Breaking the principle of unity of action is a directorial decision, not a writer’s one.
For one reason or another a director may decide it prudent to break the flow of a story and change the pace.
By Nir Shelter
Breaking a Unity of Action
The writer must provide a consistent flow of action for the director to make such a decision. Breaking unity of action is risky, leaving the onus of such decision to other people.
A good example of this is Butch getting the wristwatch in ‘Pulp Fiction’. In the scene, Butch returns to his apartment, despite the looming danger of an armed gangster, to retrieve the wristwatch. Once successful, there is no reason for him to be there. He could easily make a discrete escape on the way to his next goal, disappearing into safety with Fabien.
Breaking unity of action is risky,
leaving the onus of such decision to other people.
But he feels good about himself and chooses to go to the kitchen and prepare a snack. In the process he discovers the gun intended for his own murder. He picks it up and kills his would be assassin. The reason this scene works despite the obvious break in the unity of action is because the break was brief and purposeful.
In most other genres it is a hard task to break a unity of action successfully for an extended period of time. As noted in ‘Pulp Fiction’ this was pulled of well BY THE DIRECTOR. But in most stories the potential for this can be strategically placed by the writer at a specific point in the story; end of act 2 – what Blake Snyder calls “The Dark Night of the Soul”. Here the hero must face his faults, change, and learn a lesson. Only then will he have gained the motivation and knowledge to save the day. BUT, just in the moments that lay between him sinking into the pit of despair and pulling out gold, the unity of action of the outer journey is allowed to break.
In most other genres it is a hard task
to break a unity of action successfully
for an extended period of time.
When this split of awareness occurs the unity of action to achieve the conscious goal can be broken because until the observing part of the hero doesn’t act, the action will remain stopped. A good example is in ‘Die Hard’ at the end of act 2 following Hans’s instructions to “Shoot de glass”. Our cowboy – alone, injured and facing his potential death – laments over the radio with his Buddy Al, who in turn admits to killing an innocent child himself. This has nothing to do with the action of achieving his next goal (stopping de bad guyz), but is allowed because we feel with him as he experiences pain, grief, learns a lesson, and changes through his mentor in the story.
The temporary and brief break in the unity of action
of the conscious goal makes way for the journey
to achieve the unconscious object of desire.
The temporary and brief break in the unity of action of the conscious goal makes way for the journey to achieve the unconscious object of desire. In effect, the inner journey for the unconscious goal has been accompanying the outer one all along. Unity of action is actually maintained through the plot to achieve the hero’s unconscious goal and therefore never broken entirely such as in the ‘Pulp Fiction’pop tart scene.
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:
photo credit: JD Hancock
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.