In an important sense, unity in writing is an author’s core design principle. This is the starting point and end goal in writing.
What are you aiming for when you start writing? A beautiful character? A page-turning plot? A memorable climax? To coin a new word in your own language, like Dickens did with “Scrooge?”
You could be thinking any one of these things, or a million others. Likely, you are thinking about creating the whole shebang, a complete book. This takes arriving at unity: all the parts of your book working in harmony. Achieving unity means the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
What makes unity possible is a great idea big enough to be the epicenter of a book-length story: Bella falls in love with an immortal vampire, Ahab chases the white whale, Scrooge rethinks his miserly ways. These ideas spawned age-defining books.
Normally, we learn about unity in school in the context of writing well-formed paragraphs. Each paragraph should cover a single topic. Well, it’s the same concept as having one great idea at the heart of a book. When a paragraph has a single idea, its content is unified. When it doesn’t, it needs to split into two (or more) paragraphs – it needs to be fixed.
A textbook-quality paragraph has a topic sentence, followed by sentences that give supporting evidence for the topic. It’s closed with a summary sentence that at best helps the reader understand the connection with the information in the coming paragraph. Like a ride in a Rolls Royce, this structure allows the reader to read through the content smoothly and pleasurably.
Books need the same level of unity, just on a bigger scale. Each unit needs to be just that – a logical unit – from sentence to paragraph to chapter. If you are writing multiple books in a series, the whole series needs unity.
Unity – whether of a paragraph or a book – is like interior design. You don’t have to be a stylist to have a natural desire to organize your surroundings. No, this table goes here. That painting just does not fit the mood. That window needs longer curtains. Beige paint is perfect as it will show off the Persian carpet.
In a beautifully appointed room, all the shapes, colors and styles resonate together – visually, culturally, historically. This is the whole point of paying big bucks to a hired professional. It’s the power of the package effect. Unity is a core concept in art for very good reason. It’s about the harmonious delivery of all the aspects of a work of art such that it becomes deeply impactful.
Unity emerges in interior design, or any kind of art, as pieces of content amplify others, through order and links. Design content such as a chair, couch, or painting are chosen, ordered in a room spatially, and linked together – whether the style is quirky, eccentric, grandiose, or minimalist. We all know when things go wrong visually; we see it and feel it in our bones.
Everyone can mess things up in a room, often for lack of great matching content, but far fewer of us can put things together so it all looks “just right.” It’s the same for ideas – the characters, actions and setting in a book – they need to be just right, and fit all together.
Who would Bella be without Edward? Who would Edward be if he weren’t a vampire? What would either be separately if they didn’t fall madly, supernaturally in love? What would either of them be without the dark and rainy setting of Forks or the wolves in the background? It’s the way they all weave together and exponentially improve each other that brings heightened meaning.
Unity in writing means “unified,” not “all the same.” While all the pieces of a book hang together in space-time, they can be intensely disparate. Often the delight of a book is how seemingly wildly unrelated things are eventually shown to be part of a bigger, connected picture. Ah! There is an underlying meaning and a big picture after all!
Lack of unity is caused by one or more pieces sticking out. A unified story lacks any rough edges, cracks, or gaps. If it has them, readers will shout them down, and the author will soon know it. All writing flaws can be marked down to not achieving unity.
In an important sense, unity is an author’s core design principle. Whatever you start with, whichever choices you make, no matter where you end up, just make it fit together. Unity proves to be the soul of your internal editor. You edit against it actively and purposefully. Are you improving the unity of your work as you select content, order it, and build links?
The purpose of all those iterative drafts? Each one brings you a step closer to unity. Unity in writing is what we seek as we successively hone a work to improve its every aspect. Each draft ties up more loose ends, dumps ballast, and revs up meaning.
The ability to achieve unity is what elevates writing as an art form. Anyone can write a shopping list. Few can write a story that stretches over 80,000 words. The ability to achieve unity separates great writers from the throng.
Creating unity from the ingredients of a story is a writer’s most difficult task. It is also the most essential.
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