Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 19: Thought and Diction

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 19: Thought and Diction

It remains to speak of Diction and Thought, the other parts of Tragedy
having been already discussed. concerning Thought, we may assume what
is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly
belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced
by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation
of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion
of importance or its opposite. Now, it is evident that the dramatic
incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic
speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance,
or probability. The only difference is that the incidents should speak
for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in
should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.
For what were the business of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed
quite apart from what he says?

Next, as regards Diction. One branch of the inquiry treats of the
Modes of Utterance. But this province of knowledge belongs to the
art of Delivery and to the masters of that science. It includes, for
instance- what is a command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question,
an answer, and so forth. To know or not to know these things involves
no serious censure upon the poet’s art. For who can admit the fault
imputed to Homer by Protagoras- that in the words, ‘Sing, goddess,
of the wrath, he gives a command under the idea that he utters a prayer?
For to tell some one to do a thing or not to do it is, he says, a
command. We may, therefore, pass this over as an inquiry that belongs
to another art, not to poetry.

I may be taking a simplistic view here, but let me run with this and see what our Aristotelian experts have to say on Part XIX: Isn’t this simply Aristotle’s way of drawing a distinction between what screenwriters would call Dialogue and Action?

Dialogue: Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech [emphasis added].

Action: Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches [emphasis added].

Dialogue = Speech.

Action = Incidents.

Moreover, as in a screenplay, the impact Dialogue and Action may have on the plot is the same. Aristotle lists the “effects” as being proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. In other words, make something happen.

As to the observations about Diction, I’m thinking this is an implicit nod to the nature of ancient plays which were, I am supposing, heavily dialogue oriented. They are, after all, considered to be “poetry,” not some other “art.”

Of course with the advent of motion pictures, especially during the silent film era, the emphasis switched almost entirely to visual storytelling.

Motion. Pictures. Both visual words. To this day, movies are primarily a visual medium. As screenwriters, our scripts may very well have a “command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question, an answer, and so forth,” but whatever dialogue we write can be best served while maximizing the visual trappings of a scene.

In any event, the distinction between Dialogue and Action is an important one, reminding screenwriters to find a balance between the two, something that can differ genre to genre, story to story, but should always be a consideration in the writer’s consciousness.

Furthermore as Dialogue and Action occur in the physical realm of a movie, what we hear and what we see, there is an implied meaning in the psychological realm, what we interpret and intuit.

For Dialogue, we may call that Subtext. For Action, we may call that Intention.

A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.

How about you? What do you take from Part 19 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

“What’s Behind Hollywood’s Obsession With Old Man Action Heroes?”

The Expendables. Taken. Red. Bullet to the Head. A Good Day to Die Hard. What’s the deal with “old man action heroes”? That’s a question raised in this Flavorwire article:

These days it seems action films aren’t just a young man’s game anymore – they’re becoming a game for finely aged actors. We’ve had actors dolling out justice well into their middle-years before (see: John Wayne, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, the cast of The Wild Bunch ), but it’s never been this pervasive as a trend. Which begs the question: why now?

One reason is the current state of the action genre. As Adam Sternbergh noted in his heartfelt eulogy for the bygone days of Commandos and Rambos – “America forgot how to make action movies.” Where once we had a healthy action genre, now we just have action movies – most of which are superhero flicks or CGI sinkholes. There’s no more good old-fashioned bare-chested, bare-knuckled grit. Not that there’s anyone to get bare-chested or knuckled. Aside from Jason Statham and false-starters Vin Diesel and The Rock, no new young action stars have come along to replace the old, and the existing ones have faded (Tom Cruise, Will Smith). Now we just get regular actors like Matt Damon and Daniel Craig taking on action movies.

