Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 8: Unity

September 1st, 2013 by

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 8: Unity

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity
of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s
life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many
actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the
error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid,
a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles
was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer,
as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether from art
or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing
the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such
as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering
of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable
connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to center
round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore,
in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object
imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must
imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts
being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole
will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence
makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

Well! We are clearly into some substantial ideas here, ones that relate to the very essence of ‘story’. Let me cull out some key parts:

* As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action… We must not assume that unity derives from a character, assuming that since they are a single individual, the narrative arising from them will be somehow unified. No, characters, reflecting as they do the lives of human beings, have multiple aspects to their persona, experience, personal history, and so forth. Rather unity derives from “one action” and the imitation of it as represented in a plot.

An obvious question to an outsider living in the modern age [read: me] is this: What does Aristotle mean by the term action? On the one hand, it reads like an inciting incident that sets into motion a plot, and I would assume that he means only one plot is possible to derive from that initial action. But doesn’t that depend upon where the writer stands in relation to the story? If I have typed FADE OUT / THE END, I can look back at the plot and perhaps say, “Yes, this narrative is the only possible way things could have gone.” However if I stand at the front of the plotting process, there are, in fact, an endless number of plot choices I could make. Even if I was to immerse myself in the lives of the characters, the fact is they, too, would have innumerable choices.

So then I’m led to think, by action does Aristotle mean the entire plot of a story? This must be more on target, yes? For again, if I stand at  FADE OUT / THE END, I have a vantage point which allows me to see the unity of the plot, having worked out its details.

Of course, Aristotle never had to work with movie studios, producers, and talent who all have ideas about what the plot should be, and frankly how unified can a screenplay be if it is written and rewritten by multiple writers?

* …that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. This all writers ought to be able to understand. Whether we can assess a piece of material from a vaunted perspective of Unity or a more proletariat vantage point whereby this scene leads to that scene which leads to that scene, we get that there is a flow of events that if altered runs the risk of being disrupted and become ‘disunified.’

* For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole. We also should be able to grasp this: If a scene or character contributes nothing to the story, it is not an inherently valuable, beneficial, necessary or “organic” part of the whole.

Therefore the whole “unity” angle is something screenwriters know and struggle with in crafting a story. However I want some clarity on precisely what Aristotle means by “action”. Is it the inciting incident? The entire plot? Or does it describe something else?

Inquiring minds want to know. Hopefully our band of intrepid Aristotelians will be able to shed some light on the subject.

A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.

How about you? What do you take from Part 8 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

For the entire series, go here.

9 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 8: Unity

  1. 14Shari says:

    Quote: “In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus….”, this instructs us to make a choice what’s interesting and worth telling as every character has many dimensions and many stories to tell, but, not every story is interesting.

    I think Aristotle means with one action the plot. The oneness of the plot exists when every action leads back to the plot. So, every unneccessary event must be cut out. It’s like a spider weaving its web, he’s in control of his art work, and every thread leads back to the center no matter where you step in.

  2. pgronk says:

    As usual, quite a lot of ink and paper have been expended to explain what Aristotle meant by unity of action. We can glean some insight by looking at the 2 works he singles out for praise, Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’, but I’m not sure we come away with a consistent definition.

    The unity of action in ‘The Odyssey’ is clear cut and proactive: the protagonist, Ulysses, struggles to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. There are many adventures along the way, many colorful characters, but all the incidents arise or are directly related to the protagonist’s struggle for a singular purpose, his unity of action: get home.

    ‘The Iliad’ is different. The entire epic is framed by the wrath of Achilles, the causes and devastating consequences for the Greek alliance. “Rage-–Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless lives”.

    Achilles refuses to fight because he’s been dissed — his honor and dignity have been betrayed by Agamemmnon. The unity of action for the first 2/3 of the epic (by my page count) is…is… is… Achilles’ sitting out the Trojan War in high dudgeon!

    The Iliad has many set pieces, a cast of thousands, super-heroes in abundance (Odysseus, Ajax, Hector), a beautiful casus belli (Helen) and all the Greek gods meddling from Mt. Olympus. And all of that is framed by the pique of Achilles and how it plays out for the fortunes of the adversaries.

    This is unity of action?

    Only after the death of his beloved friend Patroclus does Achilles reverse his position (literally and figuratively) and resume fighting. And then he goes on a murderous rampage, utterly beserk — war rage!

    What we can say is there is a unifying issue in the ‘Iliad’ that frames the story from first to last: the anger management problem of the legendary Greek super-hero, Achilles.

