Editing, Aristotle and the Unities
- Part Two
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
It may be
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
Is your language appropriate for your
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
Are the moods of the different scenes
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
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
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.
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.
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
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