Writing - Unities Of Time, Place, And Action
( Originally Published 1922 )
Unity of Time.— Ordinarily, the plot of a short story is based on a sequence of events culminating in a simple crisis in the life of one person. A novel might deal with several such crises in the life of one individual, for very few persons pass through only one; or the novel may be so involved as to encompass the crises in the lives of several personages. The purpose of the short story, however, is to reproduce a single and critical phase in the life of a solitary character. This crisis may be treated in detail, or otherwise, according to how many words the story is to contain.
It is absolutely necessary that the short story be limited in its reproduction of life else it will not leave an unified impression ; no particular theme will be brought out with a definiteness of outline, for it would be impossible to choose haphazardly from the chaotic welter of life a series of incidents leading consistently to the intelligible illustration of some truth. No lesson could be learned from it—no theme elaborated. Hence, the short story must embrace not only a sequence of events, but these events must be closely bound together by unity of time.
We remember best those things that happen one after the other in point of time. We receive thusly a continuous picture, for the events that occur are all intimately akin—they have a singleness of purpose and imprint their meaning firmly upon the memory. And, when the various events composing a story follow each other closely in point of time, the illusion is more real, for all life is a constantly flowing stream of action and incident.
It is not necessary to show the hero in his early boyhood —to reveal how, while yet a young boy, he was fascinated by the girl he eventually marries. Nor is it necessary to draw out a courtship through all the mazes of the wooing, proposal, preparations for marriage, and honeymoon. The story should commence where the first incident of themic significance begins and where the crisis of the main character—the crisis chosen for the story—is inaugurated. We are not interested in knowing about all the past events which have contributed to making up a person's character. But we are curious to know what his present character is; we may even desire a few summary hints as to what events contributed to his present situation and and outlook on life, such as: "Channing had not accepted the rebuffs of life philosophically; they had left him suspicious, sarcastic, cynical."
The author should choose those subjects which can be handled without .the introduction of great lapses of time, years in length, and recurring at frequent intervals. The proper length of time for the characters to act out the story's action ordinarily is not more than one or two years, but very many of them do not consume more than a day or two, or even an hour. The greater the compression of time in the story, the stronger will be the impression of unity left with the reader.
In some stories, on the other hand, the passage of many years and the emphasis of time are the very things from which the story draws its effectiveness. In De Maupassant's story, "The Necklace," the mere mention of the ten years and all they signify to the main characters is appalling indeed. It is from this relatively great length of time in the life of the two characters that the story derives its significance. In stories dealing with, or stressing, the passage of numbers of years, the beginner has but a poor chance of dealing adequately with the subject chosen. Stories of this character usually are stories of purpose or of idea.
An Example.—Such a one is Björnstjerne Björnson's,
"The Father." The story relates, in graphic simplicity and nakedness of decorative qualities, the self-centered love of the father for his son. We introduce extracts showing the passage of time.
"The man whose story is here to be told was the wealthiest and most influential person in his parish ; his name was Thord Overaas. He appeared in the priest's study one day, tall and earnest.
" `I have got a son,' said he, `and I wish to present him for baptism.'
"One day sixteen years later, Thord stood once more in the priest's study.
" `I have come this evening about that son of mine who is to be confirmed tomorrow.'
"Eight years more rolled by and then one day a noise was heard outside of the priest's study, for many men were approaching, and at their head was Thord, who entered first.
`I am here to request that the banns may be published for my son : he is about to marry Karen Storliden, daughter of Gudmund, who stands here beside me.'
"A fortnight later, the father and son were rowing across the lake.
"The Son threw out his arms, uttered a shriek and fell overboard.
For three days and three nights people saw the father rowing round and round the spot, without taking either food or sleep.
"It must have been a year from that day."
