Editing, Aristotle and the Unities
- Part Two
     Victoria Grossack

In this column we’re continuing the subject of Aristotle and his concept of the unities, and how that can help you with your editing. The unities maintain that a theater piece should be united in action, united in place, and united in time. Of course, we’re concerned here with short stories and novels, but the concept can still help clarify your thinking about your writing.

Last month we considered unity of place and unity of time, so in this column we’ll cover unity of action. We’ll expand on that, too, to include a few other concepts.

Unity of Action

Unity of Action is perhaps the most difficult of the Aristotelian unities to understand. In the neoclassical paraphrasing, the unity of action means that a play should follow one main action, with few or no subplots.

I believe that the neoclassical paraphrasing is an oversimplification – and could lead to very dull storytelling. (It seems like a better formula for a lecture than a drama.) But is it what Aristotle actually wrote? Here’s a translation found in Wikipedia:

Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude … As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

If you read this closely, you’ll see that subplots are permitted – but that these subplots should complement and support your main story. The subplots which don’t should be removed. Very well: how do you determine if the subplot belongs in your novel or not?

Let me give an example. My co author and I are working on a trilogy (we just sent the second manuscript to our agent). The trilogy covers the life of Niobe, a character in Greek mythology, and the deaths of her children. While working on the first book, we originally devoted several chapters to her future husband, Amphion of Thebes. He plays an important role in the overall trilogy – but as he doesn’t marry her until book two, we finally realized we had to delete nearly his entire story in book one.

Even though some of our test readers pointed out that the Amphion storyline never really joined with the Niobe storyline, and that it was not as strong, reaching this decision was emotionally painful. First, the character Amphion was so appealing that we were half in love with him (as were several of our test readers). Second, even though the overall storyline was weak, several of the scenes were wonderful (also confirmed by our test readers). Third, using the delete key on a third of your manuscript is a drastic step. When I suggested doing this during a teleconference with my co author and our agent, there was shocked silence on the other ends of the phone.

But the excision took only two weeks to complete; the Amphion storyline simply was not integrated with the rest of the novel. The remaining book was stronger and crisper without it.

To determine whether or not sections / scenes / subplots should be deleted or kept, ask yourself the following questions:

  •  What is your main storyline? (Until you can identify your main plot you can’t recognize your subplots)

  •  Do all your scenes impact this storyline?

  •  Who are your main characters? (Consider not just those you intended as your main characters but those who evolve into your main characters)

  •  Do your sub characters interact with your main characters, or at least influence them?

  •  Is every action followed upon? Does each scene have consequences?

  •  Do all the actions contribute to the resolution of your main storyline?

Learning to ask these questions and answer them objectively helps you to be more efficient in your writing. Thanks to the painful Amphion-doesn’t-belong-here episode, we were much quicker while writing the next book at identifying scenes and subplots that did not work. That made many other things much easier. First, we wasted less time writing, editing and polishing these scenes and subplots. Second, we stopped trying to integrate them much sooner – another enormous time saver.

By the way, just because you delete scenes or subplots from your current opus, you don’t have to consign them to eternal oblivion. We took the best chunks of the deleted storyline and used them in the second novel of the trilogy, where we believe they work beautifully. If a scene or subplot keeps calling to you after you’ve removed it from where it does not belong, create a story where it does belong.

Other Unities

It may be heresy to include other unities with the three listed by Aristotle. But he was writing about theater and we are considering stories and novels; besides, I believe that the concept of unity can be extended to other dimensions.

Language: If your audience expects formal language, too much slang may confuse them. If you’re writing for seven-year-olds, you probably want to keep your vocabulary simple. Here are some questions to ask when evaluating your writing:

  •  Does your style fit your story?

  •  Is your language appropriate for your readers?

  •  Is your language appropriate for your characters?

  •  Are these consistent throughout your story? If you do change them, do you have a reason for changing them?

Mood: You may want to have one mood dominate throughout your story. A suspense story, by definition, should be suspenseful. Inserting lusty limericks might dispel the tension. Of course, you may choose to suspend the tension – there’s a place for comic relief – but you should do it intentionally rather than haphazardly. Here are a few questions that may help guide you:

  •  Does the mood of each scene support your storyline?

  •  Are the moods of the different scenes consistent?

  •  Do they complement each other?

Theme: If you are focusing on a particular theme, then you may not want to introduce too many actions and ideas that don’t support or at least reflect that theme. For example, if you are writing a story when characters are wondering what happens after death, you may not want to spend a lot of time on other themes.

  •  Does your story have a theme?

  •  Do the elements of the story support that theme, or are additional themes introduced?

You can apply the concept of unity to many other aspects of your storytelling.

Breaking the Rules

The suggestions in these last two columns are simply suggestions; many writers break them. In fact, some of them were broken back in the time of Aristotle! Some critics maintain that Shakespeare – obviously a very successful writer – broke them constantly.

I agree that you can break the rules indicated by the unities – and sometimes you can do it very successfully. More often than not, however, your story will be assisted by considering them. I’m sure that everyone out there has read blurbs on book covers referring to their contents as “great, sprawling novels…” In my opinion “sprawling” is a kind word for “disorganized,” and that many manuscripts which sprawl never make it to publication.


If the name “Aristotle” intimidates you, ignore the name and simply review the different scenes of your novel and see if they all really belong to the same story. For my part, I think it’s rather wonderful that people have been thinking about the art of storytelling for more than 2000 years.

Questions? Comments? You want to use this article? Write to me at grossackva at yahoo dot com.

1 Neoclassicism refers to a series of movements in the arts – e.g., literature, architecture, art – taking place mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries and drawing significantly on the standards of classical times – especially Greece and Rome.

2 Actually, for centuries it was considered heretical to challenge anything written by Aristotle. And although he was a brilliant philosopher and scientist for his time, the attitude of never improving upon him held science back for centuries. For example, he was certain that the Sun moved around the Earth, and gave excellent arguments why a rotating Earth would be absurd.

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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.