Aristotle was a busy guy who was passionate about many things, but his love of theater and storytelling was noteworthy. He is considered the first theoretician of theater, and his Poetics offers a framework for understanding theatrical storytelling.
In Poetics, Aristotle outlines the six key elements of tragedy: plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle.
Aristotle’s elements of tragedy continue to influence storytelling today. And by examining the aspects Aristotle identified as critical in crafting a compelling drama, modern marketers might unearth new, creative ways of sharing their brands’ stories.
Let’s walk through the six elements and consider how they come into play in a modern marketing context.
Aristotle dictated that a good plot must have a beginning, middle, and end. All of the characters and action should propel the central plot forward, with a logical line from point A to B to C.
While many modern playwrights abandoned this model (I wonder what Aristotle would think of Samuel Beckett or Caryl Churchill), a marketer can find value in this advice.
When you have a limited amount of time to tell a story—a 30-second radio spot, a 280-character tweet—there is no space for superfluous elements. Every piece of the puzzle must further the story if you want your message to be cohesive and clear.
Aristotle loved a good plot twist, one that would throw the hero of the story into turmoil. In Greek tragedy, it was usually someone finding out they’d fulfilled some terrible prophecy (See: Oedipus killing his father and sleeping with his mother).
By watching a likable character go through something terrible, Aristotle theorized, the audience would experience pity and fear.
These may not be the goals we’re hoping to hit in a marketing campaign. Still, as I’ve written about before, pity’s cousin, empathy, is critical in crafting a compelling marketing story.
When marketers create a central character that the audience can relate to, it makes the pull of the plot that much stronger. By seeing themselves reflected in the hero’s journey, they connect the dots between the marketing message and their own lives.
Create a character for your story that looks and sounds like your ideal prospect, one who faces the same challenges and overcomes them—plot twist!—by using your product or service.
Thought (or Theme)
Aristotle’s concept of thought, sometimes translated as theme, is why the characters behave as they do and how that influences the story’s broader message.
In a modern marketing context, one might equate thought with your brand’s mission. Your mission is central to everything you do, and all messaging you create should feed into that bigger mission.
Just as the character’s words and actions feed into the theme, your creation of marketing materials should always begin with the question, “How does this fit into the bigger brand strategy?” There are no throwaways in the messaging we create; it always serves the brand’s bigger thematic purpose.
Diction (or Language)
Moving past the structural elements of the story, Aristotle next examines how the story is conveyed. He begins with diction (sometimes translated alternatively as language).
This is, essentially, the way that language is used to tell the story.
Marketers, particularly content marketing writers, will recognize the importance of diction. Is a brand formal or casual? Experienced or young? Serious or playful? Each type of brand requires a different tone and style of writing.
Creating guidelines for how your brand will communicate with the world can help you narrow in on the right language for your organization. Brand style guides often provide guidance on language. Will writing for your brand include contractions? How about puns—yea or nay?
Sharing some specifics about the language you want your brand to use clarifies your brand's point of view for the marketing team and any outside support you might hire.
Melody, Rhythm, or Song
An essential element of Greek drama is the chorus, who narrates the action, guides the audience on how to feel about the play’s events, and yes, sings or chants.
If language is about choice of words, melody is about how you put them together. Even if we don’t consciously recognize it in our daily lives, different groups use melodies in speaking to signify their inclusion in a cohort.
For example, the valley girl speech pattern of the 1980s and 90s had a particular cadence and rhythm that was immediately identifiable (and recreated in classic films like Clueless).
If we’re talking about marketing content, podcasts, television ads, and videos—anything with an aural aspect—can literally leverage rhythm and song. But even in written content, it’s possible to capture the essence of the rhythm of speech.
Know your audience and the type of melody and rhythm that resonates with them. Are they a B2B crowd, heavy on jargon? Or are you a retailer hoping to connect with Gen Zers? These drastically different audiences will need very different melody and rhythm in the messaging you serve them.
Last in Aristotle’s eyes was spectacle. This is basically how it all looks onstage: costumes, set, and casting decisions all influence how an audience takes in the story. But these are elements layered on top of the more essential parts of the story.
For marketers, spectacle comes into play in numerous ways. The brand colors and logo you select convey a lot about your company. When creating social media posts or email subject lines, choosing to use gifs or emojis affects the tone of your message.
Even your choice of medium has a role to play. Is the message you’re trying to convey best suited to a TikTok video? A thought leadership piece in an industry magazine? A podcast episode? It’s not just what you say, but how you present it, that affects how your audience absorbs it.
Aristotle lived and worked in the 300s BC, but his thoughts on storytelling stand the test of time. To find a fresh way forward, sometimes it pays to go back to your roots. Reacquainting yourself with great storytelling theoreticians and practitioners throughout history might inspire you to find a new way to tell an important story for your brand.