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Some of my early (forever-to-be unpublished) novels ignored some or all of these rules (because I’d never heard of them), but the things I’ve written since McDaniel really try to adhere to them.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