Unity of Action

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 haLuke and Leianging 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

-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

3 thoughts on “Unity of Action”

  1. Brother and Sister? WHAT!?!
    It’s true, what is important to show and drive the reader or viewer is the challenge and the characters over coming them. Too much detail in unimportant actions slow down the story. Such as showing people getting into a vehicle, grabbing items out of pockets… We don’t have to show every single action as the audience should be in tune enough to connect the moments that we want to show….. Oh, and storm troopers are dumb, they’ll never think of shooting before the door opens.

  2. Nice post Nir :)

    I felt the same way about The Dark Knight Rises.

    There is enough plot – and compelling drama/intrigue – going on – that we don’t need to get `caught up with details’ that may be illogical.

    For example, I never once had an issue with any of these 73 things.
    (And still don’t when I watch the film over).

    My reasons for feeling that way, I guess:

    1) When I consider how `Batman’ – as a character – had been
    portrayed, up to / before Nolan did it… (ie, previously:
    completely, tongue in cheek – and/or treating him as comic-book
    guy… and yes – Nolan’s is still comic book – but: closest yet, to
    “reality” if comic-book life / `the DC world’ was real… just IMHO)…

    2) GENIUS casting in all 3 Batman movies…
    ie – Bale, Ledger,
    Hardy, etc etc etc

    3) Stunning action – I’ve never seen a `plane action sequence’ like
    in the 3rd movie… (and – all the other action sequences too…)

    4) Great (clever) twists; i didn’t see `the twists’ coming – like, with who
    `the kid who climbed the well’ was…!

    5) I LOVED all the social commentary subtext: The whole `Occupy’
    thing, the mock-trials of the “Eat The Rich” Gotham rebellion, — It really `nailed’ the current Zeitgeist – in a way that no other
    big Hollywood movie would (apparently?) ever dare…?

    (Or: Am I wrong? – I cant think of a more `Anti-Corporate’ (and
    `Anti-Capitalist’) and actually downright Marxist film, well, apart
    from Speed… or maybe Avatar) i.e. So much (political) subtext…
    and anyway:
    6) Who else could actually make `Robin’: a cool character?
    (i think,
    that is an almost impossible task…)

    Anyway, nice post Nir!


    JT Velikovsky
    High ROI Film/Story/Screenplay Consultant


Leave a Comment