Some thoughts on using Time Frames

I woke up at seven this morning, or was it eight?  Decades ago someone decided that daylight needed to be taken control of.  A committee agreed, no doubt, and lo, here we are with BST and GMT.

I cannot be the only person who finds the first 24 hours a little unsettling, haunted as I am by the idea that I’ve forgotten to re-adjust some timepiece that will prove crucial tomorrow, or the next day.  Although I suppose with our increasing technological efficiency, we will soon be able to rely on an automated system.

Is it a little bit of a leap to move on to talking about time in fiction?  Probably, but what the heck, it’s on my mind at the moment.

I’ve just finished a book that used a framing device to deliver an imaginary memoir.  I suppose the author may have read Penelope Lively’s novel, Moon Tiger.  Both have characters who are old and dying in hospital, both frame each chosen episode from the past with something that happens in the present.

It’s a useful technique, but needs a great deal of skill and care to pull off.  How often have you been so immersed in a story, either on the page or the screen, that the sudden return to the frame at the end of the narrative has shocked you?

The usual solution for this is to have the story jump back and forth between past and present, regularly.  The problem comes when the return to frame is done purely for the sake of reminding us that there are two time strands in play. If one of the stories is weak I’m left with the feeling that the frame was added as an attempt to hide holes in the plot, or the characterisation.  Frames can be more than that.

In Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby, for instance, the narrators provide a contrast to the protagonists of the stories.  Lockwood and Nick remind me that the story is being told and set up questions both during my reading and after.  Do I believe these narrators?  What do they want me to see?  What haven’t they understood?  Are there events they have missed out? Why?

The frame is integral to both these novels.  What kind of story would either be without one?  Clearly there are a lot of reasons for creating a frame narrative.

But the other thing that frames can do, is accidentally confuse.

Controlling time in fiction is notoriously tricky.  It is necessary to ensure that time passes equally for all characters, and that the reader understands how much time has elapsed between events.

Anomalies, unless deliberate, and justified in some way, tend to make readers lose respect and interest in a story. So each change of frame has to contain enough detail to re-orientate the reader as well as move the story forward.  Otherwise, like me, they spend the first few paragraphs of the new time frame stumbling around, checking the clocks to see what time it really is.

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Missing what?

She said she wouldn’t read Hemingway, because of his treatment of women.

‘Okay,’ I said, and recommended some other writers. I’m no Hemmingway expert, I just like the way he wrote, and we were in a general writing class, so it was not a good time to begin a discussion about the attitude of an author that many of us were not familiar with.  I had plenty of other suggestions to provide so we moved on.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot since though.  I did once put a novel on the fire rather than pass it on, because it ended with the heroine falling in love with the man who had abducted and raped her.  That was a couple of decades ago, but I can remember the feeling of satisfaction as I stirred up the charring pages with the poker.  Books, I thought, were a kind of model that showed people how to think and act.  I think I even went so far as to begin a letter to the publisher.

But yesterday, when I recommended Hemingway’s short stories to a group, I found myself qualifying the suggestion.  ‘He was a writer of his time,’ I said.  ‘You may not always like the way he portrays women.’

I didn’t feel it necessary to caution a reading group about text content when we read ‘Tom Jones’, or ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’.  I don’t issue a warning alongside Katherine Mansfield, though some of her characters and situations are just as questionable as Hemingway’s when measured against today’s ideas on roles and expectations.

There are books I have chosen not to read, and others I wish I hadn’t, but I’ve not been tempted to burn any of them. My favourite copy of Wuthering Heights is held together with a large elastic band.  I have a new copy, but cannot bring myself to lose that old one.  You might see that as sentimental attachment, and I would agree that’s a small part.

What I would ask though, is, ‘Should I have burned that book?’

The power of …

We were telling jokes around the tea-table, my nieces, nephews and I.  They were the old standards, mostly knock, knock jokes: Annabel.  Annabel who?  Annabel is needed on a bicycle;  Lettuce.  Lettuce who?  Lettuce in, it’s freezing out here.

The three oldest children all own joke books, and had memorised a good repertoire.   The youngest, who is just four, joined in with the chorus of cheers as we took turns.

Inevitably the pace quickened as we raced to get our chance at the easily remembered ones.  The noise-level increasing after each punch-line.

Then, amongst the cries of ