Emplotment: Time Travelling Through Narrative

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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!

Bias & Belivability: the Point of Narrative Theory

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I had a bit of a lightbulb moment, after three weeks of wading through narrative theory. I’d been wondering, quietly, what the use of all these technical terms was to a writer. And then, with a cry of Eureka!, I worked out how to structure my book.

The thing is, there’s different levels of reliability when telling a tale. These ties into unreliable narrators but goes further. How much do you want to suck your reader in and, more importantly, in what way? Because the way you use the narrative voice is absolutely critical for achieving this, and all the technical terms are a way of making us break it down to work out how to use it.

Author vs Narrator

In my current book there are two narrators. One is a detective in the Metropolitan Police; the other is a dryad prince. One of these is more instantly believable as a real person than the other. Now, previously I was writing them both as 3POV homodiegetic (in the action) narrators. Having looked at all this theory stuff around levels and bias and believability, I have now changed that. The dryad prince will continue to be narrated as 3POV homodiegetic, but the detective will become a 1POV conversational narrator talking directly to an audience.

By doing this, I achieve something very important. The reality of the dryad prince becomes as a statement of fact by the person with the most authority in the reader’s eyes – the author. By contrast, the detective is consciously presenting her personal opinions and bias which the reader has room to doubt or disagree with. Just by changing the narrative structure, I give the magical side credibility and the ‘real’ side unreliability. This makes it easier for the reader to buy in to the fantastical quickly.

Narrator, Protagonist, Hero

I’ve talked in the past about how the narrator, the protagonist and the hero are not necessarily the same person. Well, this also comes back to narrative structure and Bal’s levels. And again, I’m going to use my current project as the example:

  • The narrator is the detective – the character through whom we see the story unfold. The story doesn’t happen to her, but she is responsible for uncovering it, for solving the murder.
  • The hero is the dryad prince – the character we want to win. The story pivots on his growth and desires.
  • The protagonist is the niece of the murder victim – the one who triggers the events of the story. She never narrates, but she interacts independently in very different styles with both the narrator and the hero.

The new structure gives the opinions of the narrator, the behaviour of the hero, and – through their eyes – the consequences of the protagonist’s actions. So the reader has an intimate relationship with the detective, a close relationship with the dryad prince, and a distant relationship with the niece. At no point are the niece’s thoughts or desires made known – she’s only ever seen through the focalization, or bias, of the detective and the dryad, both of whom come from radically different backgrounds to her. By using this structure, the three characters are given very difference emphasis, or weight, in the eyes of the reader.

Equally importantly, it also means that the reader has more privilege – more knowledge – about what’s going on than either of the narrator characters. The action of the plot is constantly driven by the niece, but neither the detective nor the dryad know all of what she’s doing. This creates tension for the reader when the detective or the dryad behaves in a way which is flawed because of their ignorance. That tension helps to drive the story.

I was already doing some of this, purely on instinct. By learning the theory, though, I am far more aware of the impact I’m trying to achieve and what techniques are available to achieve it. It was worth slogging through unreadable lit crit texts for.

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Antimimetic Metafiction: Showing the Red Thread

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This week we’re looking at postmodern fiction. I can hear you groaning from here but bear with me. Now that I’ve had the term explained to me, I’m pretty on board with the idea (although still not keen when the idea is translated onto paper).

Postmodernism, according to my Middlesex University course tutor, is a rejection of generalising definitions and concepts which – because they are so broad, and made by those in a dominant position – marginalise a lot of other opinions on the same subject:

Patriarchal culture silenced and marginalised women during the nineteenth century; nineteen-seventies feminism, initially positioning itself as speaking for all women, was soon designated as speaking for white, middle-class, heterosexual liberals whose assumptions of what women needed ignored the specific and alternative demands of race, class and sexuality. Any claim to be, or speak for, a social or public position inherently excludes or marginalises. – MA course notes

I’m totally happy with that as a concept. Generalisation is marginalising and can be dangerous, so postmodernism sounds good to me.

