Narrative Time

by Bill Bowler

1. Where to Begin?

In real life, the order of events is fixed. Certain events necessarily come before or after other events in time: results come after causes, responses after stimuli. Pull the trigger, the bullet flies, hits the target, and the body crumples to the ground in a pool of blood. Cause leads to effect.

In a story, the author determines the order of events. He is free to recount events in any order he chooses and it doesn’t matter what the “actual” chronology was. For example, an author can narrate events in reverse order: he can tell us first how he gasped in horror at the pool of blood, and then recall the whistle of the bullet and how, before that, the cold-blooded killer had pulled the trigger. This goes backwards in “real” time, but is perfectly acceptable storytelling.

Real life is panoramic. Countless events transpire at once, some under our nose, some on the moon, some insignificant, some earthshaking. Even within the range of our own perception, numerous events, big and small, are occurring simultaneously.

Story telling is linear. By and large, an author can recount but one event at a time and the reader’s eye actually moves along a line. If two or more events happen at the same time, the author must find a way to tell us they do.

It’s possible, of course, to say that events happened at the same time, for example, “Ten explosions occurred at noon today. Nine squad cars were immediately dispatched from six precincts.” But if you keep doing that, the style soon becomes clumsy and hard to follow. In practice, storytellers generally narrate simultaneous events one at a time.

An author must decide, then, in what order to narrate his story events, including where to begin and where to end. These choices in plotting produce different results and alter the reader’s experience of the work. A crime story narrated from the “beginning” can show the reader “what happened” but the same events, narrated from the “end,” can make the reader wonder “who done it?”

There are three basic possibilities for starting a story: the author can start at the beginning and proceed chronologically; he can start at the end and tell the story in “flashback;” or he can start in the middle, “in media res” as the ancient Latin rhetoricians called it.

Perhaps the ultimate approach to starting a story at the very beginning is taken by the narrator of Genesis:

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth...

The classic 19th Century realists often favored starting at the beginning. Consider, for example, Dickens’ Oliver Twist:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse, and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events, the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

The effect of starting at the “beginning,” of adhering to “real” chronology, of telling events in the order they “actually” occurred, is to give a seemingly factual quality to the narrative. The artificial and arbitrary nature of plot chronology is masked by its apparent identity with real time.

The narrator of Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” begins his story at the end, after the fact:

Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end. To say that a mental shock was the cause of what I inferred — that last straw which sent me racing out of the lonely Akeley farmhouse and through the wild domed hills of Vermont in a commandeered motor at night — is to ignore the plainest facts of my final experience...

By starting at the end and narrating in flashback, by describing the effect without first disclosing the cause, the storyteller piques the listener’s interest and creates a mystery whose solution the reader is curious to learn.

The same effect can also be achieved by starting in the middle, as van Vogt’s Slan does:

His mother’s hand felt cold, clutching his.

Her fear as they walked hurriedly along the street was a quiet, swift pulsation that throbbed from her mind to his. A hundred other thoughts beat against his mind, from the crowds that swarmed by on either side, and from inside the buildings they passed. But only his mother’s thoughts were clear and coherent — and afraid.

“They’re following us, Jommy,” her brain telegraphed.

Jommy and his mother are running from something. Something has frightened Jommy’s mother but the reader has yet to learn what. Our curiousity is piqued, as in Lovecraft’s “Whisperer” and, at the same time, we have begun in mid-action and are swept at once into the rush of hurtling events. We have “hit the ground running.”

* * *

Now, beginnings and ends of stories are themselves somewhat artificial. A story is perceived as an artistic whole and is felt to have a beginning, middle, and end, or at least to need them, even though it is understood that other events in the story world have happened before the story “begins” and will continue to happen after the story “ends.”

There is, as a result, a certain overlap with starting at the beginning and starting in the middle because any beginning (Genesis excepted) is, in terms of eternity, already a “middle.”

The question of whether a story begins at the beginning or in the middle depends on whether the earlier events are part of the story or not.

If the earlier events figure actively into the story and plot, as in Slan, then we have begun in the middle. The cause of Jommy’s mother’s fear is indeed part of the story. Who is after Jommy, and why, becomes painfully clear in the first pages as the pursuers close in and the threat becomes clear.

On the other hand, if the earlier events are pre-story and not felt to be directly part of the active plot, then we can consider that we are nonetheless starting at the “beginning” even though other background events have already occurred.

Oliver Twist’s story begins with his birth. Prior events, for example, his parents’ or grandparents’ earlier lives, must have happened but are not felt to be part of Oliver’s story, although his mother’s identity, revealed only later in the story, comes into play.

Likewise, the story characters and world are understood vaguely to continue on after the last scene. “Life goes on,” but these subsequent events are also “postscript” and not felt to be part of the story proper.

Dostoevsky exposes the artificiality of story ending at the conclusion of Crime and Punishment. The murderer Raskolnikov has been convicted and sentenced to seven years hard labor in Siberia. The experience will change him for the better.

“But that is the beginning of a new story — the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.”

2. What Matters?

Not only is an author free to start and end his story at any point he wishes, he is also free to narrate the story events in any order he chooses. Consider, for example, Tom Hamilton’s “The Pit Bull”:

Here is the natural chronology of “Pit Bull,” the basic events of the story in chronological order:

  1. Distant past — Narrator and his cousin are childhood friends
  2. Recent past — Cousin and “she” cheat behind narrator’s back
  3. Present — Narrator and cousin have it out in the parking lot; narrator walks home and is attacked by “The Pit Bull.”
  4. Future — The narrator imagines his cousin and her making out after he, the narrator, is out of the picture.

