In this post, we look at how time works in a story through Janet Burroway’s four aspects of narrative time.
Wait, who the heck is Janet Burroway? And what the heck is Narrative Time?
Who Is Janet Burroway?
While Burroway may not be a household name among avid readers, she is one among many writers and students of writing craft. With her book, Writing Fiction, Burroway did for contemporary fiction craft what Aristotle did for Classic Greek Drama with his Poetics. She codified and described (not prescribed) what works and what doesn’t in prose fiction.
Now, before exploring the different techniques of narrative time outlined by Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, let’s take a moment to examine how readers interact with literature in real time and how time functions within fiction.
How Time Functions In Fiction
When we view a sculpture, the amount of time we choose to look at it is up to us. We can look at Michelangelo’s David from the moment we enter the gallery until the gallery closes. Whereas, temporally based art, such as film, has a fixed duration.
Literature doesn’t fit neatly within either of these two categories. As with viewing a sculpture, for the most part we can choose when we read a book and for how long. However, though a book may take ten hours to read, those ten hours might be spaced out between days or months, depending on how often we read, and how quickly.
What Is Narrative Time?
But how does time function within a fictional setting itself? A story that takes 20 minutes to read could have a content time of only a few seconds.
- For instance, Tobias Wolff’s story, Bullet in the Brain, has the protagonist’s life flash before his eyes as a bullet passes through his skull.
- By contrast, Ken Liu’s story, The Paper Menagerie, also takes about twenty minutes to read but covers a content time of thirty years.
So, narrative time is essentially the fluctuating flow of time (its extension and compression) within a story relative to the regular flow of real time for the reader.
With these foundational elements of fictional time in mind, we’ll examine some of the narrative techniques that make it possible to manipulate time within fictional setting.
Let’s explore Janet Burroway’s four aspects of narrative time.
Janet Burroway’s 4 Aspects Of Narrative Time
1. Summary & Scene
There are two main ways of rendering fictional time.
- The first is Summary, which covers a relatively long period of time in a relatively short space on the page.
- The second way is Scene, which deals at length with a relatively brief period of time.
Summary’s purpose is to convey info, provide exposition, illuminate character motive, adjust the pace, and transition between scenes. Scene, however, renders a story’s key turning points beat for beat, allowing readers to be in the moment, experiencing it with all five senses. Burroway describes Summary as ‘the mortar which holds a building together’ and Scenes as ‘the bricks that make up the building’.
We want to engage readers emotionally, so it behooves us to write as much of our story in scene as possible. Few things are more compelling than watching a moment of discovery, decision, or action that forever changes the character’s life first hand. Thus, while we can render an entire story in scene, summarising it is unlikely to hold a reader’s attention because key moments would go undramatised.
There are two sub-types of summary: circumstantial and sequential.
- Circumstantial summary conveys how things were generally during an extended period—it tracks repeated events. When writing circumstantial summary, we use the conditional mood: ‘she would/could/should …’
- Whereas, sequential summary compresses a sequence of causally related events: ‘She did this thing, then that thing—and, finally—the other thing.’
Burroway suggests that, to determine when to use each of these techniques in our stories, we ought to observe how our own minds delineate and portray memories. In the end, she says, both kinds of summary exist to contextualise key turning points for maximum impact, which are rendered in scene. So, summary precedes and follows a scene, which dramatises a turning point. The two alternate until the story ends.
2. White Space Breaks
Sometimes we need to transition between scenes, but what happens between scenes is irrelevant to the story, so we cut-to a new time, place, or perspective. Film achieves this transition through cuts. In fiction, we do this through white space on the page. We simply start a new scene or sequel.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but when using white space, we ought to avoid transitional language, such as ‘It wasn’t long before…’ Though such transitions are meant to orient readers, they are extraneous, and often comes across as the writer doubting the reader’s intelligence. So, while ‘Three hours later…’ might work for SpongeBob, it’s an insulting way to transition in fiction.
Burroway mentions a second way to transition instead of white space, which she calls ‘montage’. Montage is a kind of hybrid between summary and cut-to. Although it doesn’t summarise specific circumstances or a sequence of events, it does create a panoramic sweep of movement through space and time using quick impressionistic details.
- For example, a white space transition might read: ‘John laid out his clothes for the trip, checking and doublechecking he had all his necessities.’ (White space) ‘Florida turned out to be colder than he imagined…’
- Whereas a montage transition might read: ‘Stacks of perfectly folded summer Tees and shorts. Revolving the pillow to find that elusive cold spot. Rushing to arrive on time only for– delayed. Boarding. Turbulence. Drunk. Filing off the plane. A cold, devastating breeze.’
Which technique you choose, white-space or montage, all depend on the effect you wish to create.
While summary and white space allow us to skip ahead in a story, flashbacks allow us to go back in time to contextualise the present scene. However, writers often flashback every chance they get rather than finding ways to subtly convey the same info through characterisation and dialogue.
Just as we mentioned preferring subtlety in symbolic place and white space transitions, a light touch is all that’s needed when writing flashbacks.
- There’s no need to beat readers over the head with ‘Dave thought back…’
- Instead, it’s best to use a simple trigger or mnemonic in the present scene to set off the flashback—that is, a catalyst that triggers the memory. Usually the mnemonic is sensory: a smell, taste, or image.
- Then, once you’ve trigged the memory via a mnemonic, indicate the transition from the story’s narrative present to the flashback using past perfect tense (she had walked to school that day…).
- Then switch to simple past once you’re oriented within the flashback (when she arrived at school).
- Finally, exit the scene by repeating the process in reverse. Use a familiar detail from the present scene to reorient readers and anchor them back in it.
Or, as Burroway suggests, there’s nothing wrong with simply transitioning back to the present with the word ‘Now…’
4. Slow Motion
Along with the ways of manipulating fictional time we’ve mentioned already, there’s one final technique. Slow-motion.
Slow-mo can be used to highlight significant details or convey a sense of intense focus in a way that mirrors a real phenomenon.
We’ve all had that feeling of time slowing during a moment of emotional intensity. We notice every little tic on someone’s face while breaking bad news. The whole world seems to slow down moments before a wreck. A peculiar detail can dilate time so that a glance feels like we’ve been staring and analysing for hours.
To create this sense of slow-mo in fiction, we simply take our time describing scene details and the character’s consequent thoughts. We can further heighten that sense of hyper-focus by including random details the POV character can’t help noticing in the background of the emotionally intense event.
That said, please, please, please don’t use this technique in the middle of an extremely tense and active scene. And, unless your character is a superhero with the power to pause time, definitely don’t go from a scene, to slow-mo, to a flashback.
So, to recap:
Rendering every moment in scene and using slow-mo to zoom in on every detail indiscriminately doesn’t lead to immersiveness, but glut. Likewise, when we render turning points in summary, or skip over them altogether using white space, only hinting at key moments from the past, it leads not to concision, but dearth.
But if you avail yourselves of Burroway’s four aspects of narrative time and apply them effectively, I guarantee you’ll find your stories’ pacing will never feel slow, stilted, or halting, but brisk, smooth and steady.
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by Oliver Fox
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