Back in the old days, or at least in graduate school, Aristotle and I became quite close. We were buddies.
Ok. The relationship was rather one-sided.
But being something of a structure freak and a lover of tracing one’s roots (be they genealogical, linguistic, or literary), I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with Aristotle and his Poetics. (Wouldn’t that be a great name for an English-nerd band?)
Here’s what I learned:
Aristotle’s unities (the unities of action, time, and place) went out of vogue around the time of Shakespeare, because of the wild and crazy influence of mystery cycles and morality plays. Aristotle was no match for Shakespeare, and his theories took on the patina of an antiquated relic, whilst Shakespeare shone.
Dear Aristotle remains relevant, though, when you’re looking for a structural way to help convey emotion, shape tone, and dive into complex thematic content.
Just for kicks, here’s a refresher on the unities.
Having unity of action means that you can reduce the plot to a universal form. In other words, can you summarize the plot in one sentence? The other part of unity of action requires a cause-and-effect structure where each plot point is logically and directly connected to the next one (the beginning, middle, and end of a piece).
The unity of time requires limitations on the time span of the action. Aristotle says 24 hours, but I think any specified boundary of time is sufficient.
The unity of place limits the location of the narrative to a single place, whether a single house or a single city.
So what does this mean for a modern writer?
Say you’ve written a middle-grade narrative with some difficult content—the death of a best friend or a parent’s mental illness, for example. Using some form of these unities in a story will set boundaries for the reader that will circumscribe a safe area to explore the complex or troubling subject matter. The pain and difficulty of the subject matter become finite in this contained cognitive space.
Even if your narrative doesn’t contain emotional content, boundaries of time, place, and action mark the fictional world of the narrative. They set the story apart from the reader’s reality, giving it a delineated time, a specific place, and a logical structure, all good things for a middle-grade reader who is making sense of her world.
As the middle-grade reader ages, though, these boundaries are not as developmentally necessary. The young adult reader pushes against boundaries and tests borders as he navigates his way toward adulthood. Knowing this, a writer of young adult fiction can be deliberate about disregarding the unities or artfully manipulating them. If you want your plot to evoke a sense of uncertainty or discomfort, such a feeling can be emphasized with a disunity of time, place, or action—when there are multiple episodes, or when the duration, succession, or chronology of a piece are not straightforward, or when the action takes place in multiple locations.
Without unities of time, place, or action, an unbound narrative will provide a stage of possibility for the young adult. More experimental or unbound narrative architectures (such as vignette or themed short story collections, plotless or episodic novels, or story-within-a-story) may hold more interest for the YA reader.
The Unities. Use them (for middle-grade) or lose them (for young adult). Either way, Aristotle’s got you covered.