Editing, Aristotle and the Unities
     Victoria Grossack

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 keystrokes?

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, Greece.

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 first.)

  •   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 editing technique.

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 challenging topic!

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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 Fiction from  www.booklocker.com.  

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the From Leaves to Forests and Writing Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.