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Aristotle's Seven Golden Rules Of Story Telling


By Jan Janroy aka Jalal Jonroy

The following are from notes the author used - in conjunction with Why Write? - while coaching graduates for their final thesis films at Graduate Department of Film & Television: Tisch School of the Arts at NYU- New York University.




Hollywood actors Persian American Shiva Rose (Layla)
& David Moscow (David) in


David & Layla



Aristotle 384-322 BCE, in his seminal treatise 'Poetics or Poetica' concluded there are seven golden rules of successful story telling. These rules or principles in his days pertained to ancient Greek theatre. Incredibly, today the same seven elements are essential to writing successful film screenplays. Whenever I asked film graduates at NYU if they could guess the seven principal elements of good story telling, they would between them quickly answer correctly the following six elements, which Aristotle prioritized as:


1.  Plot

2. Character

3. '????'

4. Speech (Dialog)

5. Chorus (Song/Music/Score)

6. Décor (Production Design/Art Direction)

7. Spectacle (Special Effects- SFX.)


But only very few would eventually guess the seventh (the third) essential element '????'


Could you guess?


It is: the 'Idea(s)' or the 'Theme(s.)'  Why bother? What is the story all about?


Aristotle put the 'Idea' as the third most important among his seven principal elements of good story telling. 


How many films nowadays have lasting, worthwhile ideas relevant to our world, lives, troubles, nightmares, dreams, hopes, loves, joys and pains?


It seems too many Hollywood films start backwards:


1. Stars

2. Special Effects/Computer SFX 

3. Production Design/Art Direction

4. Music

5. Dialog

6. Sentimental or Fantasy ideas appealing to impressionable kids

6. Speech

7. Character & Plot.


Sadly, too many hyped up, mega-star films seem to be devoid of any compelling, relevant ideas.




Layla (Shiva Rose) at Mosque awaiting the Imam in David & Layla


If you wish to read Aristotle's Poetics, be warned that it is written in such an enigmatic and philosophical manner that it may take you several patient readings to fish out his seven golden elements of story telling. Reading the Poetics may remind you of the saying - "It all sounds Greek to me!"  Do not expect to read a "How To- Idiot's Guide To Good Story Telling."


Why?  What is the Idea?


'Nothing is new under the sun." So goes a Latin proverb. This is probably true. There are only a limited number of basic myths and archetype stories told over and over.  Still the same 'basic stories' can be retold again with new twists or in fresh, original ways. Layla wa Majnoon, a 7th C. Arabian, tragic love story is essentially the same as the older Iranian poem of Shirin O Farhad and the same as the much later Shakespeare's 16th C. Romeo & Juliet.


(Incidentally, Nezami (1141-1209) the greatest Persian romantic poet complained, "How could I translate a love story set in arid Arabian deserts? When his patron Shah offered more gifts, he agreed on the condition he reset Layla wa Majnoon in the colorful and magical mountains of Iranian Kurdistan - Nezami's mother was Kurdish - thereby rendering the tragic story to be more colorful and poetic.)


Ask: Is the story worth telling or re-telling? Is it written (re-written) in a fresh, original, meaningful, enlightening, and relevant manner? Or, at the very least, is the story compelling and memorably entertaining? Otherwise, why bother yourself, let alone everyone else!




Layla (Shiva Rose) calming David (David Moscow) at the Mosque in

 David & Layla





Plot, Character, Pictures/Movements (Movies!)


"Sure, a story should have a beginning, a middle and an ending, but not necessarily in that order!" Jean-Luc Goddard, French auteur write/director, one of the pioneers of the French Nouvelle Vague- 1958 to 1964.


Aristotle placed 'Plot' as number one above 'Character'.  In practice, experienced writers would agree that Plot and Character are, so to speak, the two sides of the same coin.


Sometime a story or a plot idea comes to a writer first, and then the writer imagines, selects and develops characters to fill out and drive the plot.


Other times in a writer's imagination, active characters start to weave their plots. Some call these scripts, 'character-driven' plots. In fact any good plot needs appropriate strong or unusual characters to drive it.  But in Hollywood, a character-driven screenplay is often a trendy producers' parlance for promoting 'star-driven plots!'


Whether Character or Plot comes first, the writer has to construct the plot and shape the characters into an organic, believable whole. The lines between Plot and Character become blurred. It matters little whether 'Plot' or 'Character' is the first most paramount element.


It is more meaningful to ask:


Is the story revealed in an engaging, moving (movies!) cinematic, active way as opposed to a boring, linear, and passive, expository fashion?


Is it a well paced, page turner from page one, or at least from page 5 to 15, onwards to the end?


"A Picture is worth a thousand words."  Often silence - of silent visuals - is more powerful than any words.  Is the screenplay visually engaging? Is it dramatized with tension and conflict? Is it suspenseful, leaving enough gaps, anticipations, reversals, surprises and questions for the audience to ponder and to get involved with, wanting to connect the dots?



Who and What?


Characters' Arcs & Whose Point(s) of View(s)?


Within the story's genre:


a.      Are the key characters well drawn out, developed and believable- individual characterizations, behaviors, likes and dislikes, with matching specific, authentic, individual voice/dialog for each of the characters?


b.      Are the characters' behaviors authentic to their backgrounds and ethnicities? (In the Kit Runner film, anyone familiar with Afghani and Middle East cultures would find that the young lead's behavior towards his dad when he gets a heart attack (an excellent actor) and between the young groom and his new bride did not seem intimate/dramatic enough.)


c.    Do the key characters change/develop believably in the story? The arc of the key characters. Unlike a novel, a two hour screenplay does not permit for side or stock characters to also have arcs! ("I wish I knew what is the f-ing arc of my character!?"  An ironic dialog from The Sopranos.)




