One of the most obvious ways in which plot and story organise time differently from one another is in the order in which they present the events they contain.

A narrative’s story consists, after all, of the sequence of events arranged in the order in which those events take place. A narrative’s plot, meanwhile, is the sequence of events arranged in the order in which those events are narrated. What this means for how each of these two elements conveys a sense of time is significant. Whereas time moves (and can only move) in one direction in the narrative’s story – namely, forwards (sometimes this is called ‘clock time’ or ‘chronological time’) – in its plot it can move in any direction whatsoever: forwards, backwards, sideways; in lines, circles, jumps; and so on.

The sensation of how time moves in a narrative – and, not least, of how one moment of time relates to another – makes a tremendous difference to how we the reader (and often some of the characters) experience and interpret the events that narrative contains. Consider, for instance, the literary genre that is most commonly invoked to demonstrate the effects of this parting of ways between plot and story: detective fiction. Works in this genre almost always begin at the end of the story,  with the discovery of a dead body. The fascination for us as readers accordingly lies in following the enquiries of the detective as he or she tries to work out such things as who the dead person is, how they came to be in that place at that time, the sequence of events that led up to their murder, and who might be responsible. Had these events been told from the start of the book in the order in which they happened, reading it would not have been anywhere near as gripping – or, at least, it would not have been gripping in the same way or for the same reasons (the author would have had to find other ways of holding our attention).

As that brief example demonstrates, the order in which a narrative tells its tale affects in quite a profound way the manner in which we experience, relate to and ultimately assign value and meaning to the tale itself. It should be added, moreover, that this is in part because of something else we should always bear in mind when we seek to evaluate the effect of a particular narrative’s particular emplotment of events, namely the important truism that every emplotment expresses a particular worldview. For instance, a narrative that tells its tale in an orderly fashion is likely to reflect a belief in (or a need to believe in) a fundamental order governing human life and the world in which we live. A narrative that tells its tale in a disorderly or chaotic manner, by contrast, is likely to reflect a way of experiencing the world as confusing, disorderly and perhaps even entirely random in nature. Whether we attribute this worldview to the author, the work of literature, its narrator(s) or anyone else involved in the production of the narrative is not at issue here; what is at issue is the importance of recognising the extent to which this worldview is expressed through the work’s plot structure.

You can find some practical exercises to help you establish and interpret the way in which time is ordered in the narrative you are studying here.

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