Wednesday 1 December 2010

Time and Narration

A 10 minute story rarely covers 10 minutes of events from beginning to end - some parts are compressed and others expanded. Not only that, but flashbacks and other effects are used to jump backwards and forwards in time. I think some short-story writers under-use these effects, so I'd like to talk about them now


Changes of speed are so common in all forms of storytelling that we hardly notice them. Here are some examples

  • compression: "So we lived in Texas for five years, and then we moved to California."
  • expansion: "All of the sudden it occurred to me in a flash of insight that she never really loved me and had only been using me to make her husband jealous and to ensure that one way or another she could get her green card. How could I have been so stupid, how could I have courted such a disaster?"

Thriller writer Lee Child said "write the fast slow and the slow fast" (i.e. write the fast-action scenes in slow motion and gloss over the long, boring journeys, etc). Passages of dialogue bring us back to real time.


Our thoughts are rarely satisfied to stay settled in the present moment; instead, they tend to wander nostalgically into replays of past scenes, or to fantasize about the future. So it's natural that authors go back and forwards in time. The flashback [analepsis] is quite common. Flashbacks

  • help give short stories the illusion of depth
  • help to "show, not tell" - rather than mention that someone used to be a soldier, flash them back to a battlefield
  • can be used at the start of a story to capture the reader's interest.

but they have disadvantages too

  • they interrupt the momentum of the story
  • overused, they can disorganise the story, especially if there's no "present" to contrast them with. It helps to use them right at the start or to fully establish the characters first
  • the choice of tense to use can be tricky. Authors usually begin a flashback in the past (or pluperfect) tense then drop it once the flashback is established

Flashbacks are typically provoked by

  • going through an old photo-album or diary - see "Krapp's Last Tape" (Beckett)
  • finding an object you haven't seen for years
  • revisiting a place where you used to live
  • a taste or smell - Proust's madelaine

and ended by an interruption from the present. Flashbacks can be extensive. Sometimes the first chapter of a novel is a flashback, but you don't find that out until later. Sometimes most of a story is a flashback framed by the words of the narrator or author. Sometimes the flashbacks and the present alternate through the piece.

A special case of the flashback is the story-within-a-story [or intercalated story]. Detective stories use this idea quite a lot - each witness giving their version of the events.

Less common than flashbacks are glimpses into the future. These might seem to spoil the surprise, but often it increases anticipation

  • foreshadowing [or premonition, prefiguration]: short hints about the future - "grey shadows portending deeper shadows to come.", "little did they know, as they kissed on the platform, that they'd never meet again". These are sometimes used at the ends of sections to encourage the reader to continue. Sometimes however, it takes a second reading to discover them.
  • flashforward [or prolepsis]: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." (opening line of Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • adumbration - in older works, chapters often had titles or summaries. For example Galsworthy uses chapter titles like "Soames Breaks the News".

Finally there's repetition - a word, gesture or memory used as a leitmotif having the effect of making time cyclical.

The Short Story

Opinions differ on whether flashbacks work in short stories

  • "Flashback is almost always necessary at some stage in the writing of a short story" - "Practical Short Story Writing", John Paxton Sheriff, p.83
  • "In writing a short story, the flashback should probably not be used", "Guide to Fiction Writing", Phyllis Whitney, p.113
  • "Confession stories nearly always need a flashback", "How to Write Stories for Magazines", Donna Baker, p.45

It's easier to use direction-changing in novels where there's more room to explain what's going on and chapters provide handy dividing lines. In the short story rapid jumps might confuse the reader. On the page, italics and roman text could be used to show the transitions, but it's not common. Breaking the story into short sections with subtitles can help too.

One tip from Sol Stein ("Stein on Writing", p.144) is that the first sentence of a flashback needs to be arresting to jolt the reader from what went before.

Foreshadowing is sometimes added (especially in later drafts) to give the work more unity (see the Old Testament rewrites, for example). In "The Great Gatsby" the foreshadowing is unlikely to be noticed on a first reading but they add to the sense of inevitability.


I've already quoted a few examples. Here are some more

  • "Time's Arrow" - Martin Amis. In this book time goes backwards. Food is taken out of the mouth, put on the plate and eventually taken to the shops in return for money. In Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" and Dick's "Counterclock World" the device is used to a lesser extent.
  • In Alexander Masters' "Stuart: A life backwards" the chapters are in reverse chronological order - an idea by the biography's main character
    • "'Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.'" (p.6)
    • "Stuart's backwards inspiration has turned out to be excellent. At a swoop, it has solved the major problem of writing biography of a man who is not famous ... introduce Stuart to readers as he is now, a fully-fledged gawd-help-us, and he may just grab their interest straight away" (p.11)
  • Steven Maxwell's short story "The Fade" in "Staple" (issue 73) begins "At seven in the morning, as the sun was setting, his wife's expansions began". Later in the Departure Room something is pushed into the wife - "'The placenta', said the midwife, ... 'Just making the bed, so to speak.'". They go home, dashing through red lights. The story ends with "But for now they are content just to be doing their best for the baby, whoever it was, and making its fade as painless as possible. And in nine months time, when his wife has ejaculated her seed into him, all will be forgotten, the fade will be complete."
  • "Otto Grows Down" by Michael Sussman is a children's picture book where the child, Otto, experiences time in reverse after his baby sister is born
  • "A Rational Man" (Teresa Benison) uses various tricks.
  • "Wuthering Heights" (Emily Bronte) uses flashback.
  • "Beloved" (Toni Morrison) uses flashback.
  • "Nostromo" (Conrad) and "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (Spark) uses flashforward.
  • "Turn of the Screw" (Henry James) is a framed story.
  • "The Sound and the Fury" uses various narrators describing the same events.
  • "The Time Traveler's Wife" has a man who travels backwards and forwards in time. The reader's given chronological information - a sample section heading is Friday, June 5, 1987 (Clare is 16, Henry is 32)

Next time you read a story, look out for the changes in narrative speed and direction. It's quite common for narration speed to match chronological speed at the climax of the story.

Also look at how films use the same tricks. Several films I've recently seen ("Saving Private Ryan", "Cinema Paradiso", "La Vita e Bella", "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind") use flashbacks extensively. "Memento" intersplices 2 story-lines, one going backwards and the other forwards. Directors can switch between colour and monochrome to show the transitions. Compression is harder though, requiring voice-overs or a caption saying something like "5 years later".

1 comment:

  1. I think a lot of writers (myself included) have been heavily influenced by cinema and TV – it’s hard not to be – and I have to say there have been a few books that I’ve read that read like screenplays in all but name as if the writer was planning ahead. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all. It encourages more adventurous writing. Of course there are some tricks that you can only pull of visually – like having ‘the past’ in black and white – but there are ways around everything. I’ve even tried writing in two colours but most of the time indents or italics serve just as well.