An excellent novel or short story is immersive. The “story-world” becomes the reader’s world; one feels as if one knows the characters, feels their pain and joy. We care about them. Examples depend on individual taste but think of Lord of the Rings. To enjoy this story means to be transported to a different world, Middle-Earth, where elves and dwarves, wizards and dragons are real. And we want to believe.
But in any novel or story an interesting sleight of hand is performed, and it has to do with, among other things, how time is handled, best B..
“Time is the continued sequence of existence and events that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future. It is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events, to compare the duration of events or the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change of quantities in material reality or in the conscious experience.”
Maybe for our purposes, we can say that there are different kinds of time. There is objective time that is used to measure important things—rocket science and how long you have to take the SAT. Then there is subjective time, our own idiosyncratic sense of duration. One person’s sense of how long it takes to walk the dog may differ from someone else’s. (including the dog’s).
So humans (and dogs) can experience time in different ways and great fiction “plays” with this.
How? you ask.
Whiny voice—no, I didn’t ask that. You’re just trying to get me to answer a question you already know the answer to.
How? you ask.
Stories that seem to be happening as we read them are often written in the simple past tense. The implication is that the events told have already occurred and an author, through the mechanism of implied author, is telling the reader what has already happened. “It was a dark and stormy night…” posits an event outside of the time the reader is in, a time that could be in the past or in the imaginary future, interestingly enough, but not in the present the reader occupies, reading, even though this is the illusion that is created.
Jump back! as an old friend used to say to express surprise.
Lord of the Rings is like this. The story is supposed to have happened long ago in the past but it could just as likely be in the future or in an alternate reality. This is really getting into epic or mythic time, but my point is that one way authors can manipulate a reader’s experience of their work is by how time is presented.
Some stories give an immediacy to themselves by the use of the present tense, the strong implication here being that the story is happening as the reader reads it.
However, in an objective sense, all stories—even those in present tense—have already been written, no? An author could write a story in present tense, and in her or his mind, it occurs in the year 1607. The key thing is that the author knows the whole story, beginning to end. To the author, there are no surprises.
The time and events of a book are pre-determined (makes me think of our discussion of Gilead). The author knows the whole story and the characters usually don’t. The author is outside the story, in the same way that traditional religions often place God outside the world. God and the author know what’s going to happen. (sort of like Santa Claus—whether you’ve been bad or good). In a book, characters are blissfully unaware of their pre-ordained fates. They are “not on the same page” as the author who may treat them gently or harshly. An artful story begins with a statement about what’s going to happen and then tells the reader how this occurs. Real life is not like this— sorry but it’s not. Real life has a random, contingent quality that doesn’t make for good fiction. In real life, we tend to think about will something happen or won’t it, or will something else happen? Will someone else, or something, intervene and change the whole field? Fiction is thought out and planned by the author, who already knows how things are going to end. Foreshadowing of this future end point is deployed to guide the reader, and foreshadowing implies that the future is known. The same can be said of the mise en abyme device.
What if you were happily intrigued by reading Part One of a story, and you learned in an insightful interview that the author didn’t know how Part Two was going to end? How would you feel?
Whiny voice—used and abused, just like I do with you.
‘Kay, that’s not really the point. The point—
Walter, the point is that you want me to say something, that’s the only reason you asked me. You already know what you want me to say.
‘Kay. And what do I want you to say?
That I would be mad if I thought an author didn’t know the end of a book I was reading.
Thank you. Yes, we expect the authors of books we read to not only know the ending but to observe certain conventions of writing that we can rely on—unless we’re reading a book we know defies these expectations.
What are these expectations?
That the author knows the whole story.
That the story works throughout the book towards an end.
That our expectations will be satisfied that the story answers certain questions, that is, if we begin with characters in a situation, good or bad, how did they get there? Why are they there? If these questions aren’t answered satisfactorily, we are unhappy.
Of course, some people believe that a work of fiction defined in this way is like the real world, planned out. Some religious folks believe that one’s fate is pre-destined by God who decides each human’s fate before birth. Some folks believe in signs and omens that predict a future. Think astrology and tarot cards. Palm-reading. Further, there is a belief that history and time will end at the last judgement, when all souls’ worth are weighed by God. Marxists believe that history is pre-determined and that it will pass through inexorable stages till it reaches an end point of communism when history also stops.
The Last Judgment, the End of History—whoa! If time really stopped, and that statement opens a ton of philosophical argument, wouldn’t that be death, huh?
It’s comforting, best B. to think that we could predict our futures. It takes away personal responsibility which may be a burden. Could this be part of the appeal of fiction itself, that we feel less troubled by reading a story about people whom we know have had their ends planned?
Till next time.