Unity-Gritty: Unity of Action

The Unity of Action as I quoted yesterday is as follows:

 No action or scene in the play was to be a digression; all were to contribute directly in some way to the plot.

A novel differs from a play in that it has (at least) three different levels of action. I am likely to come back to these, so I'm going to define them in a little detail here:

  • bookhistorically a physical object, the book includes (in addition to the story) all the additional or peripheral information that goes with the experience of reading, such as cover art, blurb, author bio, dedications, and all the baggage that the reader brings along with him, such as his past experiences of the same author or the same genre.
  • storythe story is the emotional experience provoked or evoked by reading the book; this is the reader's engagement with characters, locations and events depicted in the book. This is highly dependent on the author's stylistic skill, as well as his skill in getting emotional experience across to the reader, both in terms of the experiences of characters, and in terms of the emotional experience that this generates in the reader himself.
  • plotthe "mechanics" underlying the story; how the course of events is influenced devices and desires of different characters, or by the vicissitudes of fate or fortune. A plot may be developed or designed in various ways, but it is a different skill from narration or characterization.
Incoherence in Unity of Action is often described as redundancy. My authors will be accustomed to my occasional observation that anything from a paragraph to a chapter or more is 'maybe great writing, but redundant'. In Jerry Ballarotto's impending Worthy of Trust and Confidence, I have found myself telling him that some of his best descriptive writing and some of his best characterization needs to be cut, or at least cut down dramatically, to reduce redundancy.

But the editor (and the author) has to be aware that what might be redundant to the plot could be crucial to the story. Imagine two characters need to be fleshed out a little, so that the reader is more comfortable with their actions later on in the story. The author has an opportunity to place them in a little vignette - let's say they spend half an hour chatting in a café. Now suppose the book's title is 'The Cafés of Montmartre'. This vignette may have nothing to do with the plot, but everything to do with both the story and the book.

Often, therefore, the author needs to take a decision as to how he will prioritize the three levels of action. A coffee-table book about the lives of famous Mormons (yes, really), will likely prioritize the book; presentation, layout, organization and referencing, as well as the physical experience of reading it (whether in print or on a function-rich tablet) are important to reader satisfaction. A romantic journey of self-discovery will likely prioritize the quality of emotional experience, therefore elements relating to the story. A romantic comedy, however, is much more concerned with careful control of the plot. When the author is clear about his priority, it becomes much easier to identify the real redundancies and also, crucially, identify what is absent, and how to turn redundancies into features.

Let's go back to that pavement café in Montmartre. Supposing that this book is actually one of those French novels where you start out thinking it is a sort of harrowing kitchen-sink weepy, but gradually the sensation steals over you that it is turning into a thriller. You could take that redundant half-hour conversation in a café and prolong it by a crucial five minutes. This results in one of the characters being absent somewhere that he was expected to be present, and the rest of the book is a sort of conspiracy to try to get events to catch up with where they ought to have been.

In a thriller I finished editing not long ago, a character introduced for sound plotting purposes is killed, also for sound plotting purposes - the main character has to look for a new place to stay as a direct result. But after that point, the dead guy had no further consequence or influence on either story or plot, and that got me thinking about what I think of as the next level of Unity of Action, which is reader satisfaction.

Reader satisfaction is a slippery chimera (probably part eel rather than snake). It's like a target you can aim for; the more you practice, the more often you hit.

There are various ways of aiming for it; but if your priority is plot, then it's worth going further than just avoiding redundancy. It's worth using every event for as much consequence as possible, at as many levels as possible.

There's a technique used by standup comics that goes under a number of names, that works by the comic making some throwaway gag early on in his routine, that he then recalls, unexpectedly but with scrupulous justification, much later on. This technique is a major source of audience satisfaction and is analoguous to a basic technique of tight plotting: every action has a consequence; every event drives every other event. In the case of the dead guy forcing the hero to look for new lodgings, that's a dead guy you've got there. The reader is expecting it to have other consequences. The reader will be pleased with himself if it has the consequences he is expecting (someone tries to blackmail the hero, or uniform comes knocking). But to aim for the bullseye on the reader satisfaction target, the recall should be something that the reader isn't expecting. I love when authors do that. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

So, like yesterday, Aristotle's Unity of Action is a yardstick or a proofing technique: it helps the author and the editor to identify both weaknesses and opportunities. However I think that while the Unities of Time and of Place are useful proofing options, I think the Unity of Action is an essential and profound one. It helps the author to a deeper understanding of his own work, and hence helps him to better provide reader satisfaction.


Ordeal by Aristotle

Literary criticism, when its purpose is to improve the object, is an arcane art, and any means of structuring the approach is welcome, however flawed it may be.

Many critics claim to have discredited Aristotle's Unites, which are summed up as follows:

  • Place. The setting of the play should be one location: in comedy often a street, in Oedipus Rex the steps before the palace.
  • Time. The action of the play should represent the passage of no more than one day. Previous events leading up to the present situation were recounted on stage, as Prospero tells Miranda of the events which led to their abandonment on the island.
  • Action. No action or scene in the play was to be a digression; all were to contribute directly in some way to the plot.
(from this post)

Clearly very few novels follow this sort of convention. However, an examination of a novel's deviations from the convention can reveal weaknesses.