Layla (Shiva Rose) interrogated by her potential Jewish in-laws in David & Layla


Whose point of view? Hamlet, like Gilgamesh, has one predominant character's point of view- that of Hamlet or King Gilgamesh.  David & Layla, like Romeo and Juliet, has two points of views- those of David & Layla! Monsoon Wedding has several (six!) points of views/subplots- all held together around the lovely and accelerating preparations leading to the ending glorious monsoon wedding.


Does the audience gradually feel for and root for the lead and support roles, wishing them to succeed?


In drama, does the writer, by contrast, subtly make the audience hate the antagonists, or at least wishing them to fail?



Who and How?


Action & Dialog



"Action speaks louder than words."  Are the characters revealed the ideal (cinematic) way: that is more through behavior and action rather than dialog?  Classic silent movies, such as The Wind (1928) starring the phenomenal Lillian Gish, told convincing, emotionally-engaging stories without any dialog, using only a few Title Cards.


Do the lead characters take initiative and engage in bold (irreversible!) actions rather than stay passive or just react? Active characters who take risks cause the enticing incident, plot points, escalating crisis...They weave the plot and drive the story forward.


Is the dialog concise, appropriate, indirect, authentic, and subtle (not expository)? The best dialog is often counterpoint to the characters' behaviors and actions. Real characters often 'lie', especially when under pressure. Great dialog belie subtext and hidden agenda which are often betrayed and signaled by character's behavior and body language.


Does every dialog subtly and economically advance the story and/or reveal and develop character?


A screenplay should show rather than tell (expose.) And it absolutely must not show and tell at the same time!


Here is a dialog from In a Lonely Place (1950), between the admiring girl and the Humphrey Bogart writer character:


Girl: But I thought actors wrote their own dialog?

  Writer (Bogart): No! Only when they become stars!


Apparently Hollywood stars like Tom Hanks insist on re-writing their dialog to make them look extra noble, heroic, sympathetic, sweet and cute. This might explain his too syrupy roles in such films as You've Got Mail and Cast Away - the first a full feature commercial for AOL, and the second for FedEx. (These companies' substantial funding of those films was revealed later.)




Wedding celebration in David & Layla



How? Structure: Enticing Incident, Conflict, Plot Points, Pace, Style/Genre, Twists/Reversals, Crisis...


Is every character in the story absolutely necessary to tell the story? Is He/She (or It?) well used to advance the story?


Is it a tight, lean screenplay?  Is every scene necessary to tell the story?


Does every scene and action advance the story and/or reveal and develop characters?


Does every scene opens/starts part way through? The audience can guess/imagine what has already occurred.


         A writer must ruthlessly cut out unnecessary personal/favorite scenes and  cute characters!


Within its genre, is the story a believable, well-woven organic whole? Principal story genres/kinds    are: drama, comedy, farce/satire, thriller, action adventure, science fiction, epic... Or, mixed genres- drama/satire, as in some Altman and Almodovar films and in David & Layla.


Note the margin for "Suspension of Disbelief" is much wider in comedy and satire than in drama. What maybe unbelievable in drama would not only be fine but desirable and necessary, in comedy, satire and farce! (It is astonishing how even some film critics compare apples with oranges- when they blithely critique a mixed-genres romantic comedy drama like David & Layla or Monsoon Wedding as if these were purely single genre  serious drama!)


Does the audience get emotionally involved with, identify and care about, or at the very least be fascinated, engaged and entertained by the principal characters and their stories?




Hollywood Persian American Actress Shiva Rose (Layla) starring
in David & Layla, an independent film written & directed by
Jan Janroy (next to Shiva) at New York Makor Jewish Culture Center


Resolution: The End!


"The most essential thing for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar."  Ernest Hemingway.


Hemingway said he re-wrote the ending of his 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' thirty-eight times until he was content.


Within its genre, are the characters and their stories credible?


Is the ending believable?


Is the ending satisfying?


It matters not if the end is happy, sad, thought-provoking, open-ended, enigmatic or tragic, perhaps inducing catharsis as in Greek tragedies.


Most find the current 'No Country for Old Men' to be brilliant filmmaking and superb acting. But the ending is 'unsatisfying' for most audiences. It may appeal to some film critics and film buffs looking for a novel or a high brow 'film festival' ending.


In the end, the audience expects and deserves a satisfying end!


Jan Janroy aka Jalal Jonroy, New York.  


Further reading:  1. Playwriting (1961) by Bernard Grebanier, 2.  Art of Dramatic Writing (1972) by Lajos Egri,  3.  Screenwriting 101 (1999) by Neill D. Hicks, 4.  Story (1997) by Robert Mckee, and dozens of 'How To' formulae Hollywood books by authors such as Syd Field most of whom have not yet written a compelling screenplay. (The most widely translated are Syd Field books- translated even in the Middle East under 'Saeed Feld' or 'Said Feld'!)


David & Layla opens in New York during Valentine on February, 15th, 2008, in Chicago, February 22, and in San Francisco, March 7th, followed by Q&A sessions with Shiva Rose and Jan Janroy.

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