Narrative is simply the flow of time in a novel or short story. Sounds simple, but it’s not, really. Writers can shrink time, stretch it out, make it bigger (more significant), make it smaller (less significant), fracture it, bend it, turn it upon itself, and so on. Writers can do whatever they want with time in the interests of story.

The one thing time isn’t is linear and progressive.  Well, it is but it isn’t. It’s progressive in the sense that cause and effect can’t function if it isn’t linear. If any act carries consequences, then those consequences must be laid out in time somehow.  And usually that means sequence, progression. Not always, but usually.

One of the simplest ways to understand what writers can do with time is to look at a waveform on an oscilloscope, say a 60-cycle wave. The waveform flows along a time line and that line can be controlled by reducing or lengthening it. Make it shorter and the waveform bunches up, make it longer and the waveform stretches out. Visually, then, the waveform looks different depending on what the operator does with the time function. It’s the same waveform; it hasn’t changed; only the time function has.

There’s also an amplitude control. If the operator increases the amplitude, the wave gets higher and lower in relation to the time line. If he decreases the amplitude, the wave gets squished down around the time line. Again, the waveform hasn’t changed at all; it just looks as if it has.

As an example of how complex time function can be when a writer gets going with it, consider the novels of Charles Williams: Many Dimensions, Descent into Hell, All Hallows’ Eve, to name a few. In All Hallows’ Eve, we meet the central character walking across London Bridge. The problem is he’s already dead. A single hill in one of the novels exists in a number of time-space dimensions all extant at the same  time. There’s only one hill, just several expressions of it as if all of those separate hills in their own time can exist together in a single moment. Williams is a confusing writer. Reading him is like looking at Escher’s staircase. It’s hard to make logical sense of anything.

Usually, time function is a little less complicated, but it can be stretched or compressed like that 60-cycle wave. In William Golding‘s Pincher Martin, good old Pincher is blown off his ship in the middle of the Atlantic. He washes up on a barren rock in the empty sea and we spend some tortuous times with him as he tries to survive, and it isn’t fun for him or for us. At the very end of the novel, we learn that Martin hit the water and drowned. That few seconds between hitting and drowning is the time of the whole novel: an instant stretched into a long nasty life on a barren rock.

Time can be compressed in the same way, and writers often do so because they can’t do everything at once. Consider, for example, a mystery writer dealing with a murder. He can do a number of things with time. He can describe the murderer actually committing the murder. He can describe the victim’s reaction. He can describe the setting in which the murder takes place. He can even describe what either the victim or the murderer is thinking and feeling, but  he can’t do all these things at the same time even though they’re all happening together. Writers jump back and forth in time to accomplish what they need to accomplish and the importance of the event determines how duration is presented.

In the world of the novel, many things go on simultaneously as they do in life. The writer, though, has to sort of slice up what’s going on and present fragments of that totality to the reader by messing with time. He might use flashbacks, or he might just jump about and present chunks in the order he thinks the reader will accept.

Experience in life is different. Were we to see a murder, we’d see it all at once laid out in a quick sequence. For a writer to describe a murder, he has to take that experience and present slices of it in a way that seems logical to a reader. That’s a different kind of  experience.

Then there’s memory. Time is strange in human memory. For instance,  eventless time, although it should seem long in the mind, barely registers at all. Duration needs events, like Christmases or weddings, to give it substance and meaning. Events are like fence posts to hold the fence up. It’s the events that give time its importance and its place in memory. Duration is just like that time line on the oscilloscope: nothing means anything until something passes along it.

Time is one of the very flexible tools a writer has. He can play with it, expand it, contract it, vary its importance, lose it entirely or make a moment a lifetime.



Which Person?

Which person, first or third, works best?

I suppose it depends on the writer and what’s being written, but for mystery writers person poses a problem.

Here’s where I run into just that kind of situation. Let’s say I’m about to write a section that involves two people equally; that is, both have the same weight in the scene. The rule for point of view is that only one of them can be dominant; that is, the scene should be seen though the dominant person’s eyes only.

If the writer is using  first-person narration there isn’t a problem. Every scene is through the eyes of the protagonist. But if the novel is in third person, every scene has its own narrator and it is through his eyes only that we see. That’s where my problem lies.

Third-person doesn’t give me the same sense of immediacy as first person would, I don’t think, but it does provide opportunities that I’m told I’m not supposed to take. So it raises the problem I’ve mentioned. If I want both characters in a scene to express how they’re feeling, and I often do, I want both to reveal what they think about the other. Now how can I do that if only one of them is allowed to think and express himself?

Sure, I can give him a kind of omnipotence, but that’s sort of phony, don’t you think? I can give him the sort of background that would make his understanding of the other fairly complete, say the way a brother knows what his sibling is thinking, or the way a psychopath thinks he knows what others are thinking and feeling. There are all sorts of ways I can set up the situation, but none of them comes close to allowing both characters the freedom to express themselves.

The guys who edit my manuscripts, however, say that giving both characters the right of full expression would give the reader a kind of verbal whiplash, sort of like watching a tennis match, back and forth, back and forth.

I just read a novel entirely in the first person. Tiny short chapters, lots of them, and first person narration. In the case of this writer, the main character in any scene limits what can be revealed about the others. For the author I’m reading now, that’s not much of a problem. Every scene works well.

But I can’t help thinking that things might be better if the reader did have to stretch a bit to handle two minds at once expressing themselves in a single scene. Anyone out there working on the same problems? Maybe it’s just me. After all I’m new at this, and without a lot of writing experience, perhaps problems that plague me are only little hiccoughs for others.