Ah, so Hollywood somehow forgot how to make action movies. What, this particular type of genre movie is ultra complicated to craft? There was some sort of expiration date on the secrets of making action movies and that date has passed? And of course, with the passing of this ability to understand how to make action movies, the number of Hollywood projects in that genre has absolutely plummeted, right? I mean look at these spec script sales in 2011 where… hm… the #1 genre was Action with 29 deals. Okay, that was 2 years ago. Surely, in 2012, sales for Action spec scripts just crashed and burned with a measly total of… uh… 29… again leading the pack as the top genre.


I don’t claim to be a genius, but here’s another number for you: 87 million.That’s the number of Baby Boomers still kicking who grew up with action movies, love action movies and have proven they will show up in numbers… if Hollywood actually produces good action movies aimed at them. And names like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Lima Neeson, and Helen Mirren for God’s sake actually mean something to that target demo.

What do you think? Has Hollywood somehow forgotten how to make action movies? Or could it possibly be that there is a sizable audience that actually wants to see Old Farts on screen kicking ass?

For more of the Flavorwrite article, go here.

Genre Essentials: Vote for your Action titles!

It’s time to round out our Genre Essentials series. For those who need a reminder, it all started here:

I have gotten to know a lot of screenwriters through the years including many of those who have broken into the business recently. In talking with or interviewing them, there is one thing I find they have in common: They know their stuff, particularly about the genre in which they write.

This is important: When you are writing an original screenplay within a specific genre, you really should know the heart, soul and guts of that genre. This will inform every step of your creative and writing process: concept, character development, brainstorming, plotting, tone, style, atmosphere, voice, pace, and so on. There are certain attributes common to certain genres, and you need to know as much about them as possible, if you want to follow, reverse or break those conventions.

Obviously you can’t read and watch everything, but isn’t there a way to cover the essentials?

Which led me to a new GITS series: Genre Essentials.

Take the eight most common genres: Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller.

Combine with five content areas: Movies, Scripts, Books [Fiction], Books [Non-Fiction], Resource.

Use the suggestions of the GITS community to generate a list of essential study for each genre.

I ran this series for 2 months, week by week, and you generated some incredible titles and resources.

Now let’s finalize those lists.

Today: Action.

Go here to vote in each area:

VOTING: 10 Must-See Action Movies

VOTING: Must-Read Action Scripts

VOTING: Must-Read Fiction Books for Action Writers

Action: Must-Read [Non-Fiction] Books

Other Action Resources

Each day this week, I will invite you to vote in different genres. Based on that, we will end up with a set of essential resources you need to cover per each of these eight genres.

So please take the time to make your voice heard.

Tomorrow: Comedy.

Genre Essentials: Action

The idea: If you want to write in a genre, you should know [at least] the essentials of that genre. Dynamics, themes, tone, pace, feel, atmosphere, characters, dialogue, scenes, memes, tropes, and so on. So we are dutifully compiling lists of essentials for every major movie genre. For those who care about the action genre, please hit continue to vote.

Based on your suggestions, per these five areas:

– 10 Movies You Must See

– 10 Scripts You Must Analyze

– 10 Books [Fiction] You Must Read

– 10 Book [Non-Fiction] You Must Cover

– 10 Resources [Blogs, Websites, Journals, Magazines, DVD Commentaries] You Must Track

Special thanks to Shaula Evans who has taken on the mammoth job of overseeing these posts and compiling the data.

Here is a list of action movies. Please vote for no more than 10!

Note: Somehow we missed Die Hard which is going on the final list no matter what.

