Unity means a lot of things to different people operating in different circumstances. Among people of different backgrounds or beliefs, Unity means that they are reaching beyond their normal lives to act as one. The political system in the USofA is based on the idea that entire political systems are stronger when they come together to form a larger unity. Unity in writing, however, is a bit more subtle. It describes that which ties everything together into one whole so that it can be digested by the human mind. It doesn’t have to agree with itself completely, but when it works well the conflicts can be understood easily.
As Aristotle tells us in The Poetics, Part 8 (translated by S H Butcher)
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. …
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.
What Aristotle is saying is that Unity does not mean that the text is particularly real; in fact, the construction of a good drama or comedy often makes realism nearly impossible. There is too much noise in our lives that doesn’t point towards a satisfactory conclusion. The distractions that we are used to in our lives may not be a big deal to us, but they are awfully hard to explain to someone else. A good story has to stay close to the point and move it forward in nearly all of its actions.
That’s bad news for minimalists that want to bring a sense of hard reality into their work. Understanding Unity and how important it is to deliver the point doesn’t mean that it is impossible to accurately represent real life in drama, it just means it is difficult. The most common way around this is to use characters that are obsessed with what they are doing to a point of stark clarity, ignoring externalities and distractions that most of us consider the core of our daily routine. You’ll see realists often resorting to this device, something I call the Glengarry Routine from David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glen Ross”. Obsession makes it easier for everyone to stay focused and real in a way that still, no matter what anyone says, is a bit unreal. The first rule of the Fight Club is …
For those of us who are not enthralled by that level of intensity and hyper-realism, there is another way out. The Persian philosopher al-Farabi commented on Aristotle in the ninth century, and found that there were two forms of mimesis – the representation of reality in art through means that are either a perfection of nature or a clever lie, as Mark Twain often noted. To al Farabi, there is a distinction to be made between action and speech, noting that in people they are rarely perfectly aligned and can remain distinct in drama. In short, dialogue gives us a tool to maintain Unity and its focus on advancing the plot while still injecting a good dose of reality. I call this the Tarantino Effect, for obvious reasons.
What remains important in any of these ways of approaching a story is Unity. The plot has to move forward in a way that keeps the reader focused and keeps everything in a form that they can take in. Less obvious is that this does not only apply to storytelling, but to all forms of writing. Being aware of what Unity means in the course of writing means that the writer is focused on what the piece is about and advances it appropriately – but also is aware of when the construction becomes artificial and stale through this necessary process.
I’ll leave it with Lao Tzu, as I often do, in Tao Te Ching 10 ( translated by Stan Rosenthal):
Maintaining unity is virtuous,
for the inner world of thought is one
with the external world
of action and of things.
The sage avoids their separation,
by breathing as the sleeping babe,
and thus maintaining harmony.
The process of exploring the limits of Unity and reality is a very modern approach to writing, but the basics of it were well known to ancients in all corners of the globe. If nothing else, an understanding of Unity should begin with a very simple understanding that the writer isn’t going to craft away with anything new, at least not without some effort and intellect. It’s still a lot of fun to make it work, however.