How Soap Operas Borrow from Aristotle

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Unbelievable plot twists have become a defining feature of soap operas. Whether a character shows up alive after being presumed dead, reveals the existence of a secret (and often evil) twin, or suffers from a surprising bout of amnesia, curveballs have become a standard narrative in daytime dramas.

Soaps still bring in millions of viewers, even though many people consider them to be an inferior form of entertainment. But ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that plot twists do more than simply shock the audience and advance the plot; they're actually the mark of a superior, complex piece of entertainment. We can see striking similarities between today’s soaps—with their melodramatic plot twists and stunning moments of revelation—and classic Greek tragedies.

In Poetics (335 BCE), Aristotle explains the basics of drama, touching on such topics as tragedy, comedy, plot, characters, rhythm, and narrative. Arguing that a tragedy’s most important element is its plot, he makes a distinction between simple plots and complex ones. Because complex plots contain peripeteia (a sudden reversal of fortune) and/or anagnorisis (the realization of reason behind that reversal), they are better and more advanced than simple plots.

Aristotle defines peripeteia as "a change by which the action veers round to its opposite." While peripeteia (a.k.a. a plot twist) is an unexpected or sudden reversal in a situation, anagnorisis is the moment of recognition when a character discovers a new, essential piece of information and changes from a state of ignorance to knowledge. So in a soap opera, an example of peripeteia would be a character turning out to have a secret, evil twin. And that character discovering that he or she has a heretofore secret, malicious twin would be anagnorisis.


But all plot twists are neither equally valid nor the mark of a fine drama. According to Aristotle, peripeteia and anagnorisis "should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action." In other words, plots that contain a plot twist are only strong and satisfying if the plot twist makes sense in the greater context of the story. 

"Within the action there must be nothing irrational," Aristotle writes in Poetics. So he might view the plot twists in some soap operas as forced, ridiculous, and worlds apart from the twist in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, which he cites as the perfect example of peripeteia coinciding with anagnorisis. As Oedipus discovers the true identity of his father and mother/wife, Sophocles masterfully uses both peripeteia and anagnorisis to shock the audience, make them feel pity and fear, and tie up loose plot ends.

Aristotle’s influence on literary and dramatic theory extends much further than soap operas. Our literature, plays, TV shows, and films all have Aristotelian roots, and even movies such as Star Wars and The Sixth Sense make particularly memorable use of peripeteia and anagnorisis.