Showing posts with label time as a narrative condition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label time as a narrative condition. Show all posts

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Time Machine

time sequence--the temporal arc of a story or novel; the chronological order of events in a narrative; the arrangement of narrative events to effect the most dramatic result.

Time plays an important role in a story or novel. How long between events? How long has this--whatever this is--been going on? How long before he gets the idea? How long before she asks him if they have a future together? How much times does a Harlen Coben protagonist have before being discovered rifling the files in an office he has no authority to be in? The pacing or beats per minute is another way to measure the way theme and plot establish themselves within the reader's sensibility, helping the reader to remember bits of information as they come forth, We realize also the contrivance behind such manipulation, resenting it if we do not find it.

The skilled writer knows ways to manipulate time, showing an event in progress, exhuming an event from the past, switching away from a character who actually or metaphorically be hanging from the side of a cliff. Nor is it necessary to remain with a time line, instead juggling the various scenes and confrontations like the dealer in three-card monte.

Example of a relatively brief time line, Romeo and Juliet. In more modern times, James Grady's 1974 novel, The Six Days of the Condor, was successful enough to have evolved into a movie in which the time line was cut in half to The Three Days of the Condor. William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's novel, Logan's Run, had a time-line imposed by population explosion: When a character reached the age of thirty, along came the Sandmen to put the character to sleep, as in the final sleep. Somewhere along the way between the penultimate draft and the draft submitted to the publisher, Nolan and Johnson decided to cut back on the arc of character life from thirty to twenty-one.

The Iliad begins with the story already having been set in action some seven years previously. Tim Gautreaux's 2009 novel, The Missing, takes place largely in the late 1920s but begins in the final days of World War I, then flashes back to an earlier time yet before delivering the reader back to the time the protagonist, Sam Simoneaux, returns from his experiences in World War I France to his job in New Orleans, where the main action sets forth.

Time in story is meant to be manipulated, is asking to be manipulated. Time may be compressed in narrative, frozen within the boundaries of a scene, projected into the future with a cheery "And they all lived happily ever after."

Some stories are about lost or stolen time, others are about travels in time, others yet are about waiting to grow up or trying to forestall the age process, while an entire sub-genre exists in which the focus is on the extent to which characters will go to deny the effects of time. Peter Pan did not wish to grow up, but even more worth further study and consideration is the character Jo Stoyte, from Aldous Huxley's engaging satire, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Stoyte, a Hollywood millionaire, at first wants merely not to grow older, but this desire morphs into his not wanting to die

Saturday, January 24, 2009

You Might Say That

verb tenses--tools for the dramatic expression of time or the articulation of time filtered through action; a method of measuring when an action takes place; the demarcation between past, present, and future actions.

One notable way to distinguish the accomplished, well-published writer from the beginner is to notice how much more graceful and seemingly conversational the prose of the accomplished writer emerges. Much of this effect comes from the way the writer deals with verb tenses.

In conventional dramatic narrative, the writer uses the immediate past tense--the preterit--to convey action taking place now. "John woke up early this morning 'is thus understood by the reader to mean Here is John, waking up at this very moment. If someone in the scene wants to make sure John is indeed awake, that person will ask, "Are you awake?" or the gerund form, "Are you waking up?"

John may provide a further clue by responding that he is "already up," or that he has been "up for some time." This time frame can be facilitated with the already (John was already awake when the alarm sounded.) or by the introduction of the auxiliary verb had (John had been awake for nearly an hour when the alarm sounded). In every case we have a sense of John's waking progress and the further awareness of his preparedness for what is to come. The only thing we've missed is capturing John at the precise moment of his movement from sleep to wakefulness, which is "John was waking up just as the alarm sounded."

Conditional circumstances are expressed with adverbial help. "Ordinarily John would have slept until six thirty, but this morning was special; he was awake just before five thirty." This construction allows us a peek at John's usual habits, a sense of the specialness of today, and when he awoke on this morning of the story."

Since about the mid 1960s, narrative writers began employing the present tense to track dramatic action. "John wakes up just as the alarm sounds." To use this verb tense format to indicate that John had been awake for some time, we bring in the auxiliary verb format, "John has been awake for over an hour..."

The conditional approach is rendered in present tense with a slight shift to the tense of the auxiliary verb. "John is usually able to sleep until the alarm sounds, but today he is up an hour early."

Interior monologue and expressions of subjective volition also have usage shifts that have become conventional. However correct it is for John to wonder in a third person narrative, Now what will I do? he wondered, the conventional approach has become a shift in the pronoun and verb tense, Now what would he do, he wondered. Likewise, while grammatically correct for John to think, I can't go on like this, the conventional narrative use has become, He couldn't go on like this.

The presence of the auxiliary verb had is a clue to the reader that the action under observation is completed past action. "John had wanted to go" becomes an indication that John had at one time in the past wanted to go. He may have a different feeling about it now: "At the time, John had wanted to go, but now he was glad he'd remained home," a straightforward rendition of showing us John's past and present feelings and in the bargain demonstrating the need to watch one's use of the auxiliary verb had, which appears considerably less formal and clunky if used as a contraction as in he'd, she'd, even I'd.

I have gone implies the completed past action.

I went implies having gone there once, probably witnessed by the reader.

I used to go implies having gone there a number of times.

I might have gone implies the possibility of not remembering or leading up to a mitigating circumstance of why I didn't go.

I'll do it later implies future conditional intention.

I shall do it later implies future volition.

A good standard for adopting such conventions of verb tense to fit one's individual narrative style is the standard of reading writers whose work you admire, noting the places where they so adroitly convey the differences between completed action, recently completed action, ongoing or continuous action, conditional probability, and future probability.