Editing, Aristotle and the Unities
This is another of a series of columns dedicated to the awkward task of
editing. In it I will hark back to one of the ancient greats: Aristotle.
Aristotle lived from 384 BCE to 322 BCE, in Macedon and Athens. He was
both a student of Plato and a tutor of Alexander the Great, had ideas about
everything, from ethics and politics to physics and biology. He also opined
on literature – or what was the major form of literature at the time –
theater, especially tragedies in The Poetics.
He came up with the idea – or, at least as far as I know, is credited
with coming up with the concept – of the Unities. What does this
mean? It means that a theater piece should be united in action, united in
place, and united in time. In case you’re still not clear, Aristotle meant
that the drama should focus on a single action (or all subplots should
support the same action or event); all action should occur in a single
place; and everything should happen on the same day.
Aristotle’s strictures have some obvious advantages for theater. By
having all the action occur at the same place, there’s no awkward changing
of sets. The other two aspects – unity with respect to time and unity with
respect to action – are a little more difficult to comprehend, and if
applied strictly, can contort your story. For example, the action in
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex all occurs on the same day (although much of
it relates to events from the past). Poor Oedipus has an amazingly bad day!
So bad, that it may strain the credulity of the spectators / readers – at
least those of today, when our tastes may be a bit different.
Nevertheless, I believe that studying and applying the concept of
“unities” to your writing will focus it and strengthen it. It can help you
see where you need to straighten and where you need to cut. For example, you
may feel, in your gut, that something is wrong with a scene or a chapter.
Considering Aristotle’s may help you determine what is giving you trouble.
Unity of Place
Unity of Place is perhaps the most simple of the Aristotelian unities to
understand; he required that all the action occur in one place. This has
obvious advantages for theatrical set designers; especially in Classical
Greece when sets were difficult to move around (no electricity, and possibly
no curtains for hiding the set changes). However, does it offer advantages
to the story and the novel, in which settings can be shifted with a few
In my own experience a single setting simplifies writing and reading. A
single setting makes a story easier to follow. Often in these situations the
writer and the reader get to know the setting very well. Imagine a story set
in a single town, such as To Kill a Mockingbird. The fictional
Maycomb, Alabama becomes very well known to the readers. A single setting
also makes a story much easier to write. My collaborator and I are grateful
that our first joint effort, Iokaste, all took place in Thebes,
Even if you can’t have a single setting, you can have a few
well-developed settings. Consider the Harry Potter novels. There are four
major settings: Privet Drive, Hogwarts Castle, The Burrow, and later in the
series, Grimmauld Place.
Another sort of unity of place is to move your characters in one
direction – and then to move them back again, on a journey. This occurs in
The Lord of the Rings and in many quest-based books.
Other types of novels occur virtually everywhere. I’m currently reading
Philip Pullman’s series, The Golden Compass, which takes place across
multiple worlds/universes. And although the story is compelling – and some
of the settings particularly intriguing – for me, at least, all the location
hops are a bit confusing.
Whatever you choose for your setting(s), I believe you should consider
the following questions:
Is it easy for the reader to “see”
where she is? (To achieve this, of course, you, the writer, must see it
Are transitions well-documented?
Are the settings interesting?
Do the settings contribute your story?
Would your story be enhanced by having more
of the action take place in one place? Or would your story be enhanced
by additional place shifts?
Even Aristotle, when writing about epic poetry (which may be more
appropriate advice for writing as opposed to advice designed for the theater), allowed
changes of settings. He wrote, “In constructing the plot and working it out
with the proper diction, the poet should place the scene, as far as
possible, before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost
vividness, as if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is
in keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies.”
Hence, I am not saying that you should have all your scenes take place in
the same place. That may make your story boring instead of interesting. But
I am saying that you should consider the points above, and consciously
determine how changing settings – or not – enhances your story.
Unity of Time
I don’t believe that you need to fit all the events of your novel into a
24-hour period – although some authors manage it, and manage it very well.
Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of neatness when a story can be
compressed into a finite amount of time. It may be a day, a week, a season,
or a year - but it’s limited. The action of each of the Harry Potter novels
takes a single year (although there is much back story involving the
histories of Dumbledore, Voldemort, and Harry’s parents). The main action of
The Lord of the Rings – from when Frodo leaves his home in the Shire
(September 23, 3018) to when he returns – takes less than a year, even
though it covers three novels. Of course there is previous history
influencing these events, and Tolkien gives wrap-up to let the readers know
what happens to the characters afterwards, but the bulk occurs during the
seasons of fall, winter and spring.
You can also apply the concept of “unity of time” to a scene or a chapter
or sections. Scenes generally work better when they cover shorter periods of
time. When I try to cover days and days in a scene the writing suffers. It’s
usually better to write a few transition sentences and move to the next
“live” part of the story, where I can show instead of tell.
Another piece of advice you may have heard with respect to timing and
your story – you should start your story as “late as possible.” In other
words, don’t bore your readers with a long and irrelevant build-up, but get
things moving at once. And the later that you begin in your story, the more
compressed – the more unified with respect to time – your story will be.
However, it’s possible, in my humble opinion, to start your story too
late. Not only because your readers may need some time to meet the
characters – you can’t expect them to become acquainted with a dozen
significant characters in the space of a few pages – but because you don’t
want to have to engage in too much back story.
The last paragraph brings me to my next point: it helps to sequence your
story in chronological order whenever possible. You may consider this
obvious, yet sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes I feel like I’m caught in
one of those drawings by MC Escher where I can’t tell which staircase is
going up and somehow the water is flowing uphill. It feels as if a whole
bunch of things need to come first – or last – for me to give my readers the
best possible reading experience. However, as I am a rather mundane writer –
not, for example, James Joyce – I have to start somewhere. And then move on
to the next item, and so on.
There are early-draft instances where I will begin a scene, and then have
a flashback for an event that happened only five minutes before. If it
happened only five minutes before, why not show it “live”? Or other times
when I’m skipping around in a scene, touching on different topics in
dialogue and then leaving and then coming back to topics. It helps
considerably when I put similar topics and actions together.
Of course you may not always be able to write linearly – for example,
when you introduce a new character you may need to introduce some back story
– where does the character come from, for example? But when you do have to
shift into back story – for example, when Gandalf in The Lord of the
Rings explains the history of Sméagol, a.k.a. Gollum, he tells that
creature’s story in mostly a chronological manner.
To summarize, when you are reviewing (or perhaps writing) your story, and
determining if it “works” ask yourself the following questions:
Does the story start as late as possible?
Is the story compressed into a fixed time?
Are the story parts – scenes, chapters,
sections – compressed into fixed time periods?
Is it chronological wherever possible?
Are the events in the right order?
Is back story smoothly introduced and as
linear as possible?
Possibly Aristotle did not have all these things in mind when he was
writing The Poetics; he was writing about a 24-hour time period, and about
theatrical performances. Still, taking a bird’s-eye view of how you have
ordered events can help you detect difficulties with your manuscript.
Your organization of time and places should also complement your unity of
action – and a couple of other unities which Aristotle did not cover
explicitly. As I’m beyond the recommended word limit for this column we’ll
cover them in the column next month – even though Aristotle might object, as
I am not keeping this material unified in one column!
You may think this is rather heavy material, and certainly “Aristotle”
can be intimidating. If that’s true, ignore the name and simply review the
organization of the timing and the settings of your story. Focusing on these
aspects will help you see your novel from different angles – always a useful
Questions? Comments? You want to use this article? Write to me at
grossackva at yahoo dot com. Until next month, when we’ll continue with this
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About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the
internationally published author of Iokaste: The Novel of the
Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and other books coming out in the series called
the Tapestry of Bronze (Tapestry
of Bronze.com). You can also read more of her
articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
From Leaves to Forests
Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.