Often discussions about taste in film boil down to subjectivity. But, however broad a definition of good or bad may be, there are commonalities to most qualitative measurements, regardless of personal taste. The principle ‘unity of action’ is one.
By Nir Shelter
What Unity of Action Is and How It Works
My definition of ‘Unity of Action’ is: motivating necessities of means to a specific end. More importantly is what effect this has on an audience. Maintaining a unity of action will make a reader want to turn the page. For this a writer needs to create and order a succession of events that lead to a goal. The approach or goal may change but the succession must remain. A unity of action defines the progression through a plot.
When a script fails to illustrate this unity the resulting film becomes a series of loosely, if at all, connected events. Unity of action works by giving the audience a platform upon which to willingly experience the emotions of a story. If done correctly, the audience will follow the story in a seemingly effortless manner whilst unaware of its suspension of disbelief.
A unity of action defines the progression through a plot.
Once an audience is “in” a story, they will not be given the opportunity to reflect on the events as they happen because the unity of action forces or “motivates” them to direct their attention towards the next necessary action, and the next, and the next, etc… Therefore unity of action becomes a powerful tool used to distract from lapses in logic and plot holes.
For example, when Luke and Leia are faced with an abyss separated from armed imperial troopers by a blast door in ‘A New Hope’, our hero devises a plan to save their lives by slinging a grappling hook over a hanging pipe and swinging to safety on the other side. As the blast door separating them from the soldiers creeps open they manage to hook the wire, tie themselves together, slap one on the cheek “for luck”, and swing to safety.
Why did the imperial troopers not think of shooting our hero’s ankles when the door was slightly raised and their legs clearly visible? Why did we never see Luke load his utility belt with a super strength wire? Or ever see him use it again? How could he have carried the weight of both himself and his sister by grasping a very thin wire with his bare hands? The answer is that what they were doing was one other action embedded in their “grand” action; escape from the death star.
When watching the film, no one questions the logic of what’s happening at that moment because these details become buried within the many actions taken by the hero and his friends. Using its three crucial elements – goal, motivation and necessary action – unity of action creates and maintains this effect to engage the audience.
When watching the film, no one questions the logic
of what’s happening at that moment because
these details become buried within the many actions
taken by the hero and his friends.
Next: (2) Breaking a Unity of Action
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.
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.