I just finished work on two very different books, both of which have most of their action restricted both geographically and in a short time period.

Because of this, in both cases, when the action jumped out of the restricted location (in once case from inside a prison to outside, and in the other from Key West to New Orleans), it weakened the story. I think this is because stories that are restricted by any of the Unities become more intense, more absorbing. When the unity is broken, some of the intensity is lost.

Curiously, both novels also broke the unity of time in places. One of them suddenly allowed three weeks to skip by - an unfortunate necessity for the plot, but which broke the narrow focus of the action. The other had frequent tangential events and scenes that broke the flow of the main action.

In both cases I have yet to see how the authors deal with my remarks. One of the pleasures of the job is discovering both when they have accepted AND when they have rejected them!

In both cases, the comparison with the Unities shows that the more restrictions there are, the more intense the reading experience, and the greater the consequences of breaking the Unity.


Experiaunce – writing it without living it

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me

Says the Wife of Bath. She says it as a sort of challenge; in the high middle ages, even as feudal and ecclesiastical monarchies reached the height of their power and culture, the groundwork was being laid for future class struggles, and for the activity known as natural philosophy, that later became known as science.

When, on the October 31st 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, the modern age began, with the idea that thought alone can challenge authority.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the  Canterbury Tales over a hundred years earlier; European man took a long time to shake of the shackles of the likes of Galen and Aristotle; shackles whose name was 'auctoritee'.

Today, throughout most of Western Philosophy's diaspora, you can call any idea into question with a well expressed challenge; you can seek to disprove any theory through experimentation; we give way to experience more readily than we do to authority (or at least we should)*.

It is time to get back to the cowshed:

We all know that milk comes from cows. But there are those who know this as a booklearn'd fact, and those who know this as an experience.

If an author has to write about events that take place in a cowshed, how much knowledge of cowsheds does he really need?

We can (all too easily) imagine what would happen if a Roger Moore era James Bond had to battle the bad guys in a cowshed. It would be one of those big, shiny, stainless steel semi-automated milking parlors. Mooks would get milking cups attached in intimate places, a face full of feed granules and, presumably, finish up in the slurry gutter. To write this, you'd only need do a little research on the equipment and layout; no direct experience necessary.

If the hero of your Regency RomCom tries clumsily to seduce a milkmaid, the cowshed is a very different place - though there is surely an abundance of fresh cowpat with which to humiliate him. Even so, the cowshed is more likely (in the words of Burt Baldrick) to conform to a romantic ideal, rather than a true depiction of a Regency cow shed (which was much more industrial than you are probably imagining).

If the protagonist of your gritty epic of the struggles of an early Twentieth Century Irish peasant has to rise two hours before dawn everyday to make his way in the pitch black to the lea to collect his three Kerrys to the shed and milk them in darkness... well, I suggest you might need to know, for instance, how hot the milk is as it comes out; what the teats feel like; how your hands feel afterwards. Those are things that I suggest, you can't write about unless you have the experience.

For a great many things, authors rely on the secondhand experience of what they have read. Authors write about the atmosphere of the milking shed based on other authors' writings.

I'm not going to say you should not do this. But any author must be very clear with himself, about what is first hand experience, what is secondhand, what is purely imaginary (James Bond's milking parlor) and what is a romantic ideal. Anyone who has ever been punched on the nose by someone who really meant it knows what that felt like and is in a position to write about it in detail. Anyone who has never been punched on the nose really can't know, either as a reader or as a writer. Remember when you write about Mick having to win a prizefight to buy back his Kerry cows that his brother lost in a rigged wager, that when Mick gets his nose rebroken, if you don't feel it, those readers who have never had their noses rebroken** won't have a clue what it's like.

Thats where the problem lies. The closer you want the reader to feel, the closer you have to write; to write close to an event or an experience, you have to know, really know, what it's like.

Thought experiment:

Imagine a man who has never had sex writing a sex scene between two women***. Now imagine a man who has only seen two women have sex in mainstream pornography writing a sex scene between two women. And so on. How close can a male writer get to writing this scene convincingly? Here's the real power of writing: if he reads a lot of lesbian romances, he can get pretty close; close enough to satisfy many women and at least convince his lesbian readers that he's made the effort. Even if (possibly even, especially since) he is still a virgin after all that.

To come full circle; some of us are good at writing with an air of authority; an air of authority convinces a lot of people. Some of us have a lot of very broad experience, and can put that experience into our writing. But an air of authority or an air of experience is just an effect (an epiphenomenon if you like) generated by the hard work that goes on underneath; hard work that I argue, starts with the author asking himself a hard question: how much do I really know?

Did this post seem authoritative? How much of what I said did you assume I already knew. I had to look up:

  • the spelling of the first line of the Wife of Bath's Prologue
  • Chaucer and Martin Luther's dates
  • the name of the Church where Martin Luther nailed up his theses
  • the dates of Galen and Paracelsus (who got cut from the post)
  • the names of the equipment found in automated milking sheds
  • the name of a traditional breed of Irish cow

An air of authority comes from knowing exactly how much you  know, and how much you need to know. An air of experience comes from knowing what you are writing from direct experience and what from secondhand or more distant.

* and indeed there are those who abuse this by acquiring authority by giving an impression of experience. 
** I'm told it hurts less the second time.
*** now, stop it! you aren't supposed to imagine the scene.