Narrative Perspectives: Narrative Time


A manmade concept that often seems beyond complete definition, time is considered the fourth dimension. Often defined as the progression of existence or events in a seemingly irreversible succession, time is debated among thinkers throughout the world and is comprised of various measurements set down by various cultures. Time can be as simple as what a clock reads and as complex as concepts such as its perception, direction, and whether or not time can be repeated or revisited.


Writers are primarily concerned with the concept of narrative time, which is the cultural, historical, and chronological aspects surrounding the events in a narrative. Time is a part of the setting for any story, setting the stage for the events that are yet to unfold as well as creating the backstory through events that have already happened leading up to the moment when the narrative begins. There are novels that portray a single day or period of a few hours while other narratives tell the stories of months and years. Narrative time also determines what tense an author writes in and what events the reader is exposed to. As a result, time is an important part of any narrative whether writers or readers realize it.


Real Time versus Historical Time


Temporal time is now, the period in which we exist, whereas narrative time is the period of time in which a novel exists. This narrative time includes both the events that have happened before the actually narration of the story begins, the events of that narration known as narrated time, and events that may occur after the narration is over. The focus of most narratives tends to be on the narrated time and the time before narrated time began, i.e. the past or backstory of the narrative. Sometimes, narratives also give glimpses into the future of the narrative timeline.

Knowing that temporal time is our timeline and narrative or narrated time is the time of the story, we can then begin to think about “real time” versus “historical time” as it pertains to a narrative rather than how it pertains to the temporal time in which we live. Just like our concept of real time is the time that is happening now, the literary concept of real time is a narrative in which the events narrated happen at the exact time the characters experience them. These are stories that are written in the present tense, unfolding before our eyes.


Film is one of the media best suited to telling stories in a real-time, and as such the time the film takes is the exact amount of time the story takes. Television sometimes follows a similar method with stories unfolding as if they were happening concurrently with the lives of the people watching them. Comic strips, especially ones that appear regularly, also often employ real time with the strips reflecting the passage of time based on whether they come out daily, weekly, or monthly.

Historical time is the past, and this is the method used most frequently in written narratives. Historical time is when the events of the narrative took place in the past, any past from 30 seconds ago to 300 years ago. These are narratives that are written in past tense to reflect the fact that the action of the story has already happened. There is some debate that stories written in real time can be more accurate or reliable than stories written in historical time. A story begin told in real time is being told as it happened - or at least how the narrator sees it happening - while historical time may rely on memory, possibly even unreliable memory or stories that have been lost and broken up as they have been handed down. Either technique, when used accurately, can draw a reader in and make a story more interesting.


Duration and Presentation


As time is part of the setting, there are a lot of choices the writer makes about the time a narrative is set to better reflect the way they want to tell a story. Going way back to the days of ancient Greece are the concepts of the extradiegetic, intradiegetic, and metadiegetic narrator. These terms both have to do with how the narrator relates to the time in which the narrative takes place, and can help determine aspects of the story like viewpoint and how omniscient the narrator is.

An extradiegetic narrator is telling the story from outside the fictional universe of the text. They are just as removed from the storyworld as the reader, and while they may be characters in their own narrative, the story they are telling isn’t theres or of their world. This was a technique very common in the 1600s and 1700s when the narrator was removed from the story but still frequently tended to comment and give personal observations about the story that was unfolding. By contrast, a intradiegetic narrator is a narrator who exists within the storyworld, usually one of the characters within the story.


More complex is the metadiegetic narrator, a technique employed in frame stories. In the case of frame stories, there is another story being told within the storyworld. An example of this is the film The Princess Bride where the audience is hearing the grandfather tell his grandson a story as well as the events of the story itself. The metadiegetic narrator is often an intradiegetic narrator in their own story but an extradiegetic story in another storyworld. This technique is also common place in the play within a play technique found in drama.

Diegesis is the narrative technique that relies on the narrator "telling" the story while mimesis is a technique where the narrator "shows" the story. Diegesis is passive whereas mimesis is active.

We often hear the phrase to “show, don’t tell” when it comes to narration, but in narratology there are narrative concepts that both encompass the showing and telling of a story. Again, both of these techniques have a history dating back to the ancient Greeks. Diegesis literally translates as “narration” and focuses on the telling of the story rather than the action of a story. The narrator shows the story to the reader, often presented the actions and thoughts of the characters of the narrative as if they are removed from them. Many of the details of the world are explored through narration and description rather than action or dialogue.


