Character action is the external expression of internal states. Within a story it is symbolic of and flows from characters' beliefs about themselves and the world. Characters' thoughts and feelings are judged by the audience based on these actions. For instance everyone experiences anger. Someone who expresses that anger by calmly speaking about why they feel angry or hitting a pillow tends to be seen in a better light than someone who represses the feeling and lets it eat away at their thoughts, or takes a gun and starts killing people. Depicting both the inner and outer lives of characters is probably the most intricate way to reveal theme. Unity of action occurs when a character or group of characters are focussed on specific processes which will cause them to complete a goal such as saving the town school or making it to the top of a mountain.
A number of interactive novels have fallen down in their use of action unity by their enigmatic approach to presenting the story. afternoon, a story [Joy91] begins:
I try to recall winter. <As if it were yesterday?> she says, but I do not signify one way or another.
By five the sun sets and the afternoon melt freezes again across the blacktop into crystal octopi and palms of ice-- rivers and continents beset by fear, and we walk out to the car, the snow moaning beneath our boots and the oaks exploding in series along the fenceline on the horizon, the shrapnel settling like relics, the echoing thundering off far ice. This was the essence of wood, these fragments say. And this darkness is air. <Poetry> she says, without emotion, one way or another.
Do you want to hear about it? [yes or no]
The story continues more as a poetic ramble, which can reveal some of the mystery of several people's lives. The characters do not act, they have already acted and are now dealing with feelings and memories. There is no sense of what happens next. The audience continues to follow the events so long as they find the literary fragments interesting.
When character motivations or objectives are left unclear, then the action itself is bound to be unclear and therefore not provide a strong thread for drawing the audience through the story. It is possible to allow an audience to discover these things in their investigations of the events, but if they are unable to make causal links for too long, they may start losing a grasp on the events since they have not been able to place them within a mental structure, and eventually lose interest. "Explanations and interpretations of events are fundamental to human performance, both in understanding the world and in learning and remembering." [Nor88, p. 70]
Computer games tend to put the bulk of their focus on unity of action. In a computer based shoot-em-up the audience may be given a character whose sole purpose is to blast away at aliens and their spaceships. The events may range throughout time and space, but given the intense focus on that single action, no one is likely to become confused. Time Crisis [Nam97], Doom [Car93], and Tomb Raider [GD96] all make heavy use of unity of action, often as the primary but slim thread that holds the plot together.
For a comprehensible work of some depth unity of action really needs to be combined with other unities.
Copyright 1999 Katherine Phelps