These story events are narrated in the following order: 3, 2, 1, 3, 4, 3 (i.e., present, recent past, distant past, present, future, present). Note that the first scene of the story as written is the third scene in chronological order.

If we break down the story events into greater detail, we find even greater complexity in their narration, essentially a shifting back and forth between present and past (with one nod towards the future).

A more detailed version of the (reconstructed) “natural” chronology of “The Pit Bull” would be this:

  1. Distant past — Narrator and his cousin are childhood friends
  2. Less distant past — Narrator and she get involved
  3. Recent past — Cousin and she cheat behind the narrator’s back
  4. “Several weeks ago” — At the movies: she breaks up with narrator
  5. “the other night” — Narrator drives truck to Baton Rouge
  6. Present — Narrator and cousin have it out in parking lot (1st scene of story); Narrator turns down ride and starts to walk home. He’s attacked by the Pit Bull, which is revealed as monster and flies off with narrator.
  7. “soon” (Near future) — Cousin and “she” make out in narrator’s imagination after he’s out of the picture.

These events are narrated in the following order, starting in the middle: 6, 5, 4, 1, 6, 1, 3, 6, 4, 6, 1, 6, 7, 6, 2, 6, 2, 6, 2, 6, 2, 6, 2, 6, 2, 6 (i.e., present, the other night, several weeks ago, distant past, present, distant past, recent past, present, several weeks ago, present, distant past, present, future, present, etc., etc.)

As we see, event narration in “The Pit Bull” bears a very complex relationship to “real” chronology. The sequence of events, as told, oscillates forwards and backwards in time as the narration progresses.

Towards the end of the story, the author accelerates the pace, toggling back and forth between present and past from sentence to sentence and using italics to mark the past for the reader:

The cold leaked through my saturated clothes, until they felt like freezing rags. Offering my person all the protection of a wet paper towel. (Rasta girls in lightening beige, tangerine orange, sun red and cheese yellow, wet, blonde hair cascading onto their colorful dresses like a golden waterfall.) And now I could hear the cadence of soft padded paws, jogging around the prey, which was unfortunately myself, in a measured circle and slowly closing...
The wetness seeped through my clothes as God continued to piss onto the plains. (and the boy in the bright teal football helmet purposefully takes it off, so he can kiss the brunette cheerleader who is dressed in rasta flag baked yellow, rubber ball red, rich house lawn green and the blue in which those weeping see the world through.) Still, it just sat there, sizing me up...

The effect of this rapid shifting between present and past is surrealistic. But the author is modifying “natural” chronology for a purpose: to depict the mental state of the narrator, his psychological portrait as represented by his associative stream of consciousness, which is the real center of “The Pit Bull.”

In “The Pit Bull,” the plot events themselves are simple, mostly familiar (until the end), and of secondary significance. What matters is the narrator’s thoughts and feelings about the events, his reactions to them, conveyed through a complex structure of ellipsis, flashback and digression, and expressed in language full of dense imagery.

This brings us to the question, not of event order, but of event selection and balance.

The author’s discretion extends beyond choosing the order of events. He chooses which events to include in the narrative, and which to omit, which to depict at length and which to mention briefly.

A very complex and lengthy event can be narrated tersely (e.g., David Copperfield’s — “I am born.”) On the other hand, a brief, simple event can be narrated at length and in great detail, as in “The Pit Bull.”

Consider, for example, the following passage, again from “The Pit Bull.” A simple, brief event — their eyes meet — is accompanied by extensive description of the narrator’s feelings about the event. Story time is suspended as the narrator’s stream of associations, full of images and figurative language, flows far and wide, through present and past (I’ve put the event in bold and the narrator’s feelings about it in italics):

...she caught me staring at her again, and this time, I could not look away. My eyes were welded to hers like someone holding onto a high voltage cable. It was as if I was looking at her through a scope, or a fiery tunnel. I found myself thinking about one of those 3-D view finders we all used to have when we were kids. That’s how brilliant her eyes looked to me now. I would not have wanted to see my face at that instant. Since I could not hide the enchantment I felt at seeing her, anymore than I could stop those same feelings from being ran over and mashed into the blacktop by his shining truck. Yet I could not look away. So instead I just stood there, staring at her [...]

I felt as if cold french fry fingers were constricting around my ball point narrow esophagus. I knew at that instant, that if I were to climb inside that super cab; my lungs would lock up like an engine without motor oil. Until the claustrophobia forced me to feel that they were all leaning against me with the solo purpose of much combined weight. Pushing my shrinking and tightening bones up against the windows and door locks. Like a crowd jockeying for position at a sold out concert or basketball game. Forcing me to lick the air for oxygen. (etc., etc.)... Her eyes continued to drill into me...

The effect of this imbalance, of maximizing the length and content of the narrator’s feelings about a minimal plot event, is to shift the center of the story away from the event and back on to the character of the narrator himself. This becomes not the story of cheating so much as the story of the narrator’s feelings about having been cheated on. The event of cheating is told largely in the form of the narrator’s thoughts and feelings about the event, resulting in a deep and fully realized psychological portrait of the narrator himself.

Carried to its logical extreme, an author could narrate at length the characters’ feelings and thoughts about a plot event without ever mentioning the event itself or without the event even happening (as in Waiting for Godot).

An author’s selection and ordering of plot events, his decision where to start and where to end, decisions to narrate events at length or in brief, that is, his manipulation of the relationship between the story as it “happened” and the story as told — all of this has far-reaching effects on the reader’s experience.

Literature is the best and perhaps only time machine there can be. As we delve deeper into texts, we encounter memory upon memory, time upon time, all contributing to a moment that was then and is now.

And now we know where every author begins in narrative time.

Copyright © 2007 by Bill Bowler

Home Page