Unity of Action (3)

At the end of Act Two of Die Hard, John McClane is effectively faced with his own self (note the shot composition and what he is actually facing) to review his own character and dig deep for a solution to achieve his unconscious goal.

By Nir Shelter 

At this point the audience wants him to struggle in an attempt to become a better person as they have a heightened level of empathy for him. They want him to take the next action in order to experience this with him on the roller coaster of emotions that is his story. But the next action is not going to necessarily be a physical one.

The working elements of Unity of Action.

As actions are not always physical, a character can take an action through dialogue; by saying the right thing to the right person they could have moved the plot forward. Therefore actions in the shape of dialogue, internal growth or a mere glance are the fundamental building blocks of a story. A unity is not necessarily a series of actions taken by the same character or group of characters, nor does it have to be a series of actions taken in the same place or time. Rather unity of action is a series of actions that inform a perceived achievement or goal.

actions in the shape of dialogue,
internal growth or a mere glance
are the fundamental building blocks of a story

As the achievement of a goal is a plot’s function, unity of action holds the substance of interest in a story. It works by giving the audience a platform upon which to willingly experience the characters’ emotions, in order to prove correct the supposition made by the premise or ‘controlling idea’.

Once a protagonist is engaged in the constant pursuit of a goal he or she is imbued in the audience’s mind with the qualities of living beings, helping the development of empathy. Combined with the need to feel what the protagonist experiences, the audience is now unaware of the intellectual process involved with memorizing and understanding the plot. In order to retain this effect, everything the protagonist does must be a motivated part of the unified action of a plot.

everything the protagonist does must be
a motivated part of the unified action of a plot.

In addition to motivation, necessity is a vital part of a unity of action a lack thereof bares the question; why did the character do that? This forces the audience to come up with an answer them selves. If the audience consciously memorise and analyse the events of a story they are no longer engaged in the story rather the act of perceiving it. Calling to the audience’s attention the very fact they are not performing this subconsciously and therefore not suspending their disbelief.

Final Words

Story happens in one place and one place alone, not the screen, not between the actors, not in the camera, stage or page but in the audience. Unity of action maintains a need to know and feel, therefore helps pass over inconsistencies in logic facilitating the experience of the story for the audience.

The storyteller should aim to indulge this constant need to know by creating a rollercoaster of emotions to move the audience. As a result the greatest goal a writer can have is combining thought and feelings into the one experience.

-Nir Shelter

Nir Shelter Storytelling is a way for us to shrink the world down into a manageable size. Allowing us to reflect upon and understand what it is we do and in turn derive meaning from our lives.

My work in film, TV and theatre gives me the opportunity to see first hand, what works and what doesn’t and I hope to share these observations with as many people as possible, for the sake of story.

Director’s show-reel and bio:

Creative Commons License photo credit: JD Hancock

About the Author

Nir Shelter

Nir Shelter is a writer/director whose work has featured at film, theater and writing festivals around the world. His projects have accumulated over 70 selections, nominations and awards, placing in some of the highest ranking industry festivals and contests: Final Draft’s Big Break, The Page Awards, The Nashville Film Festival, The Austin Film Festival, Screencraft, Shore Scripts, LA Web Fest, KWeb Fest and more.

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