Narrative direction

I have somehow become increasingly interested in time. It could just be that I never seem to have enough of it, or that the demands that pile up one after another force me to recognize and carefully distribute it, but more and more I’m noticing how the manner in which I choose to spend the limited time that I do have directly affects the type of person I am and am becoming. Surely that goes for all of us. The things we undertake, and the methods and means by which we go about them, speak to what we value, honor, desire, dream. We really are our time, even when just farting around.

In connection with the post linked to above then, I want to take another look at time but from a completely different angle. There I considered time from a character’s point of view and how much we stand to learn about a character given what the author tells us regarding how they go about using their own time. I suggested that in our fiction we include details that might not be related to the overall plot, subplot, or even current trajectory – just flavor that informs and enriches the environments of the text and those who inhabit them. In other words, we drop in all that boring crap about nothing that makes the world go round. Here I want instead to think about the big picture, about those plots, subplots, and trajectories. This is time writ large, time as a fundamental force of the cosmos (if such it be), time as that sweet swinging scythe.

The universe is a big place and I cannot begin to imagine all that it holds, all the life that is infused in it and all the ways and means by which each life might possibly unfold. But here on Earth, for us tiny humans, we have no choice but to experience our time in one direction. It flows in an ever-now abutted by a hazy past and an obsessed-over future. Although our minds are often (or always) on the next, next, next, we experience only the present and can go neither back nor forwards except in the fantasies of our heads. We are forced into a single-seat car on a one-way track going thatta way. Accordingly I suggest that we trust to convention and craft our stories with the same narrative process in mind.

This does not mean, of course, that we jettison any other time-related techniques, just that we be judicious and cautious in our use or experimentation with them. Flashbacks can be terribly confusing for the reader if not done well, and if we add to them flashforwards then we have a real formula for potential headaches on our hands. A good way to stave off any negative possibilities is simply to delineate the section within the text itself via an obvious visual cue such as carriage returns and/or inserted asterisks. More subtle signs can also be given by, for example, having a character refer to a famous event that the reader will know occurred around year X, or perhaps an earlier event from within the story itself. Subtler still would be to slip in a character’s age which the reader will know to be false, at least from the perspective of the narration told so far, and will therefore work out that the scene must be taking place in the past (or future). Getting too subtle, though, is where caution is called for. If your writing requires the reader to drop everything and start scouring the internet for information then your book that was dropped is unlikely to get picked back up. My own personal feeling though is that unless such are really called for there seems little reason to include flashbacks, loops, jumps, breaks, what have you. Beyond occasionally entertaining our own memories we don’t live that way and neither would our characters. That is not to say that there aren’t very good reasons for including such – giving the reader important backstory to fill out a character being an excellent example of one – just to stress again that for most stories less can be more in this regard. A book does take us through time in our own world as we start at its beginning and page by page finish at its end; all nice and clean and linear, just like our lives. Why not have our works reflect that, even if it is tried and true? True is, after all, how time’s arrow flies.

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  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Nice post and all true enough. But there are also memories to consider. Memories are a huge part of a person’s identity, and the older we become the more we may find ourselves revisiting past experiences. Likewise our characters. They may be moving through the narrative in a linear trajectory, but what’s happening between their ears is another story. Or indeed many.

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Paul. And indeed, that’s another one to handle with care, but certainly one to handle.

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