Whereas it is possible for time to share the same chronological order in a narrative’s plot as it possesses in its story, it is impossible for it to have the same duration in both instances. This is best explained by way of an example. Let us imagine we are reading a novel which consists of three major events and which recounts those events in the order in which they occurred. These events are the following:

  1. Character A signs up for the army (takes one day)
  2. Character A fights in a war (lasts two years)
  3. Character A returns home and lives a peaceful life until his death (thirty years)

As you can see, each of these events takes place over a specified period of time. This is what is meant by its ‘duration.’ The particular lengths of time listed here – one day, two years and thirty years – belong to the story. They record the length of objective clock time character A spent participating in each of these three events.

Now, if the novel which narrates these events wanted to award them the same duration as they have in the story, it would have to be written in such a way that it took the reader one day to read about character A signing up to join the army, two years to read about him fighting in the war, and thirty years to read about his life after the war. This is simply impossible, not to say undesirable (who would want to read – let alone have the time to read – such a book?). The novelist could in theory try to convey a similar sense of the passing of time by devoting, say, one paragraph to event 1, twenty pages to event 2 and 300 pages to event 3, but this would only be an approximation; the telling of the story in the novel – i.e. the plot – would still not have the same duration as the story.

Most narratives, of course, do not even attempt to relate the events they contain in this way. This is not only because to do so is ultimately impossible, but mainly because this is not how we humans for the most part experience the passing of time or attribute value to the events that take place in time. It is unlikely, for instance, that the summer you spent stacking shelves to earn some extra pocket money plays as prominent a role in your memory (or life) as the day you got married, lost a pet or won the lottery. In the case of character A from our putative novel, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to assume that the two years he spent at war could have made a much more lasting impression – and continue to be more of a daily presence in his life – during the thirty years he spent living quietly afterwards than anything that actually occurred during those thirty years.

Narratives, in short, commonly play with time in the sense that they both speed it up and slow it down. As a general rule, those events that are given more duration (i.e. that are dwelt over at greater length) are often given more emphasis than those which are passed over more swiftly. This, though, is by no means always the case. Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse, for instance, consists of three parts. Parts I and III each recount the events of a single day, one before the First World War and one after. Part II, meanwhile, covers a ten year period in between, during which the First World War takes place (amongst other things). Despite the considerably greater duration of time it must cover (ten years, as opposed to one day each), Part II is by far the shortest part of the novel. This does not mean the events it conveys are unimportant; on the contrary, those events act like a knife that rends in two the lives lived by the characters and divides those lives into two separable parts: the part before the war (Part I) and the part after the war (Part III). The brevity of this middle section does not underplay those events; rather, it heightens their significance, making them all the more shattering.

To give another example, several narratives slow down the pace at which they relate their events in order to frustrate and tease the reader. Will the girl finally get her man? Will they get to the bomb before it blows up? Sometimes the tension and anticipation becomes almost too much as the narrator chooses this very moment (when the man is only seconds away from boarding a plane and disappearing forever, or the bomb a similar duration from going off) to describe every detail of the airport where the girl is trying to find her despondent lover or to reflect on the bomb-maker’s particular penchant for wearing witty and colourful ties. Manipulations of time in this as in many other instances often equates with the heightening and or lessening of tension, and thus with the manipulation of the reader’s thoughts and feelings.

Narratologists have established a number of different categories for dividing up individual narrative passages according to the relationship they involve between what we might call plot duration and story duration. The following categories are the most useful:

Description (in some contexts also called ecphrasis): this is when the plot takes a certain amount of time to recount something, whilst no time passes in the story whatsoever

Ellipsis (literally an omission; in effect, a break or a jump): this is when time passes in the story, but the plot omits to mention anything that happened then at all

Scene: this is the kind of writing in which plot duration and story duration come closest together. Often involving dialogue (in which each character takes roughly as much time to speak to one another in the narrative as they would have done in ‘real life’), this gives us the impression we are witnessing events ‘in real time’

Summary: this is when plot time moves much more swiftly than story time. Events are accordingly told more rapidly than they took in ‘real life’

You can find some practical exercises to help you establish and interpret the way in which time is stretched and/or slowed down in the narrative you are studying here.

Next: Frequency