The Ninja Blog

Narratives: Do you want to try something different?

By Sarah Belle 

Part One

Most stories we read and write follow a lineal temporality, that is the time-frame starts at the beginning (a Monday) and concludes at the end (a Friday). The story has progressed over a chronological time period. However, if trying something different with the temporal order of your writing appeals to you, why not try some of the following literary devices?

Analepsis (also known as a flash back). This device is commonly used to reveal characterisation, motivation, previous interactions between characters or events that have taken place prior to the time period of the narrative. Most writers have used analepsis in the form of memories, nightmares or recall during dialogue or prologues.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is told entirely in flashback with Marlow sharing the story of his Belgian Congo trip with his shipmates. The Girl on the Train also uses analepsis as a device to piece together the puzzle-style plot where reversal and recognition occur simultaneously. Reversal is where the plot opposes both the protagonists’ and audiences’ expectations (the twist when we discover her bastard ex-husband’s dubious past) and recognition is when the protagonist and audience become aware of this reversal (in this story reversal and recognition are simultaneous for both audience and protagonist. However, this device can be used to create dramatic irony in which the reader’s recognition occurs prior to the protagonists and is a wonderful mechanism to drive tension and suspense.)  Shutter Island is another brilliant use of analepsis as powerful a literary device to reflect the protagonists mental condition and to subvert traditional chronological linearity in order to create a specific narrative effect, tone or mood. In the case of Shutter Island it was easy, as a viewer, to feel as disoriented as Frank in the dislocated temporal order. Crafting this response from an audience is brilliant work on behalf of Scorcese.

Prolepsis is a flash forward, such as Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol in which Scrooge is shown his future. Scrooge then has the opportunity to change his future by his actions in the present. Another example is Stephen King’s The Dead Zone in which Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken in the movie version) awakes from a coma to discover he has the gift-curse of seeing visions of the future. Writers use prolepsis for multiple reasons; to disrupt temporality, as a metaphor, to reflect a characters’ state of mind, as a hook to grab the readers’ attention or tell a story using a more sophisticated or complex narrative structure. Prolepsis reveals elements of plot that are yet to occur and is designed to pique the reader's interest and enhance suspense and tension (Yikes! Does that event really happen or can it be stopped in time?). The Minority Report or Déjà Vu with Denzel Washington are excellent examples of prolepsis in film and demonstrate its effectiveness in creating dramatic irony and suspense when executed properly.

Some authors use both analepsis and prolepsis concurrently, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5 which also traversed real and fantasy settings (I recommend this book as it's amazing). The effect is a completely disjointed temporal order leaving most readers questioning whether the story is set in the past, present or future and (therefore) whether the analepsis is really prolepsis or a current narrative. However, Vonnegut’s story was an anti-war message and he stated that the fractured linearity of his story was meant to reflect the absurdity and dysfunctionality of the act of war. Few writers can pull this off properly. Vonnegut was an exceptional writer and made this narrative structure work perfectly for this particular story. Films that have utilized this concept well include Inception (love, love, love) and Memento (Christopher Nolan you cinematic time-lord).

In Media Res is when the story starts in the middle of what would be the linear chronological order of events and then works forwards in time until it is temporally lineal again. I did this in my first novel Hindsight because after writing it in a lineal format, I found it was rather boring! I needed a hook to entice the reader and relocating what was originally the middle of the book (Juliette waking up in 1961 instead of modern day) in the prologue was the right way to start that story. 

In Media Res is used to disjoint time, to pose the question ‘how did we get here?’ which the narrative will answer. It was first used by Horace and is Latin for ‘in the middle of things’ (rough translation seeing as my Latin is very basic). It is one of storytelling’s original tropes, having been identified in Poetics by Aristotle.  So, with such a heritage, In Media Res is a cultural winner for storytelling.

Wuthering Heights (how I worship your talent Miss Bronte!) is a wonderful example of In Media Res in which we are introduced to the strange Wuthering Heights estate and instinctively know that it has a dark history (even if Lockwood is too stupid to realise it).

Nellie Dean commences the story of Cathy and Heathcliffe by telling Lockwood of their doomed love for each other and how that doomed love escalated into the tragic events of the present where Catherine is held prisoner at the Heights. The narrative then reveals the events leading up to present time and then follows with a lineal temporality until the conclusion of the story.

So, there you have three literary devices which can be used to vary the temporality of stories. Each has a specific effect and is worth considering as a mechanism by which we can enhance and differentiate our narratives. Join us for Part 2 which will cover narrative style, including epistolaries and frametales.