The Construction of Time in Narrative Fiction

In fact, the very first functioning time travel apparatus could well be a novel. Imagine– you pick up a book and follow the life of the central character from infancy to adulthood, into old age, then death. 300 – 400 pages, say. I could read it in one day. Yet in reading the book, and if it’s well-written, I can feel the experience of time via the vehicle of the characters, and in the midst of vicariously experiencing fictional lives, I experience an intact alternate time bubble while simultaneously existing in my own. They’re just words on a page!  Super trippy!

I knew there must be something written about it, but a quick cursory search didn’t bring up anything that I wanted. So I turned to a feminist SF listserv I belong to and posted my question to the group mind. I had two lead within seconds. Literally. The people on this listserv are well-read, wide ranging  readers, and if it’s in any way connected to SF, and books (as well as a great many other areas, I kid you not) someone will have a suggestion. In seconds! Two members offered up these suggestions:

Time and Narrative (Vol. I, II, II– clearly, there’s a lot to write about!!!) by Paul Ricoeur

About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time, by Mark Currie

Einstein’s Dreams, by Allan Lightman

I’ve been thinking about the importance of constructing a believable bubble of time in narrative fiction because during the fantasy writing workshop I facilitated last weekend, I briefly mentioned the connections between  time and setting…. There needs to be an awareness of how much time is passing in the novel, for the characters, and the semblance of its ‘natural’ flow in and around setting. Even though most readers are not focussing so keenly on how time is playing out, their intuitive sense of perceiving time will be twigged when it’s not flowing seamlessly. We can be snagged by something that yanks us out of the illusion of fictional time.

Writers new to their practice might find themself trying to fix time and setting in particular ways. Time-relative words like “Now” signify different moments for the character, the writer, and the reader. Pointing to “now-ness” actually points to the impossibility of making it mean the same thing for everyone at the same time. It’s a time connundrum.  In order to keep the bubble of character time intact, there’s no need to use the word, “now”. Now is already implied if the character is just doing things in her space-time. A similar thing happens with spatial words like “here” or “there”.

Time…. I marvel.