    1. pgronk says:

      Whatever Aristotle meant by “unity of action”, for me it’s what gets encapsulated in a good logline.

  3. Still, for me, Idea delivers unity of action. Also logline :)

    As for great epic “The Illiad”, I’m not an expert though, I read somewhere ancient gods dealt with mortals’ Pride – the trait that distantly equate to strongest of sins. As far as I know, ancient Greeks didn’t have our common scale of good\bad deeds.

    The Unity may be some kind of complex sentence, for what I know. Even maybe so, we never get to the finished phrase of it, but it’s still there.

    So I decided to quote this piece from one of books I studied in the past, I think author followed Aristotle in very close step (if somehow it was possible, lol). Gustav Freytag TECHNIQUE OF THE DRAMA, from Part I “Idea”:

    “In the soul of the poet, the drama gradually takes shape out of the crude material furnished by the account of some striking event. First appear single movements; internal conflicts and personal resolution, a deed fraught with consequence, the collision of two characters, the opposition of a hero to his surroundings, rise so prominently above their connection with other incidents, that they become the occasion for the transformation of other material. This transformation goes on to such an extent that the main element, vividly perceived, and comprehended in its entrancing, soul-stirring or terrifying significance, is separated from all that casually accompanies it, and with single supplementary, invented elements, is brought into a unifying relation of cause and effect. The new unit which thus arises is the Idea of the Drama. This is the center toward which further independent inventions are directed, like rays. This idea works with a power similar to the secret power of crystallization. Through this are unity of action, significance of characters, and at last, the whole structure of the drama produced.”

    And there’s one last paragraph from same chapter:

    “To transform material artistically, according to a unifying idea, means to idealize it. The characters of the poet, in contrast with the images from reality used as material, and according to a convenient craftsman’s expression, are called ideals.”

    In the middle were couple examples how it works.

    I like the part “new unit .. arises”, as if it goes by itself. As if it always is meant to be.

  4. Doesn’t it seem as if he may be saying the unity of action must serve the illusion of the inevitability of the given story’s outcome? The first example that popped into my head was the ram caught in the thicket in the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, revealed to Abraham just after God tested his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. I remember sitting in Sunday School feeling awfully sorry for that ram (and, feral child that I was, secretly disappointed that Isaac didn’t get sacrificed after all) – but the poor beast must be there, entangled and ready to die. Someone’s robe tangled in the bush, or a mouse caught in the brambles, wouldn’t do – they would be mere distractions, rather than serving the story.

    Then I thought of the movie “Caught” (written by Edward Pomerantz), where the fishmonger’s wife and a young drifter they’ve taken in move along through the unspooling story as if making individual choices, while the net draws ever tighter around them. And also Franco Zeffirelli’s films, not only “Romeo and Juliet” but also the operas he filmed, “Pagliacci,” “La Traviata,” “Tosca,” “Carmen” (poor deluded rebellious bird) – I think these operas appealed to his sensibilities as a filmmaker with their story lines that make the characters’ fates feel inevitable by the end.

    And one odd analogy – with regard to the film making process and having to get a whole team to agree on unity of action and plot – seems a bit like a basketball tournament, where you begin with all the seeded teams; during the course of the games, one team’s best guard pulls a hamstring, another has a shooter whose hand goes hot (or cold); the games go on until only one team is left standing – yet this seemingly inevitable outcome, whether an expected team’s victory or an upset, now to be preserved in the sports annals, actually is the result of many choices made by many players throughout the duration of the event. . .a different outcome may have been possible at the beginning, but by the end, this outcome, and only this one, is inevitable.

    1. ‘Fate’ is recurring THEME in Hellenic writings. It looks like in your particular examples UNITY may be expressed with that theme, with that particular side of life, which is inevitable.

      In other words, this is something author intentionally puts in the narration, in this case fate is part of his story.

  5. pgronk says:

    >>>I want some clarity on precisely what Aristotle means by “action”. Is it the inciting incident? The entire plot? Or does it describe something else?

    I think the general consensus among scholars is that Aristotle is referring to the plot as a whole. However, I read one interesting contrary opinion where the author argues that “unity of action” refers to the one decisive moment that the story builds to, the pivotal, climactic, emotionally laded scene where the protagonist must make the most difficult choice, faces the most difficult challenge (and/or where there is the biggest reveal) that determines his final fate.

  6. Aristotle’s ‘action’ sounds to me like what Terry Rossio describes as ‘the task’ of the main character:

    http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp30.The.Task.html

    1. The idea of the task in relation to the goal is very interesting – thanks for sharing, Sven!

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