Postmodern writing is an attempt to show this up, either through narrative constructions that are so obviously flawed that they can’t speak for everyone (unreliable narrators would fall into this category, as would two narrators with opposing views), or by being self-reflexive, i.e. deliberately drawing attention to the fact that the story is an artificial construct. This demonstrates the author’s awareness of the dangers of copy-cat representation and stereotyping as potentially oppressive, and their wish to distance themselves from it.

Metafiction is a literary device used self-consciously and systematically to draw attention to a work’s status as an artifact. It poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. – Wikipedia

Antimimetic stories are those which challenge the idea that mimesis, or realism, is the main focus and refuses to follow the conventions of natural storytelling, instead ‘flaunting their artificiality’. Which is where most people go off them. We have a fairly ingrained notion of how a story is supposed to be structured, and expectations that all stories will follow those guidelines. Postmodern stories gleefully don’t and so it’s easy to stop recognising them as stories at all.

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It’s funny because it’s true.

The Author’s Voice

I’m not a fan of demonstrating my existence or cleverness to the reader within a story. It breaks their immersion, which I’m generally trying very hard to coax them into. I also tend to write in either 1POV or close 3POV, which means that I want the voice of the story to come across as the character-narrators rather than my own. The existence of an implied author is fine – someone has to write down the story, after all – but I don’t want to draw attention to it.

The concept of an implied author is especially important when discussing co-written, ghost-written, or anonymous works: political speechwriters all want to sound like the candidate who will speak their words; the multiple authors of a religious work, modern novel, or Hollywood movie want the material to sound as if it came from the same person. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

I also have no problem with what’s call mask narration, where the author puts their own personal views into the mouth of a character, so long as it’s done with some finesse. I think this is actually an important role of genre fiction – it allows us to debate sensitive issues such as gender or religion without quite so much real-life emotion attached because it’s a conversation between, say, an atheist elf-queen and a pangendered halfling missionary.

Transparent narration, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. That’s where the distinction between author and narrator-character breaks down, and nonfictional statements are made within the story. That’s breaking the fourth wall, essentially, with the author poking their head in the window and saying to the reader ‘I’m going to interrupt your consumption of this narrative for a second, and talk politics/morality/cooking at you’. It can be done well in exceptional cases, but generally speaking I’m not a fan.

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Conflating Storytellers

Traditionally, the storyteller is composed of three aspects: the actual real-life writer, the implied author (the person putting down the words of the Narrated, when not in 1POV), and the narrator-character. Postmodernism deliberately disrupts that triad.

Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Auster, and Richard Powers all have written works of fiction that include characters bearing the author’s name and some of his characteristics; they deliberately conflate these different versions of themselves. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

Someone on my course, however, made the point that even if those distinctions are pulled down by the author, there will always exist two storytellers – the one the author puts across, and the one the reader perceives, which will necessarily be different because the reader’s experiences (and therefore interpretations) are not the same as the author’s.

Postmodern Unreliability

Because postmodern authors are deliberately trying to do things differently, their narrators are a different kind of unreliable. Firstly, you’ve got the ‘real’ author themselves, trying to blur their identity with the fictional/implied author (and frequently the narrator). This blurring is a fictional construct, creating a fourth type of narrator – a new character masquerading as ‘real’. That masquerade is, by definition, unreliable. Vonnegut is one of the better examples of this, particularly Slaughterhouse Five.

Secondly, you’ve got antimimetic unreliability, where the author wants to break down the fourth wall and critiques their own reliability. They deliberately call into question the validity of their narrator’s (or even implied author’s) statements. Salman Rushdie did this with Saleem Sidai in Midnight’s Children.

Next, there’s the contradictory narrator, who tells a story that’s a mass of contradictions. This is a single implied narrator or narrator-character, rather than multiple narrator-characters who counter each other. The example in my text book is Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, which I haven’t read or even heard of before.

And finally a disframed narrator – a narrator-character who claims to have written other books which were actually written by the real-life author who created that character. Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files just about falls into this category. I’m quite a fan of this form, as it blurs the boundaries between the character’s fictional world and the reader’s real one, which I think increases the reader’s ease of immersion.

