The table of contents page of the Poetics found in Modern Library's Basic Works of Aristotle (2001) identifies five basic parts within it.
- A. Preliminary discourse on tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy, as the chief forms of imitative poetry.
- B. Definition of a tragedy, and the rules for its construction. Definition and analysis into qualitative parts.
- C. Rules for the construction of a tragedy: Tragic pleasure, or catharsis experienced by fear and pity should be produced in the spectator. The characters must be four things: good, appropriate, realistic, and consistent. Discovery must occur within the plot. Narratives, stories, structures and poetics overlap. It is important for the poet to visualize all of the scenes when creating the plot. The poet should incorporate complication and dénouement within the story, as well as combine all of the elements of tragedy. The poet must express thought through the characters' words and actions, while paying close attention to diction and how a character's spoken words express a specific idea. Aristotle believed that all of these different elements had to be present in order for the poetry to be well-done.
- D. Possible criticisms of an epic or tragedy, and the answers to them.
- E. Tragedy as artistically superior to epic poetry: Tragedy has everything that the epic has, even the epic meter being admissible. The reality of presentation is felt in the play as read, as well as in the play as acted. The tragic imitation requires less time for the attainment of its end. If it has more concentrated effect, it is more pleasurable than one with a large admixture of time to dilute it. There is less unity in the imitation of the epic poets (plurality of actions) and this is proved by the fact that an epic poem can supply enough material for several tragedies.
Aristotle also draws a famous distinction between the tragic mode of poetry and history. Whereas history deals with things that took place in the past, tragedy concerns itself with what might occur, or could be imagined to happen. History deals with particulars, whose relation to one another is marked by contingency, accident or chance. Contrariwise, poetic narratives are determined objects, unified by a plot whose logic binds up the constituent elements by necessity and probability. In this sense, he concluded, such poetry was more philosophical than history in so far as it approximates to a knowledge of universals.