Sometimes, taking a topic and breaking it down is the way to begin a story, but identifying the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of your story is how you get from the topic to the story. (See Writing the Story, Parts 1–6.) These go back over 2,000 years—Aristotle gave us the 5 Ws in his Elements of Circumstances”—and your story must be about the 5 Ws, not about the research topic, for it to be good storytelling. Let your story illuminate your topic so your readers will be drawn to care about it through your story. This is a time-proven method writers and screenwriters use to change the hearts and minds of readers and audiences.
Aristotle also gave us what he called the Three Unities, and these, too, can help modern storytellers build a compelling story that will keep readers turning the page.
The Three Unities: Action, Place, and Time
It was Aristotle who, in Part 5 of his Poetics, defined three unities for writing stories: unity of action (the What), unity of time (the When), and unity of place (the Where). In other words, for Aristotle, the best stories are about a single action that takes place in one location within a 24-hour period. This doesn’t mean you can’t—or shouldn’t—write an epic spanning decades or generations, but Aristotle’s unity theory is something to think about when you sit down to write.
It is particularly helpful for those who write plays for stage or screen, because such unity can, among other things, drastically reduce production costs. But it’s about more than just the cost. It is also about grabbing—and keeping—the audience’s attention for the duration of your story.
Edith Wharton’s short story, “Roman Fever” (first published in 1934), is an outstanding example of a contemporary tale that embodies all three of Aristotle’s unities perfectly. The story is set on the “lofty terrace” of a Roman restaurant, where two ladies—described as “intimate since childhood” yet really knowing little about each other—are reminiscing about their own first visit to Rome when they’d been the same ages as their two young daughters a quarter of a century before. The entire story is set there, on the terrace, during one hot afternoon. The passage of time is marked by the occasional ringing of bells in the city, a glance at a watch, remarks on the changing of the light, the setting sun, the appearance of waiters with candles for the tables. The action is found entirely within the dialogue between these two middle-aged women, as they talk about their own youthful visit to Rome, their late husbands, their daughters, and the intervening years. Old jealousies and secrets are slowly revealed throughout the story until the final “gotcha” moment surprises the reader almost as much as it does one of the characters in the story, giving “Roman Fever” a most delightful ending. Unity of action, time, and place make this short story both engaging and satisfying for the reader.
As another example, contemporary thrillers often utilize the unity of time as means of bolstering suspense. A good example can be found in Elizabeth Lowell’s St. Kilda novels, beginning with The Wrong Hostage. What makes this first novel so riveting is that Judge Grace Silva has only two days to track down and produce her ex-husband, who cheated a Mexican drug cartel, before those who kidnapped her son kill him. Lowell keeps the clock ticking with chapter headings like
Saturday, 12:12 p.m.
Sunday, 11:03 a.m.
Sunday, 4:00 p.m.
Throughout this entire almost 500-page novel, Lowell reminds her readers that the clock is ticking and time is running out. Believe me, these books are very difficult for a reader to put down!
Of course, these unity rules do not have to be followed—successful stories have encompassed generations of families or whole quadrants of space—but they are something to consider when planning your story, whether you are writing a short story, a research paper, a magazine article, or even a 500-page novel. The important thing to me as a writer is to not bite off more than I can chew when I select a topic or write a story—fiction or nonfiction. If I really care enough about something to address it by writing about it, I want to focus my writing to avoid tackling something so big I can’t address it thoroughly enough to make my story complete, realistic, and compelling for my readers.
Next time, I will leave the process of storytelling and in June begin a new thread on story genres, the characteristics of, and reader expectations for, everything from Westerns to Romance to Science Fiction.
Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com