In this video we identify four possible relationships between narrative time and story time. You will probably use them all, and how wisely you move between them will in part determine the strength of your writing. As an example, we look at how Zoe Heller paces Barbara’s first encounter with Sheba in Notes on a Scandal.
Video transcript follows below
In our last video, we considered ‘Story time’, which describes the duration of the action (one day in the case of Ulysses), and ‘narrative time’, which describes how long it takes to recount that action (900 pages in the case of Ulysses). So today I want to look at four possible relationships between narrative time and story time.
If we imagine a scale between the slowest possible story progression, and the fastest possible story progression, then we can start by placing the word mimesis in the middle. In mimetic storytelling, the action is shown to us in a scene.
Which is to say that narrative time equals story time – things happen in real time, like in a scene from a film. In books, this equivalency is only conventional. Since we all read at different paces, an extract from a scene does not correspond to story time in any essential way. However, it gives the impression that we are following the characters in real time.
At the slowest end, in terms of story time progression, we have the descriptive pause, where the story stands still while you describe something.
Many authors, particularly those who have earnestly taken on the advice to show rather than tell, are reluctant to break with the mimetic story telling deployed in scenes. But few successful narratives can be told in scenes alone. Diegesis is the form of storytelling where the author or narrator tells us what happens in an overview, summary, or generalisation.
In a summary, narrative time is less than story time, or is atemporal.
Finally, we have ellipsis, where story time progresses but there is no narrative time. For example, if we read that ‘he closed his eyes and fell asleep. In the morning…’ then eight hours have passed with no words. Ellipsis can be ‘explicit’, where the jump in time is stated: ‘two years later…’; or ‘implicit’ where we are given no direct indication of a change in time. An implicit ellipsis can be indicated by missing a line, but if not used carefully the implicit ellipsis carries the obvious risk of disorientating your reader.
Normally we use descriptive pauses for the most important moments, and ellipses for the stuff that doesn’t matter.
Of course, there are infinite shades and variations to these four main temporal relationships – for instance, one can have a slow motion description that is slower than a scene, but not quite a descriptive pause: e.g., when the fate of the characters hangs on a coin toss in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth:
The coin rose and flipped as a coin would rise and flip every time in a perfect world,
flashing its light and then revealing its dark enough times to mesmerize a man.
Then, at some point in its triumphant ascension, it began to arc, and the arc went
wrong, and Archibald […] turned with the others to watch it complete an elegant
swoop toward the pinball machine and somersault straight into the slot.
However, I want to try to identify how the four different temporal relationships are deployed in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal.
The moment I want to look at is at the start of the novel, when the narrator, Barbara, first meets the protagonist, Sheba.
The first time I ever saw Sheba was on a Monday morning, early in the winter of 1996.
Note the declarative first line, and how much information it conveys. We know exactly what this episode is about, who the principle characters are, when it happened, and where it happened – at school.
I was standing in the St George’s car park, getting books out of the back of my car when she came through the gates on a bicycle – an old-fashioned, butcher-boy model with a basket in the front.
Now, this is a big moment – the whole of the book is going to be about the relationship between these two women – so Zoe Heller decides it’s time for a descriptive pause:
Her hair was arranged in one of those artfully dishevelled up-dos: a lot of stray tendrils framing the jaw, and something like a chopstick piercing a rough bun at the back. It was the sort of hairstyle that film actresses wear when they’re playing lady doctors. (…)
And in fact this descriptive pause goes on for a whole paragraph. The pause has at least two functions: it focuses our attention on Sheba and ensures we know that she is going to be key to the story, and it also suggests that the narrator, Barbara, is somewhat obsessive – that even upon first sight she took more interest in Sheba than is normal.
At the end of the descriptive pause, Barbara tells us:
Fey was the word that swam into my mind. Fey person, I thought. Then I locked my car and walked away.
Now, Barbara isn’t going to reencounter Sheba until later that afternoon. So how does Heller fill the time in between? Well, it’s of no importance to the story, so she inserts an ellipsis. She starts a new paragraph and writes:
My formal introduction to Sheba took place later the same day when Ted Mawson, the deputy head, brought her into the staffroom at afternoon break for a ‘meet and greet’.
Note again that the first sentence of this paragraph tells us exactly what the episode to follow is about. And note how Ted Mawson is introduced – we know who he is from his role, and he is going to recur in the story, so it’s worth naming him rather than describing him as merely the deputy head. But he’s a minor character, and Barbara certainly doesn’t waste time describing what he looks like.
Next, we get a summary of what the staff room is like at this time, and it’s one of my favourite types of summary – a type of summary that many writers neglect. Instead of hearing what happened on that particular day, we learn about repeated behaviour, and move from the specific to the general:
Afternoon break is not a good time to meet schoolteachers. If you were to plot a graph of a teacher’s spirits throughout the school day, afternoon break would be represented by the lowest valley. (…)
This summary lasts two paragraphs and moves from discussing all staff rooms, to the staff room at that school, to the staff room on that particular day. The second paragraph ends, still summarising, when Barbara tells us:
I was off in a far corner when Mawson ushered Sheba in, so I was able to watch their slow progress around the room for several minutes, before having to mould my face into the appropriate smile.
But now, the two main characters come to face each other and their fateful meeting is imminent. It’s a big moment, and Heller decides to deploy another descriptive pause:
Sheba’s hair had become more chaotic since the morning. The loose tendrils had graduated to hanks and where it was meant to be smooth and pulled back, tiny, fuzzy sprigs had reared up, creating a sort of corona around her scalp. (…)
When this paragraph ends, Heller is finally ready to plunge us into a scene:
‘Our new pottery teacher!’ Mr Mawson was bellowing with his customary, chilling good spirits, as he and Sheba loomed over Antonia Robinson, one of our Eng Lit women. Sheba smiled and patted at her hair.
When we read we’re rarely conscious of how authors are managing time and directing our attention to what matters, but learning to vary the relationship between story time and narrative time is almost always essential if you want a longer piece of prose to satisfy.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Uditha Wickramanayaka. It is covered by a Creative Commons licenses, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/126915310@N08/