1. 300
2. 5 Against the House (1955)
3. 48 Hrs. (1982)
4. 11 Harrowhouse (1974)
5. Air Force One (1997)
6. Airport (1970)
7. Armageddon (1998)
8. The Avengers (2012)
9. Bad Boys
10. Bank Shot (1974)
11. Ben Hur
12. A Better Tomorrow (1986)
13. The Big Easy (1986)
14. The Big Heat (1953)
15. The Big Hit
16. The Big Steal (1949)
17. Blade (1998)
18. Bonnie and Clyde
19. The Bourne Identity / The Bourne Supremacy / The Bourne Ultimatum
20. Blue Thunder (1983)
21. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
22. Bullitt (1968)
23. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
24. Call Northside 777 (1948)
25. Casino Royale
26. Charley Varrick (1973)
27. City of God (Brazil)
28. Code of Silence (1985)
29. Commando (1985)
30. Con Air
31. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
32. D.O.A.
33. The Dark Knight (2009)
34. Dark of the Sun (aka The Mercenaries) (1968)
35. Death Wish (1974)
36. Deep Cover (1992)
37. Deep Impact (1998)
38. Deliverance (1972)
39. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
40. Dirty Harry (1971)
41. Dr. No
42. Drive
43. Elite Squad (2007)
44. Enemy of the State
45. Enter the Dragon
46. Entrapment (1999)
47. Exiled
48. Face/Off
49. Fast and Furious 5
50. The FBI Story (1959)
51. Fearless
52. La Femme Nikita (1990)
53. Fist Of Legend
54. Five Came Back (1939)
55. The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
56. Foxy Brown (1974)
57. The French Connection (1971) – multiple scripts
58. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
59. From Russia With Love (1963)
60. The Fugitive (1993)
61. Get Carter (1971)
62. The Getaway (Peckinpah version)
63. Girlfight (2000)
64. Goldfinger
65. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
66. Gorky Park
67. The Great Escape (1963)
68. The Guns of Navarone (1961)
69. Hard Boiled (1992)
70. Hannah (2011)
71. Haywire (2011)
72. He Walked by Night (1948)
73. Heat (1995)
74. Hero
75. Hopscotch
76. The Hot Rock (1972)
77. The Hunt for Red October (1990)
78. The Incredibles
79. Independence Day
80. The Ipcress File (1965)
81. Iron Man
82. Joe MacBeth (1955)
83. Kill Bill vol. 1 & 2 (2004/2004)
84. K2 (1991)
85. The Killing (1956)
86. Kung Fu Hustle
87. Lady Snowblood (1973)
88. Last of the Mohicans (1999)
89. Lawrence of Arabia
90. Léon: The Professional (1994)
91. Lethal Weapon (1987)
92. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels
93. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1995)
94. The Lost Patrol (1934)
95. The Lineup (1958)
96. Mad Max (1979)
97. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
98. The Man From Nowhere
99. Manhunter (1986)
100. The Mask of Zorro
101. Mission Impossible (1996)
102. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
103. Moonrunners
104. Mountains on the Moon (1990)
105. Ms. 45 (1981)
106. The Naked Prey (1966)
107. North by Northwest (1959)
108. Oldboy (2003)
109. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
110. Patriot Games (1992)
111. Point Blank (1967)
112. Prime Cut
113. The Public Enemy (1931)
114. The Raid
115. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
116. Ricochet
117. The River Wild (1994)
118. The Road Warrior
119. The Rock
120. RocknRolla (2008)
121. Rocky
122. Rumble in the Bronx
123. The Running Man
124. Rush Hour (1998)
125. Salt (2010)
126. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
127. Seven Samurai (1954)
128. Shaft’s Big Score! (1972)
129. Sin City
130. Southern Comfort (1981)
131. Spartacus
132. Spider-Man 2 (Tobey Maguire version)
133. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)
134. Supercop (aka Police Story 3)
135. T-Men (1947)
136. Taken
137. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
138. Terminator II: Judgment Day
139. Thunderball
140. The Thomas Crowne Affair (1999) & (1968)
141. Topkapi (1964)
142. The Towering Inferno (1974)
143. Three Kings
144. True Lies (1994)
145. Vanishing Point
146. Vertical Limit (2000)
147. Wanted
148. Where Eagles Dare (1968)
149. The White Dawn (1974)
150. The Wild Bunch (1969)

Based on your suggestions, here are action scripts that are available online. Vote for no more than 10.

