Tag Archives: story

Aristotle’s Emphatic Dramatic Values

Nail Fence

When I was in college we learned about art criticism using these five emphatic dramatic values, interpreted from Aristotle’s writing in his Poetics, where he discussed poetry, theater, and music. He wrote of six values, including one called  “melos” or melody relating to the Chorus that was so important a part of Ancient Greek Theater.

His belief was that art works contained all of the values in different degrees of balance, but that especially for Tragedy Plot was most important followed by Character. He placed Spectacle at the end of the list. Rather than assign a judgement to the relative importance of each Value, I prefer to use them as tools that help me to understand a work as a whole, including defining genre. It is how the Values interact that ends up defining the worth of an undertaking or project.

In looking at each of these values, rather like the Elements of Design, it’s useful to consider the Principles of Design in reference to them –  Balance, Unity, Progression, Symmetry, Contrast, Harmony, Dominance, Repetition. Each can apply within a value, as well as how the values relate to each other.

In no particular order the Values are:

  • Spectacle
  • Plot
  • Language
  • Character
  • Theme

Dramatic values poster

The Values are so interesting to use for dissecting and understanding all kinds of works of art – and they work especially well when examining or critquing film.

Under the banner of spectacle – the visceral enjoyment of action, the art direction, the emotional sweep of music.

The plot or story – how the narrative engages us, perhaps surprises. Twists and turns, or a logical progression.

Language – how words are used. Simple or rich and melodic. The importance of dialect. How language reflects time as well as place. Poets focus on this value. Shakespeare emphasized language, by intentionally using Iambic Pentameter. 

Character – the participants of the story, their motives, their history, their interactions. How we identify with them, or not. Portrait painters investigate character.

Theme – the meaning and importance of a piece. The moral of the story, or the absence of a moral.

The Values as Inspiration

As an artist moving forward with intentional design, it is just as important to be aware of the Values as it is to be aware of the Elements of Design. Much of this is obvious in considering screenwriting – but there are equivalents in all kinds of artistic endeavor. For example, consider the “Grammar of Ornament” by Owen Jones –  elucidating the language of visual design.

Sometimes the values are easier to see in failure. I’m sure we are all familiar with a movie that is all spectacle (eg special fx) without much substance or story, or books where the author is so involved with his own use of esoteric language that the characters are unknowable.

Personally I don’t enjoy atonal music. It seems to me it all about using the stripped back language of music, with mathematical precision as the overriding theme, at the expense of the spectacle of an emotional range or any story. It doesn’t take me anywhere, but I know other people love it.

Sometimes a piece isn’t working out, but we can’t put our finger on what’s wrong. Examining the Emphatic Values might winkle out the problem.

In planning your project, you can list the Values and plan how you will realize each, as well as determine the emphasis of each one.

  • How will you incorporate or show each Value?
  • How will this affect the other four values?
  • Will this make the piece feel unbalanced?
  • Is it worth it for the pay off for the audience/reader anyway?

Here’s an exercise:

Take a simple, familiar personal story, such as a family memory or recent event. Maybe it’s the same old story that your Uncle trots out at every Thanksgiving dinner that starts with “Remember when…” Maybe it’s a story that you haven’t thought to retell – how you met your beloved, or how you chose your pet, or the time when something different happened at a familiar place.

What happened? Consider how it might be told with each of the Values emphasized, and played with. If you normally tell it in straightforward prose, try turning it into poetry, or a series of single emotive words. Draw it, collage it. What if it were told like an action sequence in a movie? what if the setting were described or illustrated in great detail? What if it were seen as illuminating the character of each participant in turn? If you were to set each moment to music, what would you choose? Now choose something entirely different. Instead of telling the story, show how the story illuminates your family values or philosophy.

It’s not a short exercise, is it? But it could be a valuable one. You might come out with any number of different art or written pieces just from one event. You might gain new insights to your own reactions, or to how other people might be experiencing the same event.

Let me know in the comments if any of you choose to take this on. I’d love to see the results. Remember to follow me on Twitter!

Elements of Design – Line

This blog aspires to help people rediscover and reconnect with their own creativity, as well as to express their renewed creativity. This week’s theme is part of that second goal.

This is the first Creativity Blast theme based on the Elements of Design. To share some of what I’ve learned about design over the years, I plan on discussing each Element in different weekly themes, although not necessarily consecutive weeks. Later I’ll move on to the Principles of Design, which are how the Elements are applied to create intentional results.

The Elements of Design – the building blocks of intentional creation – are:

Volume or Size
Color or Hue
Tone or Value

There is no particular order of importance to the Elements of Design list. They are all present in visual design work, and all have commensurate equivalents in other areas of design such as writing and music. The Elements interact to define or change the values of the others; an obvious example Shape may be defined by Line, or Line may be implied by the meeting of two or more colors. Sometimes the Elements seem naturally to pair together such as Line and Direction, Shape and Size – but the truth is that they all interact.

