Jeanne: Aristotle’s Unities

AristotleOne of the things Jenny Crusie covered during the McDaniel Romance Writing program was Aristotle’s Unities.

Aristotle, Greek dramatist and perhaps the world’s first story wonk, believed that a well-written play should have a very limited scope. He thought a play should:

  • Have the least possible number of subplots (unity of action)
  • Have a single setting (unity of place)
  • Occur over the course of a single day (unity of time)

When I first heard this, it felt completely over the top to me. To a certain degree, it still does. Lately, though, I’ve been reading manuscripts and even published novels who authors don’t appear to have ever heard of good old Aristotle and his unities.

  • They hop from place to place.
  • They wind on for months or even years.
  • They include subplots that don’t get resolved.

Aristotle may have been too narrow by today’s standards, but I think he was on to something.

  • Limiting your plot to a main plot and no more than a couple of subplots allows you to really delve into those stories.
  • Limiting your novel to the absolute minimum number of characters limits the number of names/personalities your reader has to keep track of and allows her to connect more deeply with the characters you do choose to include.
  • Limiting your book to the shortest possible period of time automatically grants your story dramatic tension.
  • Limiting your story to a minimum number of settings allows the reader to engage more deeply with that setting, and with the story that sits on top of it.

Some of my early (forever-to-be unpublished) novels ignored some or all of these rules (because I’d never heard of them), but the things I’ve written since McDaniel really try to adhere to them.

The one I’m least successful with is probably unity of time. Although I’d love the tension a book that takes place over a few days or a week has, my plots are usually too complex to easily resolve within such a short time-frame.

  • The Demon Always Wins takes place over a period of 7 weeks.
  • The Demon’s in the Details occurs over 44 days (so, 5 days shorter)
  • The Demon Wore Stilettos is planned to take 30 days. (Since it’s not finished, I can’t swear that won’t change.)

The good news is, my timelines are getting shorter.

That said, it’s tough to have two characters meet and fall in love in a convincing way in a very short period of time. The only reason The Demon Wore Stilettos can resolve so quickly is that it’s a second chance at love story, so the H/H already know each other.

What about you? What is your ideal timeline for a novel?

7 thoughts on “Jeanne: Aristotle’s Unities

  1. Oh, boy, I’m trying to think back to my NaNos. One was about three days in Tokyo — very unified as to place and time. Another was about a week? Small town, but you had the real world and the Underworld. A third one was a couple of weeks — it was a journey from home to the site of an asteroid strike via bicycle. Journey books work really well, but they often seem to travel in a sort of bubble. I’m thinking Three Men in a Boat, Huck Finn, Canterbury Tales, Around the World in 80 Days. The characters pretty much stay the same, and there’s a certain conversational bubble that goes on the trip, too, if that makes sense.

    I’ve done short stories that take place over the course of 48 hours, or even six or seven hours, but they are short.

    I dunno. I have enjoyed extremely unified stories (but none really spring to mind, actually). But the ones I love take place over more than a day, often have different places, and have complicated subplots. Pride and Prejudice, Bet Me, A Civil Campaign.

    Aristotle was writing plays, though, and that’s definitely different. Two hour movies often do benefit from shorter timelines, simpler plots and one place. Not always (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?), but sometimes. Even Beetlejuice, which takes place in one house for the most part, has scenes in the afterworld and in the terrible sand desert.

  2. Time is a tricky one, especially in a romance, which I guess is why giving the H&H a shared backstory is so popular. Lots of returning home/the one that got away/unfinished business plots in every romance subgenre. Paranormals also have the handy fated mate trope.

    * My first story (contemporary romance, characters who’d never met before) took place over three months.
    * Alexis’s first book is a little under three weeks. The characters haven’t met before, but their families’ backstories are tightly intertwined, and the book is the first of a series, so while the H&H’s relationship has a definite arc, it’s not all hearts and flowers and HEA by the end of the book.
    * Christal’s book is fast–the whole thing takes place over a week. Still writing this one, but I think/hope it works (I love it). The story is set in a fantasy historical world in which marriages happen for political and practical reasons, and that drives the choices and actions of both H&H.

    • This is an interesting point. In historical romances (and your Alexis series are set in a pre-industrial time, as well as in a magical realm), you also have the trope of “duty” to draw your H/H together. Even if, as the book ends, they’re really just in the attachment phase, the commitment cant be provided by the framework–they’re more likely to make this relationship work because splitting up isn’t really an option, given the implications for society.

      Tougher, I think, if they’re swimming against the tide. We really need to believe they’ve got what it takes to maintain their feelings if they’re facing of lifelong resistance. Guessing that’s why most “relationship facing lifelong resistance” stories tend to be tragedies instead.

  3. Linda Howard’s Up Close and Dangerous took place over a period of about a week or two (can’t remember exactly). They knew each other before, but not well at all. However, they were forced together due to circumstances 24-7. It worked. That’s one of the problems with my first manuscript (pre McD so it sucks). It takes place over years. That’s the one I tried to fix and finally gave up. I might end up turning my first three into a retro series if I ever get the second part of it off the ground. I don’t remember this part of the program, but I did study Aristotle’s 3-act story. Good food for thought (and plotting).

  4. Crisis definitely creates a crucible effect.

    Glad you found it useful. It seems like I understand more and more of what we learned, either from my own books or from reading other authors.

  5. So funny! Like Michille, I don’t remember this part of the program, either. I remember the name “Aristotle” sort of waved over the discussion, but…yeah, that’s it.

    Aristotle’s not working for me that well, at least as paraphrased. “The least as possible” aspect offhand would seem to be both subjective and dependent on how long you want to make your work (epic? novella?) and the story you want to tell. That said, focusing primarily on your primary story is always a good plan. I’m not sure there’s an ideal time frame. I was just thinking this morning about a structure where each successive chapter is the next month, with the book being 12 chapters. So…I guess I’m saying that Aristotle’s theories of unity are just one more set of rules to be broken. 🙂

    • They all are. This particular set has been on my mind lately because I’ve been reading stuff that suffered from ignoring them, but I’ve also read many books that ignored them with excellent results.

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