Time waits for no mermaid: A whole new chronological world5 min read

by Dec 30, 2016Writing0 comments

I want to talk about time.  Specifically, how we use time to structure our stories.  So far I’ve got three ideas; chronological, asynchronous and cyclical.

Chronological time is the simple and common way to structure your story.  Beginning, middle, end; told in that order.  Boom.  Done.

Or maybe not.  Because, while you structure your story in this seemingly simple linear fashion, you’re still doing some funky things with time.

Look at Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Little Mermaid’.

The tale starts with forty sentences of underwater world description, so no actual time is passing in the story.  The mermaid sisters then travel up to the surface one by one.  Each sister makes the journey at a certain age, and each gets a few sentences to describe their adventures to their sisters.  This means we have another forty or so sentences where years go by in quick succession.  Forty sentences with no time passing, another forty that capture several years, that’s weird (if you think about it too much, which I do).  Then we get to the main events of the tale.

Roland Barthes used the terms noyau and catalyse to explain events in narratives.  (If you’ve not heard of Barthes, he wrote about the death of the author, so maybe you should avoid him.)

Noyau are the important (core) events that progress your story.  These take up more space in your story, but probably only happen in a short time frame, like a gun fight or being gored by a bull.

Catalyse are the less important events.  They take up a lot of time, but you compress them into a few sentences, like the mermaid sisters growing up and going on adventures you don’t care about because you’re waiting for the littlest one to get shifting.

Noyau are events A and B in your story, catalyse are the long bus ride scenes in-between.  It’s a pretty necessary story telling device to give your audience quicker access to the major narrative events (and not bore them on route).

So don’t think telling a story in chronological time is dull or you have to get creative with it.  You are shrinking and dilating time my friend, that’s pretty damn cool and I’m sure Professor X will be recruiting you soon.  (Though, as an aside, if you want to see someone getting creative with chronological narrative, read Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis.  Everything is exactly backwards.  Characters wake up at the hospital as old people and progress through their lives getting younger.  The toilet scenes are definitely… interesting.)

Asynchronous narratives are rarer, and cyclical ones might be non-existent.  Asynchronous narratives have events out of order so you have to piece the story together bit by bit.  A purely cyclical narrative would travel round and round, never reach an end or beginning, a past or a future.  That may not be feasible, so we just steal concepts of cyclical time.  Like starting at the end of the story and then jumping back to take the reader through to the start point.  Or ending the story the same way you started to imply it’s all about to kick off again…

I want to talk about time.

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