In antimimetic fiction, you can also have narrator-characters that aren’t people, such as a horse (John Fowles’ Sweet William) or machines (Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad). Which made me realise that, by definition, all SF&F is antimimetic.

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Harry Dresden has a Twitter account. That’s dedication to disframing.

READ THIS FIRST – 12

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Yellow Hat is here. I didn’t hear him arrive but I just looked up and there he is, standing under the observatory dome. Smiling. He hasn’t said anything, only nodded when I asked for enough time to write this page.

I didn’t finish the filing. Sorry. And I didn’t wash up the dishes this morning. There was more I wanted to tell you, about Sanna, and the place in Koh Phangan where they still have pineapples, and how the seed catalogue works, and what to do when Rohini has toothache.

I thought I was ready. I’m not ready at all. I’m scared. I love this place. I don’t want to leave it. I don’t want to leave Rohini. You have to look after them both, Theseus. Please. Please love them both for me.

I wish I could have met you.

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READ THIS FIRST – 11

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I’ve left the front door open so Rohini can get in and out. He hasn’t had much chance to hunt recently, what with all the running, and feeding him from bartered stuff gets expensive. That cat eats a lot, given the chance. He’s not too keen on rat, but horse or rabbit are good treats if you can get them. I think there’s quite good hunting round here so hopefully he’ll be fine until you come. The door opens into a cave, so the snow doesn’t come in, and most other animals will back off when they smell Rohini.

I wonder if he’ll be lonely without me. Maybe he’s already lonely. Sometimes I hear him roaring outside, a way off. There’s never an answer. Perhaps there’s no other tigers left in the world. Lots of things died in the Cold. There’s copies of them downstairs in the DNA bank, but what good is that? Even if the tech to bring them back still existed, and the fuel to make it work, the world is too broken for them to survive in. The war didn’t just take lives. It took the way of life.

The Collection is a memorial for everything that died. Including us.

You’d think, after the war, people would try harder to get along. But everywhere I’ve been, there’s little fights and big fights and murder for no reason than because someone’s different. Like we’re not all dying slow anyway. Like fighting will fix anything. The world’s ash and ice, and we’ve learned nothing. Worse than nothing. It’s too easy to forget, these days.

The Collection has a real physical place, by the way. It doesn’t just live in a weird pocket dimension, like some of the books on Class 8 talk about. It’s inside a mountain in the Himalayas. We built Leibowitz’s cairn on top, near the observatory window. It seemed right to bury him next to the thing he made. I go and sit there sometimes. He deserves to be remembered for what he did, even if it’s only by one person.

You’ll have to go back occasionally to wipe the snow off the dome. If you pull the handle of the antikythera so it’s pointing straight out from the wall, then turn so it’s facing down and push it flat again, the door will go there. You know what it looks like from the outside. That’s where you came in.

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READ THIS FIRST -10

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In case you’re wondering, there’s no way to turn the lamps off. They’re powered by thermal coils, and my best guess is they tap into the same heat source as the hot water (wherever that is). It never bothered me – there’s so much dark outside and it’s not like they’re especially bright – but Sanna used to bury her head right under the pillow to get to sleep.

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They don’t break often but very occasionally the metal wire will warp or snap. There’s a coil in the workshop which should be enough for two lamps, but after that you’ll need to barter for more. There’s plenty of that kind of thing in the European settlements still. When you’ve got it, lift the lamp cover off – it comes easy, it’s not secured to anything – and use the tiny screwdriver to release the old wire from the two clamps. Change it out for the new stuff, and replace the cover. Easy. The wire will heat up pretty quick though, so you can’t hang mess around.

The left-hand lamp in the bathroom needs fixing. I couldn’t. I’m sorry.

When you go into markets to barter, you need to not be too clean. It’s an easy thing to forget. There’s enough hot water for a shower every day, more than one if you want. But being clean’s a sure way to mark you out as different. Privileged. At best, they’ll make you pay way over the odds. At worst, they’ll kill you. You know being clean’s reason enough in some places.

Also, don’t go alone if you can help it. There’s not many places are friendly to strangers. The last few times, when Sanna wouldn’t leave The Collection, I went with Rohini. He doesn’t like it, all the people and the noise, but he’ll come if you take a treat with you. Rabbit’s a favourite, and not too rare.

