Non-Aristotelian storytelling is a thing. Just don’t expect it to box office.

To make sense of the world we tell ourselves a story. That’s the starting point of the Rhetoric of Story. As storytellers we imitate the kind of story the human mind tells naturally, which makes our stories seem real to the audience. It’s a conjuring trick, but one with some truly wonderful uses.

The first person to observe this kind of story was the philosopher Aristotle, in his little book on Poetics. The 3-act structure that is by FAR the most common shape of story told today comes from Aristotle. And so we call this style Aristotelian storytelling. Today nearly all cinema, a lot of theatre, and most commercial fiction is Aristotelian. Even if it doesn’t know it.

There are ways of telling stories that are Non-Aristotelian. To understand what that means, think about what your mind would be like without the story that makes sense of everything for you. In fact there wouldn’t be a you. You are the character at the centre of the story. No story, no you. Just a mess of sensory data, thoughts, emotions and the rest, all swirling around without any context or order. It might sound a little like this.

This is Not I, written by Samuel Beckett, and performed by Billie Whitelaw. Beckett was a modernist playwright, and like other modernist writers such as James Joyce, Beckett was interested in what was going on inside our heads. Our subconscious minds. Our inner monologues. All the stuff happening beyond the story told by our conscious mind.

If you’re like most people, you’ll find Not I hard to watch. Once you realise the mouth is reciting the internal thoughts of somebody in a state of high agitation or fear, it makes more sense. But it’s still hard to sit through. It’s like watching somebody vomit. You can’t help feeling the urge to retch yourself. It’s OK, you can switch it off now.

If Aristotelian storytelling mirrors the order of our mind to create the seamless illusion of reality, Non-Aristotelian storytelling picks the orderly mind apart to reveal the seething chaos of stuff behind the illusion of reality. Humans don’t enjoy this experience, any more than we enjoy going under the surgeon’s knife. Beckett’s plays are hugely acclaimed, but they’re never going to be a challenge to The Avengers at the cineplex.

Great storytellers do use Non-Aristotelian techniques. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s soliloquies, the inner narratives of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, or the cinematic exploration of subjective viewpoint by director Paul Thomas Anderson, great storytellers know that cracking open the consciousness of their characters leads to places purely Aristotelian storytelling can not reach. BUT. It’s done sparingly, and almost always within traditional storytelling structures, so that the audience stay on board for the ride.

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Learn a lesson from the slush pile

​”the experience of reading mounds of badly written fiction gave him an an indelible lesson in what constituted badly written fiction”

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

There’s a lot to learn from awful writing. But the slush pile isn’t even awful. Awful writers, like great writers, don’t tend to submit their work to contests or open calls from publishers. What you find in the slush pile is mediocre. Average. Quotidian. Like an endless queue for entrance to Heaven, only people who feel the need to be judged volunteer to stand there. The slush pile attracts the writers who want affirmation, and who still think there’s somebody out there – an agent or editor – with the authority to tell them YES YOU ARE A WRITER.

Instead of submitting your work to the slush pile, voluteer to screen the submissions. What you’ll find is nothing you want to read. But once you’ve ploughed through 300, 500, 1000 submissions, you’ll see patterns in the failure. Stories that aren’t stories. Sentences deformed at birth. The standard issue opening scene where a character orders a latte. Dialogue between characters drinking lattes. People who submit to slush piles write their stories in Starbucks, you conclude. It goes on, and gets worse.

Don’t be discouraged. The tedium of a slush pile is a feature, not a bug. Editors and agents soon realise that there really isn’t very much interesting storytelling to go around, they’re going to have to spend a lot of time making the most of the mediocre. But the writers job is easy. All you have to do is write great stories. Stories with that extra…magic… that we all recognise when we see it. The only catch is, nobody can tell you what it is. Finding it is what all the hard work is really about.