A meditation on thinking through ideas and presenting them
In the Poetics, his treatise on the drama of his day, Aristotle said that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This deceptively simple starting point is only to say that stories are shaped compositions, and that the shape matters.
The framework of a story, for Aristotle, is the tripartite structure of hamartia (error), peripeteia (reversal), and anagnorisis (recognition). In this framework, a character labors for a time under some vital misapprehension, during which time events unfold, either with increasing hilarity (if this is to be a light work) or mounting distress or peril (if a serious one), the narrative tension building inexorably until the moment of crisis in which some sudden turn of events brings with it revelation, making clear to this hapless character the error in his thinking, to that one the wrong course of her actions. This is for Aristotle the quintessential plot structure, with the emphasis on structure. It is, in fact, a design document for a work of fiction of a particular type. It’s not a bad design for a piece of nonfiction either, particularly narrative nonfiction, which, although not fictive (or at least, less so than outright fiction), is still constructed. One must work with the facts, in telling a true story, but there’s room for maneuver in the manner of the telling.
This same design or structure could be said roughly to reflect the process of writing itself, in which half-formed thoughts meander and turn back in on themselves, leading us a merry chase, until that moment of insight, that moment of laser-sharp clarity, when the solution to the knotty problem that we seek slides, thunk, resoundingly into place. Suddenly, we know what we’re writing about. Perhaps across the entire piece, perhaps across one section we’ve been grappling with. That insight frequently becomes the pivot point around which we work. We organize now, interpret now, around this insight, this revelation.
If we’re writing about ideas, writing to explore, explain, persuade, then typically what we’ve arrived at inductively — working from those initial thoughts and the examples we’ve conjured, seeking always to extract theory or principle — we now flip and present to an audience deductively, laying out the ideas tidily in the manner of a proof, those early thoughts now arrayed as steps along the way, those same examples now functioning to buttress the solution they once engendered.
If done well, there is the sense of rightness, of inevitability.
If we are instead working our way through events to tell a story, a complex story, a story with import, typically what we’ve arrived at somewhat haphazardly, perhaps through trial and error, we now restructure so that everything in the piece works together at the necessary moments to conceal or reveal, situating the solution so that it is the only solution, recasting the problem, if need be, to fit the solution.
If done well, there is again that sense of rightness, of inevitability.
And inevitability is what we want, in any piece of writing — at least, in this classical conception, which is not to say that there aren’t other forms — because then we’ve carried the audience successfully along, unfolding for them the world from a perspective we design, whether this be in service of a brand or purely as an expression of ourselves. The audience play an active role in this exchange, naturally, but if we’ve done our work well, and if we’ve judged the audience rightly, then the structure and development should feel natural and, well, inevitable.
Again, that structure, that inevitability, typically follows one of two patterns. That moment of insight can lead the way, making everything clear from the beginning. Or it can come far later in the piece, clarifying instead after the fact, by hindsight. The former is more typical of exposition, philosophical inquiry, argumentation, where the insight we want to explore explicitly guides interpretation from start to finish. The latter is more typical of narrative, where that insight comes as a delightful, or sobering, twist towards the end, often forming part of the impact of the conclusion. Though, naturally, some complex narratives make use of both, as do some more complex expository pieces.
Whatever the final structure, the process of arriving at a piece of writing—of coming to what it is we want to say, to what there is to be said—tends toward the inductive. How we present it to an audience depends in part upon the nature of the material and in part upon the experience we intend with it. The writing process and the end result of that process, both are a kind of story: the story of how we arrive at what it is we want to say, and the story by which we say it. For, as is now deeply and widely understood, even when rooted firmly in the realm of nonfiction, we are spinning tales. The philosophical essay, the investigative article, the piece of branded content, the conceptual topic to support a procedure — they are all manufactured. They all tell stories.
The pivotal moment, in both the story as we begin to conceive it and the story as we construct and present it, is that moment of insight: that moment of discovery. But how is it that we arrive at that moment, the recognition of what it is we want to say? This is when the insights of rhetoric, ancient and modern, come into play.
To recognize that how we explore and present material depends in part upon the audience is to be in the realm of rhetoric. Writing discursively is about the writer, it’s about the work, and, above all, it’s about the audience. This is the essential triad for a piece of nonfiction, and it hails from the wayfinding of rhetoric.
The study of rhetoric, as Aristotle envisioned it, teaches the art of developing and styling a work so as to balance these three pivotal aspects: establishing the authority of the author (in context), exploring the subject as thoroughly as warranted (by context), considering at all times the character and perspective of the audience (who largely determine that context). Aristotle speaks not only of the audience, who govern the selection of what to say and how to say it, but he speaks specifically of how crucial is the emotional response of that audience, anticipating the recent insights of brand publishing by some two thousand years, give or take.