Sanna saw Yellow Hat at the market. It’s why she wouldn’t go out. Every market, anywhere we went, she said she saw him. Just out of the corner of her eye or disappearing round a corner. I never caught a glimpse but she swore he was always watching. I didn’t push, figured it was just a reaction to Mum going and she’d get over it eventually. But it got worse. After a couple of months she started seeing him inside The Collection. I knew that wasn’t true – Rohini would have growled – but she refused to leave the workshop, where her bed was. Is. Still is.

I came back from helping design a waste drainage system for a small settlement, and heard her screaming. I thought she’d had an accident, broken a bone or burned herself. Broken bones don’t necessarily mean death in The Collection but shock can still kill you. I dropped everything and ran to the workshop. She was curled up on her bed, pushed right up into the corner, with both hands pulling at her hair. I shouted at her, slapped her, wrapped myself around her – nothing worked. In the end I used some of the morphine from the medicine cupboard. It’s valuable but I didn’t know what else to do. Finally she went limp. I tucked her up and brought my own blankets to sleep on the floor next to her. I didn’t want her waking up alone.

It took me ages to drift off, and I felt like I’d only been out for a few hours before Rohini woke me up by headbutting my stomach. Sanna’s bed was empty. She didn’t answer when I called. Rohini was whining by the door, shifting from foot to foot. I followed him to the lift and he took me down to the basement. When he stands on his back legs he’s tall enough to punch the buttons with his nose.

She was in the bathroom. The noose had broken the lamp. The metal in it was as cold as her.

I couldn’t bear to fix it. I’m sorry.

Sanna, I’m sorry.

READ THIS FIRST – 9

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There’s still places where the ground is sick from the war. If you stop at one of those, Rohini will snarl at the door before it’s even opened. That’s how you know about the sickness. There’s a big yellow suit in a cupboard in the bathroom which lets you go out safely. It’s worth it because there’s usually something to save from those places. No one else scavenges there. Always make sure there’s no holes in the suit before you go out, otherwise you’ll get sick too. When you come back, shower in it really thoroughly, take it off and scrub it, and then shower again. There’s a big safe on Class 0 to put scavenged things from those places – only open it when you’re wearing the suit. They have to be kept locked up because they’ll make you sick, but Mum said that after years and years the sickness will fade. The safe number is 29139.

The briefcase was in there for a time, after Dad opened it.

We went back. Not deliberately, it just happened that one turn of the handle took us to the shepherd’s hut by the Dead Sea again. Mum said it was a sign. She told Sanna and me to stay inside, no matter what. She promised she’d be back in a couple of hours. Then she took the briefcase and left.

It got dark and she still hadn’t come back. Sanna started to cry, saying she’d abandoned us, but I knew that wasn’t true. She’d gone to barter because she loved us. We loved her, so we went after.

Yellow Hat’s settlement was half an hour’s walk, up a valley that must have had a river in it once. We came to fields first, full of crops that stood tall and weren’t covered in snow. Shapes were moving through them, slow and silent. I put my hand over Sanna’s mouth and we crouched at the edge, watching. It took me quite a long time to realise that they were people. I opened my mouth to ask who farms at night, but then I remembered Dad saying they were dead, and I shut it again. We snuck around the edge and crept to where the buildings were. One of them – the biggest – had lamps still burning and the door open. The smell of hot food came from a window. It smelled just like Mum’s Anything Curry. Sanna sniffed, then stood up and looked through the window. She gave a little cry and called out to Mum. I grabbed her by the wrist but there were already shadows moving towards the door.

Mum came out into the street. She looked at us and her face didn’t change. I knew then what Dad had meant about the people here going away into their heads. Sanna cried and tried to go to her, but I held her still. Then Yellow Hat appeared in the door. He was holding the briefcase in one hand and a steaming bowl of Anything Curry in the other. He smiled at Sanna, and his teeth were too white.

I didn’t let her stop running until we were back. I think she hated me for leaving Mum there. But there wasn’t anything to bring home.