An asterisk indicates the script is available as a PDF.

48 Hrs. (1982) – script

Air Force One (1997) – script

*Armored (2009) – script (**spec script sale)

1994 –
1995 –

Big Trouble in Little China (excerpts)

Blade (1998) – script

Blue Thunder (1983) – script

*Bonnie & Clyde

Bound (1996) script

Bourne Identity

*Bourne Supremacy

*Bullitt (1968) – script

Cliffhanger –

Code of Silence (1985) – script

*Commando (1985) – script

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) (and many other roles played by Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang) script

*The Dark Knight –

Deep Cover (1992) – script

*Deliverance (1972) – script

Die Hard

El Mariachi

Escape from New York


Face/Off (1997)

The Fifth Element (1997) script

*The French Connection (1971) – multiple scripts

The Fugitive (1993) – script

Get Carter (1971) – script

Entrapment (1999) – Dec 2, 1996 first draft, february 22, 1998 eighth draft, & may 8, 1998 revised tenth draft

*The Getaway (two versions)

*G.I. Jane (1997) script



*Hannah (2011) script

* The Hunt for Red October (1990) – multiple script links

Kill Bill (2003)

*The Last Boy Scout

Leon (aka The Professional) (partial) (early version)

*Lethal Weapon (1987) – script

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1995) script

*Marathon Man (starts part way through the pdf)

*Manhunter (1986) – script


*North by Northwest (script)


Point Break –

*Raiders of the Lost Ark

*Red (2010) –

The Rock

The Running Man

Rush Hour (1998) – script

*Salt (2010) script

*The Seven Samurai (script)

Shanghai Noon

Southern Comfort (1981) – script


Terminator II: Judgement Day script

*The Thin Red Line

*The Thomas Crowne Affair (1999) & (1968) – 1968 script

Top Gun

True Lies (1994) – script


The Wild Bunch (1969) – script

*Zombieland (2009) –

Based on your suggestions, here are action books [fiction]. Vote for no more than 10.

Title Recommendations

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

The Bourne Identity (Jason Bourne) by Robert Ludlum

Casino Royale (James Bond) by Ian Fleming

City Primeval by Elmore Leonard

Code to Zero by Ken Follett

Death of a Citizen (Matt Helm) by Donald Hamilton

Flight of the Intruder by Steven Coontz

Gorky Park (Arkady Renko) by Martin Cruz Smith

Gunsights by Elmore Leonard

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

The Hunted by Elmore Leonard

The Jury Master (David Sloane) by Robert Dugoni

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher) by Lee Child

Marathon Man by William Goldman

Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike [basis for the movie Bullitt)

Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp [basis for the movie Die Hard)

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Author Recommendations

Pierre Berton

Lee Child/Jack Reacher
Ian Fleming/James Bond

Elmore Leonard - check out a few of his earlier novels for some flawlessly executed action scenes.
Mathew Rielly/Scarecrow

Farley Mowat

Book Collections

1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list
In January 2009, the Guardian’s Review team and a panel of expert judges built up a list of the best novels from any decade and in any language. The section on crime novels has some great titles for action film writers–many of which you’ll recognize from their film adaptations.

Other Recommendations – for sci fi books

– The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
– Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
– Zone One by Colson Whitehead
– Embedded by Dan Abnett
– Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
– Double Dead by Chuck Wendig
– Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick
– Equations of Life by Simon Morden
– Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook
– Legend by David Gemmell

Here are your suggestions for 10 action books [nonfiction]. We can use more suggestions

  • 1776 by David McCullough
  • The Bartitsu Compendium, Volumes I and II, by Tony Wolf, for information on the late-Victorian fighting style Bartitsu
  • Fire by Sebastian Junger
  • Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Lawrence Gonzales. a fascinating exploration of the psychology of how people react in extreme situations (and how they create extreme situations).
  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  • Killer Instinct by Jane Hamsher about the making of Natural Born Killers falls into this category for me as making that film sounds like a crazy ride.
  • Lost Moon by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger [basis for Apollo 13]
  • A Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
  • Swashbuckling: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Art of Stage Combat & Theatrical Swordplay by Richard Lane, the best primer on edged weapons.
  • The Successful Novelist by David Morrell. Many of his examples come from the action/thriller genre. In fact, Morrell’s first book was “First Blood”, which was turned into the movie “Rambo”.
  • War by Sebastian Junger, which corresponds with the documentary movie “Restrepo.”

