The Greek Unities

There are lots of tools and strategies at a writer’s disposal to create strong, well-structured stories. For those writers not familiar with the Greek Unities, this is a concept where a writer can use three practical elements within fiction writing to help give balance and structure to their short story and to strengthen what might otherwise be weak areas.

The idea of the unities derives from the classical Greek Unities of drama. Based on a passage from Aristotle’s Poetics, they act as benchmarks for use in drama to aid better performances and sage direction, but fiction writers can also use these principles for their stories.

The idea behind the unities is to keep the story ordered, just as they would have done within drama. They are best used when writing short stories, but that is not to say that these cannot be applied to a certain degree to some novels, too, but on the whole, when you are writing a short story these three elements really do help with the composition.

There are three unities to observe:

Unity of Time
Unity of Place

Unity of Action

Unity of Time – Most short stories and novels tend to take place over a short period of time (hours to days or a few weeks). Some novels will have a time span of months and years. The longer the time span, the weaker the unity structure. Short stories, therefore, are best when compressed into a smaller time frame.

Place – Unity of place in fiction (as opposed to drama) means a consistency with where the action takes place. This unity is more commonly observed within short stories because most short stories take place in one location, as opposed to some novels where the action takes places in several locations.

Action – The unity of action relates to the viewpoint of the character, rather than the actual action that takes place. Most short stories tend to have one or two character viewpoints which a writer keeps to throughout the story, with few subplots to confuse the reader. Obviously, this is not observed in novels where there might be multiple viewpoints and multiple subplots, but again, the more characters you have within a short story, the weaker the story becomes.

Why have these in your story?

Every story needs a sense of time, whether that covers a 24 hour period or spans several decades, it’s essential that you set a time frame so that the reader firmly understands the fictional length of time the story takes to unravel. Without it, a story may not be strong enough to support itself as a whole, because it won’t be clear to the reader what the time span might be.

Some stories are set within a one hour period, (or even shorter), or they are set within several hours. That’s because it’s hard to tell a longer story within 1000, 2000 or 5000 words.

The same is true of every story needing a sense of place. This means giving your reader enough information to know where the story takes place. For instance, a short story might take place exclusively in a house by the beach, or a story might take place entirely within a city, e.g. Paris, or within a small town, and it doesn’t deviate from that location throughout the story, therefore keeping the unity concise.

Of course, no story is any good without point of view. A short story is much stronger if there is only one point of view, the story is told through one character, rather than flipping between a group of characters. The more characters you have, the weaker the story becomes and the more confused your reader will become.

There is no written rule when it comes to using unities, there is nothing to say you have to use all of them, but it’s wise to observe at least two of them within your story, because most short stories take place within a short period – as did Greek dramas – therefore they have only one or two characters at most and one or two strong viewpoints.

The unities are designed to aid a writer, especially new writers who may not be familiar with short story structure. It helps writers create better short stories; it’s a way of bringing semblance to the writing. By using them, a writer can create tighter construction and composition and more importantly, write a strong, successful story.

Next week: How writing flash fiction helps improve your writing


  1. Those Greeks were clever people weren't they?! I first learned about the Greek Unities at an Adult Education Creative Writing Class and find that they do sharpen a story (especially anything less than 1500 words) and give it more focus.


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