, and even television shows and movies that use the Poetics process of creation, make the elemental error of starting with Spectacle and then moving backwards. They start with, “What can I blow up?” instead of demanding, “What happens first?”

Presentations of Spectacle only — instead of correctly crafted plot dramas — might momentarily feed the eye, but they never please the body.

Sometimes the error-makers start with Character: “Who can I get to star in this?”  Which is then wrongly followed by the misplaced Thought: “What message do I want my star to send?”

Plot is first and the everything — as the primary step in creating a connective drama that is evergreen and everlasting beyond the creator as it takes hold in the audience forever.


  1. Excellent primer, David! I will refer to this in the future when writing! 🙂

  2. I appreciate your feedback, Gordon! Our categories here for all articles is now: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Music and Spectacle! We can live the example with new post publication.

  3. Printing this out right now for my students. Such a good model to follow, David, thank you oh so much!

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