There are three simple ways that we consider time: present, past, and future. Let’s think for a moment about how these impact the way we tell a story.
If we tell a story about something that just happened moments ago, we are really still in the present with it. We don’t know yet what the ramifications are going to be, or how it will impact us in the long run. We don’t have the value of seeing that event in the bigger picture, not yet anyway.
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If we tell a story about something that happened way in the past, we tell it a lot differently than we did immediately after it happened. We have some perspective and we’ve had time to process it. We’ve perhaps had other similar experiences to compare it to, or had the opportunity to talk it through with someone else, to get their perspective on it.
If we tell a story of something we know is coming up, we are talking only about the idea of it. It’s not an actual thing yet, even if it is only ten minutes away. Life changes quickly, right? So we are basically predicting what is going to happen.
When we write a book or even a short story, we need to consider where the narrator is standing in time. But first you have to know who your narrator is. In 1st person and close 3rd person stories, the narrator is often the protagonist, the one whose story it is. In stories with distant 3rd person or even omniscient, you might have a narrator who is actually just standing by, watching the action. In that case, you may not know much about the narrator; they may just be an amorphous blob on the sidelines, and that’s okay. Regardless of what type of narrator you have, though, you absolutely have to know what your story’s timeline is and make the decision of where the narrator is standing on that timeline.
Are they in the present, right in the middle of the action?
Are they in the future, recalling the events? If so, how far in the future are they?
Are they somewhere in between?
The reason we want to consider this is that it impacts how much the narrator knows, when they learned it, how much perspective they have on it, and subsequently how much they can tell the reader. If narrator is supposed to be a small child, she can’t speak or reflect with the wisdom of an adult. If the narrator is telling the story of his experience in the Vietnam War in 2021, then he has to acknowledge the way time has passed and that the story may have changed over time.
If the narrator is in the story present, right in the middle of the action, then they only know what has happened up to this point, and they likely aren’t predicting with much accuracy what’s going to come next.
It is also possible for the narrator to be in the middle, where backstory has already happened and might be told through flashbacks, while in another thread of the story the narrator is moving through the present timeline. But let’s talk about this for a moment. If you are writing a story that is not linear, perhaps bounces around in time, you will still have a linear timeline for the story. You just won’t be following it step by step, because you’ve chosen to fracture it. Regardless of the linear or fractured nature of your book’s timeline, you cannot proceed effectively unless you know where your narrator is standing on the linear version of your timeline. It will stay the same once you begin to play with the structure of time in your story.
I am a really visual person, so it helps me to actually draw out a timeline – yes, just like we did in middle school social studies classes – showing the beginning and the end of the story present, with all of the key plot points plugged in. (What I mean by story present is the actual events of the story. It doesn’t include backstory.) Once you’ve got that timeline, try drawing a little stick figure for your narrator in the different places, and think about what they will know in each place. Then choose the best one from which to tell your story.
And this is crucial…do not forget where you decided to put the narrator. It affects everything, from the way events are portrayed to the way the deeper emotional story is told.
It’s important to consider how the perspective time gives us affects the stories we tell. Deciding ahead of time where your narrator stands in time will greatly impact your storytelling for the better.