"Time" is something that many writers don't think about while writing. Yet it has a vital role in how characters (and readers) perceive the flow of events. It relates to the nature of language and communication, and ties directly to how human beings perceive and rationalize our environment.
People perceive events as moving in one direction -- forward. Whenever we recall something that's happened to us, we slice up our retelling of those moments into events. That sequence of events is what we consider story.
When you think of storytelling in the original tradition of our ancestors, the purpose of story was to convey information: where shelter was located, where to find food, what hazards were nearby, etc. A storyteller would never convey the information out of order. It would be confusing and defeat the purpose of the story: to impart essential data.
As communication, language, and lifestyle became more sophisticated, stories were no longer just about information. Stories were told to increase a person's prestige, to moralize, and eventually to entertain. With the advent of stories for entertainment came the art of fictional telling.
Over the course of history, storytelling evolved into what we now know as narrative. Narrative is story, but a broader concept of story that takes on the nuances of being narrated -- retold with a particular style or voice.
That brings us to the esoteric art and refinements of viewpoint.
Viewpoint or point of view is a narrative technique. It's where the narrator exists within the fabric of the retelling. Every fiction writer should be familiar with the common tags associated with viewpoint:1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person.
Think of viewpoint as measure of distance. Envision a target with the scores reversed. The bullseye has a value of zero, while each consecutive ring outward is incrementally one higher. The higher the number, the greater the distance from the center of the target. 1st person viewpoint or retelling from the "I" viewpoint has a distance of zero. When the narrative distance is zero, the narrator is the central and integral focal point through which all events are characterized. As the distance from the protagonist's internal viewpoint increases, the perspective grows increasingly more abstract until we reach what's termed the "omniscient" viewpoint.
Time has a close relationship to narrative distance. In narrative storytelling, you will find that time is depicted in one of eight "states":
John grabbed his sword. Running outside, he leaped on his horse, and galloped toward the battle.Events are told, but have no tightly defined relationship to the time they encompass. However, a reader still experiences time, and can estimate its passing from the description.
Jogging down the trail, John shook his head. Two leagues was a long way to go on foot, and he was running out of light. Gritting his teeth, he pushed on, focusing on nothing but the path, the thud of his boots, and the pounding of his heart. The first stars were shining in the sky when the forest finally hove into view.Here, the viewpoint character anchors us in time, and essentially sets the framework for a time transition. The last sentence is our gate past the gap of unimportant events in the story framework.
Heart thundering, John watched as the arrow hissed from his bow and arced toward the enemy captain. Men screamed warnings, and the captain turned in surprise. The man's eyes widened as the shaft struck home in his throat.Note that dilated time in action is typically portrayed with complete sentences. It is a dramatic technique to heighten the tension of a key moment.
John side-stepped the sword thrust. Spinning inside his opponent's guard, he slammed an elbow into the man's temple. Staggered, his enemy countered. John blocked, swept the warrior's foot, and plunged his blade in for a finish.Notice here that one, two, or three events (or actions) are packed into a single sentence. We have more text here than in the dilated time example, but only a span of heartbeats within the story have actually transpired.
John drifted through smoky corridors, hearing the clash of steel-on-steel, the pounding of horse hooves, and the yells of anguish. Darak's voice called out to him over and over, but no matter where he ran, he never seemed to get any closer... With a start, John awoke. Throwing back the covers, he rose, pushed aside the shutters, and looked out at the already risen sun.In this example, the passage of time is contrasted between the vague dream state, and the sharp "ticks" of the awake moments.
The fever came and went. John experienced moments of clarity when he caught glimpses of people, heard sounds, and felt hands pressing against him. He dimly registered the scraping of the litter as it jostled over rocks and lurched through resisting bracken. At least once, he thought he saw the moon high in the night sky. Whether he really saw it, or it was simply another dream image, he didn't know for sure.Synthetic time is essentially an attempt to portray a character's disorientation, while moving the story forward. Events are delivered by indirection and little concrete is provided.
John spun just in time to see the club coming at his head. His instinct to move was a hair behind the flash of pain that made the world go black.The space break passes indeterminate time. The example given uses clearly defined transitions to bridge the time gap. In literature, this is not always the norm. It is good form and technique, however, to provide this coordinating information.
* * *
John stirred, feeling his face pressed against cold stone. He pushed himself up and looked around at his new confines. Wincing, he gripped his aching skull, wondering what in Hades he'd gotten himself into now.
As shown in many of the examples above, time is manipulated with transitional phrases. Sentence density, phrase composition, and length give a sense of time by governing the speed at which the reader's eye takes in the narrative. Choppy and varied rhythms alter the voice echoed in the imagination, providing textures that aide in realizing a sense of place and helping the reader to suspend disbelief.
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