What rhetoric offers, in fact, is a design for thinking, for working through a particular type of problem and arriving at a solution. Of the five canons of classical rhetoric, which concerned public speaking, three apply specifically to writing as well: heuresis, or invention (what to say); taxis, or arrangement (how best to structure it); and lexis, or style (how best to express it). Two of these three most of us are well familiar with: structuring a piece of writing and styling it. But the process of uncovering what it is we want to say, what it is we ought to say, what it is there is to say — this process is generally rather untidy. We may spend a great deal of time, at times seemingly in vain, searching for the details.
To guide this process of discovery, Aristotle taught a set of topoi, generally translated as “topics,” by which he meant something like “places in the mind” — for this was originally a mnemonic device — which spelled out basic categories of relationships between things, either common to all or specific to particular subjects. By thinking in terms of these categories, an orator could call to mind the necessary information with respect to any subject.
Today, we think of the topoi less in terms of the discovery of existing ideas (ideas buried in the recesses of our mind, which we have only to remember) and more in terms of the discovery of new ideas: that is, the topoi today are generative. And contemporary rhetoricians have extended Aristotle’s discussion to develop more complete frameworks, generally in the form of checklists, to help determine what might be said in a particular instance about a subject.
In purely practical terms, these latter-day frameworks are more useful for generating ideas than are the original categories found in the Rhetoric, and yet for all of that, there’s value to be had in studying Aristotle’s work alongside its modern counterparts. The value lies, first of all, simply in parsing the material to master it. The subject matter is dense, most of us must read the work in translation, and the text itself is less than clear at points. What has survived antiquity is something like lecturer’s notes, different portions of it written at different times, addressing different aspects of the topic, perhaps for different audiences, and the whole of it assembled into one work with unifying transitions added by later redactors. The close study of such a work, under the guidance of a capable teacher, exercises and strengthens the mind, as does the close study of any exacting material; but as in this case the material is directly pertinent to writing, the benefits are specific as well as general. Then, too, the principles of rhetoric were first realized in these early texts, and working with this and other classical rhetorics can foster deeper engagement with the material.
While many contemporary rhetorics extend and develop the principles originally laid down by classical rhetoricians, others do not; and the rhetorical principles incorporated into contemporary writing programs are sometimes but vastly impoverished remnants. Rhetoric is often thought of merely, or primarily, as an attribute of style, rather than one of substance: design patterns, that is, for sentences. Or the topoi are converted, sometimes rather rigidly, into simple modes of organization, removed almost entirely from the process of investigating a subject: design patterns, that is, for paragraphs or essays. From the topoi, for example, come some of the familiar structures we use for the organizing ideas: definition, partition, classification, comparison/contrast, cause and effect.
But the topoi, and the frameworks developed to enlarge upon them, are in fact a design pattern for inquiry. Offering questions to direct and prompt investigation, such checklists help a writer to overcome the problem we all of us face at one time or another: how to discover what it is that we don’t know. How to find the blind spots. Designed to apply to any writing task, in any situation, these checklists are by their very nature general. To be even more useful for a particular writing environment, a particular type of writing, they need only be refined and adapted.
One such checklist (adapted long ago from I no longer know where) offers a set of questions first for setting a context — an extension of who, what, how, where, when, and why—followed by a set for exploring context, which begins:
What are the implications or results?
What consequences are involved?
Why would someone undertake or avoid it?
What does it imply or entail?
Has it advantages or virtues?
Has it disadvantages or defects?
To what extent is it true?
Are there any limits? Ought there to be any limits?
When (or under what circumstances) is it true? When is it not true?
Are there exceptions or qualifications that do (that ought, that might) pertain?
How do we know about it?
What is the source of (or authority for) the information?
How reliable is it?
How do we know it to be reliable (or unreliable)?
Another, developed by rhetorician Richard Larson during a revival of interest in rhetorical heuresis in the 1960s, explores areas of inquiry in more detail.
Checklists such as these, and they can be made specific to any context, help to guide the inductive process that precedes and informs the early stages of writing. They provide a framework for the story of how we arrive at what it is we want to say, and in part direct how to say it.
In determining how in the final piece we’ll say what we have to say, we would do well to draw not only on the insights of the Rhetoric, which speaks to essay, but those too of the Poetics, which speaks to narrative. Particularly where we’ll proceed inductively for the audience (a replica, perhaps, of our own journey through the material), constructing a framework that builds on narrative tensions — prolonged misapprehension, and the sudden reversal that brings with it a new understanding — can strengthen the impact of what it is we want to say.
In the journey towards what we’d like to say, what there is to be said, the framework of rhetorical heuresis provides ready scaffolding to build upon.
The principles of the Rhetoric and the Poetics work together in this respect. The rhetorical system of invention can help to guide our own insights in the process of discovery; the narrative framework of classical poetics can help to enhance the experience of those same insights for an audience.