Emplotment: Time Travelling Through Narrative

Standard

Once you’ve sorted out your narrative structure, you need to decide on your temporal structure – that is, the order in which you narrate the events of the story, and in what style. This is massively important as it is responsible for pacing, tension, and basically just telling the story right. Inevitably there’s a whole load of theory around it, some bits of which are more useful than others.

Story vs Sequence

The chronological events of the story, and the order in which those events are told, are not the same thing. A dude called Viktor Shklovskii distinguished them by calling the events tabula, and the sequence sjuzhet or sujet. By giving them labels, it means we can more easily talk about them separately and in relation to each other.

There’s a bunch of different ways in which you can structure the sujet:

  1. Simultaneous – the action is taking place as the characters narrate it. e.g. commentators watching a sports match. The action is taking place at the same level as the narrators.
  2. Retrospective – the narrator is calling back to the events of the past. This is the most common structure.
  3. Prospective – the narrator is forecasting, predicting, or (if it’s an implied author) taking the reader forwards into the future. Example: He would remember, later, how she looked that night.
  4. Intercalated –  as in the epistolary novel, where the act of narration postdates
    some events but precedes others.
  5. Analepsis – more commonly known as ‘flashbacks’. Different from retrospective, in that that they take the reader temporarily even further back – another level of time down – from the level of the main narrative.
  6. Proleptic foreshadowing – sort of the opposite of flashbacks. Also called ‘anticipations in hindsight’, briefly forecasting a likely outcome of something, usually to create tension or highlight a recurring theme of the story.

Characters rarely have total knowledge of their environment or of other people’s histories, so at the most basic level there must be some recounting within the story of past events. With an understanding of different temporal constructions, the writer can do more interesting things to relay these and use them to build mystery or tension.

This ties in with Bal’s theory of narrative levels – the further from the action the character is in terms of narrator status, the less reliable they become. Similarly, the further from the action the narrator is in terms of temporal proximity, the less reliable they become. The manner in which events are being told – retrospective, simultaneous, etc. – will impact the privilege and bias of the players. 

Local Standard Time

The sequence of events locally to the characters may affect, and be affected, by what’s going on in the wider world. By using temporal construction carefully, the tabula can be mapped onto the wider environment within which it occurs, thus creating a more holistic constructed world and exploring the consequences of events. Again, you can narrate things in sequence, or you can play about with the sujet in order to create tension and bring out themes.

inmediasresGenette approached it by numbering the chronological events of the story, and lettering the order in which they were presented. So a story that presents the events in their natural chronological order would go A1-B2-C3, but a story that jumps around would go A4-B5-C3. Perhaps the most used plot temporality is that of in medea res, starting at a crucial sequence in the novel (such as the discovery of the body in a detective novel), which then fuels the narrative forwards (the procedure of detection) while also through interview and interrogation in the present, eliciting the suspects’ memories of the past before concluding with the denouement where the murderer is revealed. E.g. A3-B4-C2-D5-E1-F6.

The order in which events are presented in the story – the progression, to use Herman’s term – has vital impact on the reader. This is how pacing and tension are created, how the reader is brought into the story and compelled to continue reading. It’s also how particular themes are brought out, through duration (about which more next week), order and frequency. When you put all of this together it’s called emplotment. Which I think sounds like a ridiculous word, but there you go.

Take 2 – Rereading

“…rereading a narrative entails different modes of worldmaking than does reading it for the first time.” – David Herman,  Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is an excellent example of Herman’s point. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

If the tabula were presented in strict chronological order, there would be very little tension around the protagonist, Father Emilio Sandoz. He would be presented as a Jesuit scientist on the first manned flight to the distant planet of Rakhat. Instead the reader is initially presented with Sandoz as the only survivor of the mission, physically and psychologically mutilated, and described by those around him as a child-killer and whore. On first reading, the reader approaches Sandoz with suspicion and curiosity. On the second, knowing what he went through, with great pity and sympathy. On the first reading, the attitudes of those around him seem entirely reasonable; on the second, they are thrown into awful relief and the pathos of the character is heightened.

Similarly, you can structure your stories so that the reader learns late in the book about something which occurs early in the tabula, and which completely changes their understanding of everything they have already read about what, chronologically, came after.

A while back I mentioned a game called Microscope, in which players take it in turn to create events within the history of a world or era, but these can be submitted to any point within the timeline. I played a game in which the final event was placed about a quarter of the way along the timeline, and it completely changed the light in which all subsequent events (which had already been placed) were then viewed.

Having just watched the film Arrival, about which more next week, that’s also a fantastic example about how rereading with complete knowledge completely changes your interpretation of what’s going on. I’m going to spoiler it massively next week, so consider this your fair warning to go watch it now!

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