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The Unities and The Short Story


I’ve read a few comments here on this blog and in other places about authors that say they can’t write good flash fiction (the shortest form of the short story). Flash fiction (anything from a few sentence to 1K-2K words) is seen as a new phenomenon in modern fiction, especially with the rise of online anthologies and blogs.

But so called flash fiction is as old the short story itself and follows many of the same rules. However, just like the short story, it is not a short or unfinished novel, that’s a novella, although serial novels were once popular in newspapers and dedicated short story publications. In fact, with the blogging and e-readers, short burst of story may be making a comeback, if only online mags published at a more regular basics (weekly or monthly instead of every three to six months).

Many how-to-books use movie analogies to explain the inner workings of the novel. However, when it comes to the short story, of the flash kind or the regular old short, we are better served by looking at classical/neoclassical theater and the Unities.

The classical unities, Aristotelian unities or three unities are rules for drama derived from a passage in Aristotle‘s Poetics. In their neoclassical form they are as follows:

  1. The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots.
  2. The unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.
  3. The unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours.

Ironic that theater, like movies, hardly follows all of the Unities, but for a successful short, you do best by using them. Your story should focus on one main character (two at the most), one theme, in one place and withing a specific time frame. A great example of this would be the classic The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. While the story has a sub shorts (each one good enough to be a flash fiction piece), it has one character (with his wife as supporting character), one theme (day dreaming), one setting (the characters imagination) and happens during a relatively short period of time (the drive to town).

The Pit and he Pendulum, is another great example (from the master of the American Gothic short story). A man (single character), trapped in a dungeon (single setting, unity of place), during the time of his incarceration (unity of time), while he is being tortured (unity of action).   By employing the three unities, you can keep the focus on the story. Remember that the story has to be self contained with a clear beginning, middle and end.  It need not be withing a 24h period, as  suggested above, but the flow of time should not break the unity of of place and action. That is, whatever happens, it must revolve around a single or short list of actors, actions and locations. The preferred choice is to limit it to the rule of one, with everyone and every thing else playing a minor/secondary role.

But what if the story requires a change of scenery?

Well, one trick I used (and borrowed from Thurber) is projecting from a single place. In Mitty’s case, it was from Walter’s imagination. But the key is that Walter is the central character, all the real action happens in his head and it happens while he is driving his wife to town. All points converge in the character, action, place and time.

On a similar note, I wrote (and posted) a short where the main character is in TV studio narrating the birth of his children. While it may seem to violate the principle of unity of place by splitting the action between the studio and the hospital, it doesn’t, because the second half of the story is projected from the narration of the main character, who is and remains in the studio throughout the whole story.

Mind you, these are useful tools in your short story crafting toolbox, but like all tools, some are more appropriate for some tasks than others. But you can’t go wrong by using them.

————–

Many songs are like short stories set to music such as this classic.  ;)

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One comment on “The Unities and The Short Story

  1. The Aristotelian unities are an interesting concept. I just completed an online fiction writing course that dealt a lot with story structure and plot templates, great to learn a different perspective.

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