Friday, May 22, 2009

Timing Is Everything

time frame--time scheme in which events in a novel or short story take place; a narrative paradigm that helps readers see the relative position of events in a dramatic narrative; verb tenses used as identifiers to help readers orient to dramatic sequence of events.

Although there is no organized lobby to establish a convention of a strict chronology in a story, there is the tradition of a dramatic unity in which a drama shall proceed in real time from start to finish, hence questions about the "legality" of flashback or other interruptions of time sequence.

It is a rare twenty-first century story that trudges forward from A to Z without some pause for reflection about past events or an actual shift back to events that took place before the story at hand began. Although his novels are set largely at the time of Elizabeth I, twentieth- and twenty-first century crime writer Leonard Tourney frequently begins his mysteries with what he calls "a slice of the crime," in which the novel begins with an out-of-sequence scene in which the reader sees a crime being committed, a crime being contemplated, or a crime being discovered. Other crime writers (Richard Price, George Pelecanos, P.D. James) begin with some provocative event as a preface to the story at hand. Yet other writers (John D. McDonald, for example, in his non-Travis McGee novels)use a combination of a shift in time sequence and a shift in point of view to create a cliffhanger effect. Tim Gautreaux's 2009 novel, Missing, begins at the tail end of World War II, moves forward a few years to a major defining moment, then reverts back in time well before the beginning scenes.

One of the most extreme examples of time bending appears in the opening of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, which begins with a fragment of a sentence, "... riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." A few hundred pages later, the novel ends with "A way a lone a last a loved a long the..." which, were you to connect it with the opening fragment, would form a complete sentence, setting forth in some degree Joyce's intent of an unending circularity.

A simple recipe for use of time line in the short story or the novel: at least sixty percent of the action takes place in the present. Two-line space breaks separate all scenes, but when jumping from time to time and POV to POV, the writer must let the reader know who, when, and where ASAP.

See also backstory, flashback

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