For the other resources, here are your suggestions. We can probably just include all of these, no need to vote.


Two good posts from John August:
- on Writing Fight Scenes
- on Writing Better Action

The Film International interview with Walter Hill (pdf)

For a crash-course in critically-acclaimed international action films, I recommend these indexes of films and essays from Criterion Collection:
Heist Movies
Noir and Neonoir
War Films
Samurai Cinema

(You can also explore their other themed collections HERE.)

DVD Commentaries

Richard Donner & Tom Mankiewicz: Superman – They cover a lot of great stories about not only developing the project but the difficult process of getting it made.

Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio: The Elliott/Rossio commentary from Pirates of the Caribbean 1&2 are excellent as well. They’re all about writing a character driven action film.

John Frankenheimer: The late John Frankenheimer’s commentary on Ronin is the absolute best commentary on how to direct I’ve ever heard, and luckily it’s focuses on action directing. He also did great commentaries on Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate. Every great director should be forced to record these before they die!

William Friedkin: William Friedkin has excellent commentaries on The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A.

William Goldman & David Koepp: The William Goldman/ David Koepp commentary track on PANIC ROOM is fantastic.

Sebastian Junger: Junger has a commentary track on The Perfect Storm as well…he showed up on the Nonfiction Action reading list. He’s a really interesting person, so I’m sure he’d have lots of good insight. (I haven’t heard it yet)

Mark Rosenthal: Superman IV –an autopsy on everything that doesn’t work about the film and why.

Joel Schumacher: Batman & Robin (where he flat-out apologizes for the film)

There’s also a DVD commentary rating site: which might be helpful to some…

Non-Fiction Action Films

Mike Boles comments: Documentaries are a great research tool for giving a realistic background to a script or characters.

Restrepo is the first thing to come to mind (co-directed by Junger and Tim Heatherington who was killed last year covering another war-which is sad ’cause he was a cool guy).
1/2 Revolution is a great doc about the Arab Spring as told by a participant/witness.
Touching the Void kept me on the edge of my’s more of an action/thriller doc.
Murderball is a great doc about wheelchair rugby, which I had never heard of before seeing this film.
Dust to Glory is about a 1000 mile desert race called the Baja1000. I never thought I’d get into a doc about racing, but it’s really interesting and exciting.


William Martel’s Script Secrets website has great tips on screenwriting in general and action script writing in particular.

TV Tropes Action Adventure Tropes Page Want to know how many times that scene you have in mind has been done? Look it up on TV tropes. Then, want to make a fresh choice that hasn’t already been done to death? Run it through the Playing with a Trope process. This is a great brainstorming tool and writing exercise (very good for the brain).


If you want to write fantastic fight scenes, do yourself a favor and attend the Paddy Crean Stage Combat Conference. It’s held in North America once every three years, and it’s here this winter (2012/2013) in Banff, Alberta. The workshops bring in the best stage and film fight choreographers, teachers, and stunt people from around the world. An incredible experience, full of amazing-generous-brilliant-talented people, that will open your eyes to a new appreciation of viewing and writing combat scenes. (And for the value you receive, it’s cheap like borscht!) Best vacation you’ll have in your life and you’ll come out of it a better writer and a far more interesting person.

Hopefully we’ll get enough involvement with people voting to come up with a solid list. We’re heading down the home stretch of this process in terms of the Action genre. Let’s bring it on home!