This week I want to think about Line, and how to use this element in exercises to inspire creativity.

Since sketching and drawing begin with Line, one could consider it as the foundation of most art and design practices. Children first offered crayons generally begin with a joyous exploration of their ability to make linear marks.

Zentangle tags, lines for texture and form

Zentangle tags, lines for texture and form

Lines define shapes. Making lines includes a beginning and an end, even when you are drawing a circle or oval and the line returns to its own starting point. Engineering or architectural plans are lines.

Lines create texture or adjust tonal values, and indicate direction.

Lines supply an underlying structure. 3D computer animations start with a wire frame, that is remarkably similar to the early perspective exercises from the Renaissance. Geometry is a function of lines, meeting in mathematically predictable ways.

Lines can be used to join ideas or images, as well as to divide or segment. Lines are edges, borders, delineations – the very word. In topographic maps lines indicate terrain by showing elevations. The closer the contour lines, the steeper the hillside in that landscape. Bathymetric charts do something similar for ocean water.

Hand writing, from jotting down a note to the most beautiful calligraphy, is all about lines.  

Lines can be used to direct the eye, and impart emphasis – a big part of design. Examine the sets of movies, and notice the prevalence of Line as a visual motif. In “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) the yellow brick road is the most important Line. Cel animation, of course, is all about drawn lines, but if you get a chance to watch Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) notice the linear quality of the backgrounds, especially the trees and landscape. The movie “Wolf” (1994) contains subtle references to cages throughout the production design, much of it created by Line.

Jack Nicholson in

This still from “Wolf’ illustrates a great trick – notice the line of the branch bringing us straight to Jack’s eyes. That’s why they chose this frame!

In Doctor Who Series 5, the designers employ an eccentric line as the crack in Amy’s wall, that reappears in many locations as a crack in the fabric of time. The simple visual motif is a recognizable signpost for the viewer of the underlying through-line story.

Look for Line in art. Painters that emphasize Line include Kandinksy, Chagall, Klee and Mondrian. Look at Picasso’s “Guernica”. Much traditional art incorporates universal motifs created with line such as chevrons, waves, stripes, concentric circles and zig zags. These are apparent in the textiles, basketry and pottery of cultures as diverse as Native Americans, traditional Eastern Europe, and many parts of Africa.


Composition VIII (1923) ~ Wassily Kandinsky. Oil on Canvas

Consider embroidery, Line created with thread. Look at “The Bayeux Tapestry”. Consider knitting and crochet – a single line creating a myriad of shapes.

“Singin’ In The Rain” is a linear song to me. The main tune goes up and down in waves. So does “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.

Twinkle Sheet Music

Look at all those lines!

Once you start looking for Line, including the invisible line of underlying structure, you will not be able to stop noticing it.

Line as Metaphor

There are many phrases to do with Line with symbolic meanings. The ideas of “toe the line”, “lining up” something (like appointments) or “getting your ducks in a row” – all suggest the Line as a metaphor for clarity. “Underlining” can be literal, or metaphorical but in both cases means to create emphasis. The idea of “crossing the line”, doing something unacceptable also speaks to limits and edges.

People speak of their ancestors as being their line. “Down the line” means in the future. A product line is a collection of related items, often connected by a single aesthetic.


A linear plot is one that is straightforward, with a clear trajectory. The positive side of a linear plot is momentum and excitement. There are few twists or tricks, and subplots would serve the main story. Linear is the opposite of convoluted, but also the opposite of episodic, where the narrative jumps in series of seemingly disconnected episodes.

One tool I like to use in my writing is a time line – plotting out the events of my story (usually a screenplay) over time, including the backstory. If I get stuck, my favorite trick is to write the series of events diary-style by different characters. This also gives me the opportunity to define the character’s history, gives me a clue into their motivations, and helps me define their voice.

Finding Line, using Line

One of the most classic line drawing exercises is to draw something – an object, landscape, building or portrait – with a single line; that is never lifting you pencil or pen from the paper. Of course you can overlap and change direction as much as needed.

Another trick for drawing is to use a Durer Grid. Grids can be used to change the scale of a depiction, or in life drawing. See the Greenaway film “The Draughtsman’s Contract”(1982) for a Durer Grid in use, (and incidentally marvel at the triumph of gorgeous design over limited budget.)

Here are some more ideas for raising your awareness of Line:

  • Use road maps or topographic maps as your background for other art, drawing, collages, or scrapbooking.

Vintage Maps

Downloadable maps

  • Look for Line in nature – consider trees, wood grain and leaves, rock strata, flood plains, abalone, DNA, the circulatory system, marble. Notice similarities – leaf veins that look like river deltas, abalone that looks like a map.

  • Visit a maze – lines run amok!

  • Try Zentangles, doodling elevated to the sublime.

So there you have it – a brief introduction to Line.

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