Writing: Viewpoint, Perspective and Time
“Time” is something that many writers don’t think about while writing. Yet it has a vital role in how characters (and readers) perceive the flow of events. It relates to the nature of language and communication, and ties directly to how human beings perceive and rationalize our environment.
People perceive events as moving in one direction — forward. Whenever we recall something that’s happened to us, we slice up our retelling of those moments into events. That sequence of events is what we consider story.
When you think of storytelling in the original tradition of our ancestors, the purpose of story was to convey information: where shelter was located, where to find food, what hazards were nearby, etc. A storyteller would never convey the information out of order. It would be confusing and defeat the purpose of the story: to impart essential data.
As communication, language, and lifestyle became more sophisticated, stories were no longer just about information. Stories were told to increase a person’s prestige, to moralize, and eventually to entertain. With the advent of stories for entertainment came the art of fictional telling.
Over the course of history, storytelling evolved into what we now know as narrative. Narrative is story, but a broader concept of story that takes on the nuances of being narrated — retold with a particular style or voice.
That brings us to the esoteric art and refinements of viewpoint.
Eight Shades of Time
Viewpoint or point of view is a narrative technique. It’s where the narrator exists within the fabric of the retelling. Every fiction writer should be familiar with the common tags associated with viewpoint:1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person.
Think of viewpoint as measure of distance. Envision a target with the scores reversed. The bullseye has a value of zero, while each consecutive ring outward is incrementally one higher. The higher the number, the greater the distance from the center of the target. 1st person viewpoint or retelling from the “I” viewpoint has a distance of zero. When the narrative distance is zero, the narrator is the central and integral focal point through which all events are characterized. As the distance from the protagonist’s internal viewpoint increases, the perspective grows increasingly more abstract until we reach what’s termed the “omniscient” viewpoint.
Time has a close relationship to narrative distance. In narrative storytelling, you will find that time is depicted in one of eight “states”:
Expositive time is “outside” the framework of the narrative. It usually occurs when the reader’s context draws back so the author can provide details outside of viewpoint’s normal sphere of understanding. When we are in this “state”, no time is actually passing in the story. We are stopped while the author relates whatever description or information they wish to impart. Normal time ensues we resume getting events from a character viewpoint.
Natural time is a non-synchronous relating of events. This is the normal narrative relating of story events that are not in lock-step to ticks of a watch or the beating of a heart. Humans typically perceive time this way, in sequential order, but not necessarily at even intervals.
Events are told, but have no tightly defined relationship to the time they encompass. However, a reader still experiences time, and can estimate its passing from the description.
Compressed time resembles transitory time. However, this state differs in that it’s told within a viewpoint. At some points in a narrative, it is desirable to skip over nonessential or non-significant events. Compressed time is when the viewpoint narrator squashes the event retelling.
Here, the viewpoint character anchors us in time, and essentially sets the framework for a time transition. The last sentence is our gate past the gap of unimportant events in the story framework.
Dilated time is the opposite of compressed time. It’s when narrative expands the normal or “natural” perception of story events. This is usually a technique used in action scenes. It is best compared to when a movie shows a scene in slow motion.
Note that dilated time in action is typically portrayed with complete sentences. It is a dramatic technique to heighten the tension of a key moment.
Accelerated time is similar to dilated time. The main difference is that events are reported more frequently. The events are delivered in a staccato rhythm. Sometimes sentence fragments or run-ons are used to further heighten the sense of rapidity and urgency.
Notice here that one, two, or three events (or actions) are packed into a single sentence. We have more text here than in the dilated time example, but only a span of heartbeats within the story have actually transpired.
Parallax or “Fugue” time
Parallax or “Fugue” time is when the continuity of events perceived shifts or varies related to one or more viewpoint references. Dreams can be an example of “fugue” time. This is a situation where the viewpoint character’s perceived time is different from the “real time” passing in the story. Examples of parallax time are when multiple viewpoints each relate the same sequence of events from differing perspectives and time states. This state is more of conceptual reference than a narrative technique.
In this example, the passage of time is contrasted between the vague dream state, and the sharp “ticks” of the awake moments.
Synthetic time is a narrative technique wherein the viewpoint character is incapable of coherently relating events, but the author needs the reader to know that time is passing. This technique is similar to compressed time except that the viewpoint is unreliable and “indefinite” in his/her perceptions. This technique is usually encountered when a character is rendered unconscious, or is fading in and out of coherency due to injuries or some other factor that limits their faculties. The simplest examples of this are ellipses (…) and the use of space breaks. Both are “indeterminate” gaps in story time (unless set up with a concrete transition as demonstrated in the compressed time example).
Synthetic time is essentially an attempt to portray a character’s disorientation, while moving the story forward. Events are delivered by indirection and little concrete is provided.
Transitory or “gated” time
Transitory or “gated” time states are expository transitions in the narrative separate from a particular viewpoint. Chapter breaks where the viewpoint shifts are one kind of transitory time. Often the author will transition or give clues to show time has passed. Other examples are expository asides that artificially introduce a time shift. The classic (and cliched) example of this: Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
The space break passes indeterminate time. The example given uses clearly defined transitions to bridge the time gap. In literature, this is not always the norm. It is good form and technique, however, to provide this coordinating information.
As shown in many of the examples above, time is manipulated with transitional phrases. Sentence density, phrase composition, and length give a sense of time by governing the speed at which the reader’s eye takes in the narrative. Choppy and varied rhythms alter the voice echoed in the imagination, providing textures that aide in realizing a sense of place and helping the reader to suspend disbelief.