24-Hour Timescales: Why do we love stories set over one day?4 min read

by Apr 21, 2017Writing0 comments

Aristotle had a few rules for drama called the classical unities.  Unity of action, unity of time, and unity of place.  Basically, a play ought to follow one action and consequential fall out (he didn’t think much of subplots).  All action should happen within the timescale of 24-hours or less (unity of time).  And it must be set in one physical space.

What we learn from the above rules is that Shakespeare was a rubbish playwright.


The majority of stories we tell, on stage or not, don’t follow these rules.  So if a writer chooses to limit the timescales of their work, do they gain anything?

There are plenty of famous examples of stories using this idea.  From literary classics, Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway, to film classics like Alien and Die Hard.  Also Christmas seems to involve a lot of 24-hour timescales, A Christmas Carol and The Hogfather being the first two examples I can think of.

As a writer I’m not sure timeframes make a difference.  No matter what you are writing, over how long a timescale, you will plan and plot the same.  If you’re writing historical fiction, you’ll be checking your dates against the dates of any backdrop wars and intrigues to keep a feeling of legitimacy.  (Though you are unlikely to go quite as far as James Joyce with Ulysses in checking the weather reports for the day so that all cloud movements were accurate, and ringing his aunt to make her count paces between spots so he knew how fast characters could move between haunts.)  If you’re not writing historically accurate stories, you’ll still be sense checking the pace of events and character development.

So what is the allurement of a story unfolding and closing in one day?

I’ve had a few thoughts, but I’m still thinking it out.  As a writer I am drawn to setting my work within smaller and smaller segments of time.  There’s something about the challenge of managing action and character on that scale that makes me want to test myself.  So perhaps some of it is authorial conceit.

Another, rather romantic, notion is that any one day can change your life.  We’ve all had days where we don’t want to get up and face the world, but you never know…  That one day might hold anything.  That’s appealing to readers who also don’t want to face the world in the morning!

The other thought I’ve had is that one day novels are actually very truthful.  If you have a fantasy or family epic stretching over generations you, by necessity, skip a lot of stuff.  Thought and emotion utterly fill our every waking moment; just think of your own stream of consciousness as you make coffee and toast.  That’s not something an epic can capture.  Short timescales allow for recognition that you can feel everything in one day.  It’s overwhelming on a different scale to the epic, but nevertheless it’s also epic.

What timescales do you prefer to work with?  It’s Tell A Story Day next Thursday, what 24-hour story would you love to tell?

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