The opposite of diegesis is mimesis, which literally means “to imitate” and is related to the origin of the word mime. This is basically the “show” part of the phrase “show, don’t tell.” Originally, mimesis referred to things that tried to depict the truth or the world as it is but evolved into being the action part of a narrative or performance rather than the telling part. Mimesis is any direct action that happens in a story like dialogue or a sword fight, rather than the thoughts, emotions, or removed storytelling of diegesis.

The way a narrator tells a story or the mode of presentation is another important thing for writers to consider. There are two primary modes of presentation: scenic and panoramic. In a way, both of these modes can be relayed like a camera lens. Scenic presentation is where a narrator presents the events exactly as they occur while panoramic presentation is the presenting the story as a condensed series of events, summarizing things that may have happened over a period of time or leaving out things that aren’t relative to a story. Most writers use a combination of both, utilizing scenic presentation to important events and panoramic for things that maybe don’t need the bulk of the focus.

There are various techniques writers can use to indicate speed ups and slow downs in narrative time. Beyond the scene that takes place in real time - or real time in context of the narrative - there are summaries that sped up the period of the story, usually passing over events that are not relative to the narrative. A time skip, known as an ellipsis, also skips to a later part in the story. Other times, narratives can be slowed down or stretched, often by going into the internal thoughts of a character or pausing to describe a scene while a pause involves the entire narrative coming to a stand still, usually the result of description or a comment by the narrator.


Narrative Chronology

Most stories begin in media res or “in the middle of things.” Stories usually begin in the middle of the protagonist’s life, not from their first memory or from their first action. For example, the plot of The Great Gatsby begins when Nick Carraway comes to visit Long Island for the summer, not when Gatsby and Daisy first met or at the beginning of Gatsby’s life. Most narratives begin at the moment the hero’s journey takes off or a little bit before to better establish some background on the character and the situation of the world where the character lives.


Prior to the use of in media res, it was commonly said that stories began ab ōvō or “from the egg.” Roman writer Horace used this to allude to the myth that Helen of Troy was allegedly hatched from an egg and that the tale of the Trojan War was never told from her moment of birth but rather from the time she eloped with the Trojan prince Paris. Many of the greatest literary works employ the in media res technique in their beginning from the One Thousand and One Nights to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” to The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost.

Being that most stories begin in the middle of the life of the character, not at the beginning, the narrative timeline isn’t always like our own temporal timeline. Outside of those who claim to have experienced time travel, temporal time is basically an arrow going from the past through the present and into the future with no backtracks, rewinds, or fast-forwards - though there are some phenomena that can make it feel like the clock is going faster or slower than normal.


Narratives are different in that the reader doesn’t always see something from the start and follow it through directly to the end. There can be time jumps, flashbacks, and other techniques a writer uses that disrupts the flow of time. The goal of the writer is to tell the story in the best way possible, not necessarily to tell the story in chronological order. Coined by Soviet literary theorists Vladimir Propp and Viktor Shklovsky, the terms fabula and syuzhet deal with the way time is organized in a narrative. Fabula is essentially the raw material of the story, the way things happened in chronological order both as part of the narrative as well as before and afterwards.

By contrast, syuzhet is how the story is organized or told, which chronological events come first and why they are placed where they are. A good example of these two factors at play is the film Citizen Kane, which is largely told through flashbacks. As a journalist digs deeper into the life of a reclusive millionaire, the audience sees the various points of the story depicted as they happened. The fabula is the tale of Kane’s life from his adoption to his death while the syuzhet is the order in which the audience actually sees his story unfold.


There are also several terms associated with time jumps in narratives. We often refer to these as flash forwards and flashbacks, but the official literary term is analeptic reference, which covers a broad variety of times of narrative time jumps. Flashbacks are known as analepsis, and there are two distinct types of flashbacks writers employ. An internal analepsis is when the author flashes back or references something that happened earlier in the narrative, say a conversation or event. An external analepsis is when a writer references an event that began before the narrative started, such as a character delving into their backstory or an event that happened being recalled. Flash forwards are known as prolepsis and tend to deal with what will or what could happen to the characters in the narrative.

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