2.10. Sections of Tragedies. Sections of Plots


We have seen an abstractive classification of the constituent elements of tragedy into plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle and song.  This kind of division, which we have called abstractive or "vertical" gives us what has been called the "parts of quality" of a tragedy, meaning that they are present more or less simultaneously at every moment of the play.  Our concern now is with a horizontal division into "parts of quantity," those parts into which the dramatic representation can be divided.  They are "prologue, episode, exode, and choral song, this last being divided into parode and stasimon" (Poetics  55, XII.1).  These are not very important for our purposes, since they belong specifically to Greek tragedy, and modern drama uses a division into acts,  but it is important to notice that Aristotle made a difference between "horizontal" and "vertical" analysis, between parts of quantity and parts of quality.  Moreover, he differentiates the horizontal parts of quantity from the horizontal parts of the action, which do not coincide with the parts of the plot if we pay attention not so much to the terms as to the reasoning process:

Every tragedy falls into two parts‹complication and unraveling or dénoument.  Incidents extraneous to the action are frequently combined with a portion of the action proper, to form the complication; the rest is the unraveling.  By the complication I mean all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which marks the turning-point to good and bad fortune.  The unraveling is that which extends from the beginning of the change to the end. (Poetics  58, XVIII.1)

The first part of this definition is peculiar to Greek tragedies, but the second has a more general value; it is more useful.


            An action may be divided into different sections according to the moment of semantic transformation or transference of traits.  These processes, however, may be be more or less neatly identifiable in the narrative.  If the transformation is sudden and perceptible, we have a narrative climax.  There may of course be major or minor climaxes, and therefore many different distributions of climactic moments, each providing the narrative with a different action rhythm.  A simple narrative will often have a major climax which balances the action towards its closure.  This would provide us with the three basic action sections we have already mentioned: exposition, conflict (leading to and culminating in the climax) and closure. 

            We could easily consider this three-part structure as a basic narrative form.  However, we should beware of trying to reduce all narratives to this schema.  The tripartite structure is only one of many possible structures of the action.