The Art of Imitation

a guide byLakshya Datta

This guide is part of an ongoing series I’ve entitled “Aristotle’s Guide”, where each new guide will discuss a chapter from Poetics by Aristotle - considered to be the greatest guidelines ever written about storytelling and drama.


This guide explores the lessons of chapter 1 from the book.




Greetings, my fellow storytellers. How goes your journey?


I think we just hit the closest I could sound like Aristotle. Granted the book he wrote was originally in Greek and I’m only reading the translated English version, but it’s still not the easiest text to decipher. So my goal here is to simplify first, and then dissect the lessons out so we can all become better storytellers.


Case in point, here’s a line from the first chapter, which is coincidentally also the line we’re mostly going to focus on in this guide -


“Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic: poetry, and the music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general conception modes of imitation.”


Basically, the guy is saying, everything we create, artistically / creatively, is an imitation of something else. Of what? Usually, of the original source of all things: life, and nature itself.


To put it in different words, perhaps simpler, Aristotle is saying that life and nature - things that are real and surround us and affect us - are the input. Then once they flow through our mind, out comes the output: poetry, drama, comedy, music, and even dance.


When I first heard of this claim he made, which I now know makes perfect sense to me, I was a bit offended. Is he saying that everything I write is an imitation - to put it rudely, an attempt at a copy - of something real? Are my stories not real? Are my characters not real? Are the emotions I trigger in the audience not real?


And then it hit me. He’s absolutely right. He is saying that everything we create that isn’t real is a recreation of something we observe or absorb around us in reality, consciously or subconsciously.


I write something when I feel something. Where does that feeling come from? Not from a vacuum or in the absence of an experience. As I go about life, I have questions about it. And when I ponder over and ask those questions, pop(!) comes out a story.


The other thing that Aristotle sets up in this chapter are the three primary modes through which the imitations are produced, which are: rhythm, language, or harmony.

Not all works of creative expressions will employ all three modes, but some of course can. A musical, for instance, has all three. A comedy act, has just rhythm and language. A dance performance, is rhythm alone, or perhaps harmony too if the dancer is wearing an instrument like the ghungroo.


That’s pretty much chapter’s lessons, as in this chapter we’re just setting up the baseline for where stories come from, and what components are used to create them.


Poetics may be a heavy-to-grasp book, but the chapters are bite-sized, so as I continue this series we’ll mostly dissect the primary things Aristotle said.


So, here’s the key takeaways from Chapter 1 for your storytelling journey:


When you create something that doesn’t exist, you’re imitating something that does.


Life and nature - that’s where all your stories come from.


And the key processes you use to do so are rhythm, language, and harmony.

I’ll see you next week with chapter 2 of Poetics by Aristotle. Or something else. How can I know what I will want to talk about seven days from now?

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