Unity of Place.—The average reader finds it far easier to comprehend the lapse of one or several years between the time required to take up the thread of the story where it was dropped than to imagine a change of scene. Thus, after the writer has mentioned that ten years have passed, it is not necessary then that the story be resumed in different scenes : rather it should be resumed in surroundings similar to those in which it was broken off,
To accept a change of scene requires a great mental exercise, If all changes of scene in a story demanding several shifts in locality are important, then it will be necessary to sketch them with some clarity. The reader is thus forced to a great mental strain in order to assimilate all the details of the varied scenes—his interest becomes diffused—he becomes conscious of himself—his concentration is scattered—his tale of amusement has become an exercise of memory.
The wise author, then, will let his characters act within the smallest possible area consistent with a fitting elaboration of his theme. This may be one or two places or more, but preferably as few as possible. Of course there are some scenes in which very important events occur, and in which the elements of setting have a peculiar effect on the actions of the characters. Such a locality must be sketched in with some detail and care. But, once the reader has mastered this scene, he should not be hurried on to another which is described with just as much particularity. If such is the case, the story will contain far too much description. Consequently, the very best method the author can employ in imparting unity of place to his works is to describe with some definiteness only the one or two main settings of his story and bring the characters back to these settings as often as possible. At each return to one of these main scenes it will be necessary only to mention the setting. The reader will already have formed a mental picture of the place.
The writer must ever bear in mind that the reader desires to become indentified with the characters of the story; therefore, the constant intrusion of the writer who forces the reader to tear his attention from the consuming interest of the action of the story to the mere setting in which the various incidents take place, is aggravating in the extreme.
Let there be only a very few scenes sketched in detail. It will be sufficient to leave the other changes to the imagination of the reader himself by leaving the details of the background indefinite. If the hero goes to church, merely mention the church ; the reader has his own type of church in mind, and it would be merely a distraction for the reader, to tell of what materials the church is composed. And, if no important event occurs in the heroine's home, it is again of no particular advantage to describe the various trappings that compose the living room.
Most people greatly enjoy travel; they like to visit foreign countries. They love to wonder at the beauty of far-off climes, to hear new sounds and smell strange, entrancing per-fumes. But novelty of change comes easily through the eye, which immediately registers a picture on the brain with little effort. To visualize a change of scene, however, is a much different matter; for the ordinary individual, it requires a distinct effort. The author, then, may easily imagine what pleasure a person might extract from a tale constantly interspersed with detailed descriptions of place and condition. So let the author decide to fasten upon two or three main localities to carry on his story. Let the reader know those particular places well and even learn to love them ; but let the writer merely mention all other changes of scenes very sparingly. For example, "The forest, "On the way home," "He took dinner at the Inn," and "They toiled up the mountain."
Unity of Action.—A story, to possess unity of action, must be concerned only with one main crisis of a character's life; therefore, it obviously is not within the ability of the short story to delineate the slow development of a character and to give the numerous incidents which ordinarily influence him. The slow development or gradual degeneration of character requires the larger scope of the novel for adequate treatment. Hence, the writer should avoid portraying the deliberate growth of character, or a change in character requiring the passage of years and the influence of innumerable incidents to bring it about clearly and satisfactorily.
Simplicity of All Materials Essential.—To insure unity of action, be sure to exclude all incidents which do not directly contribute to the approach and accomplishment of the main crisis. This includes the extinction of all sub-plots and extraneous characters, as well as all bits of setting and characterizations not having the realization of the theme constantly in view. Do not think to heighten the suspense or draw out the interest by introducing little side-shows. They inevitably detract from the main issue of the plot; the story ends without having imparted a single impression; the theme of the plot misfires, and the reader receives no single or dominant view of life. The secret of success in the short story, then, is simplicity rather than complication and involved artfulness—simplicity in the number of characters, in the emotions which the characters experience, in change of scene, number of incidents, course of time, and so on.
By some strange and inexplainable twist of fate, people in general have been led to believe that the way of the story teller is very devious indeed; that he deals in strange concoctions of endless constituents. It is true that the elements with which he deals are many—for his realm is that of Life, the world—but his subject for each single story is only a very infinitesimal atom of existence, handled to bring out some phase of life helpfully, interestingly, and intelligibly.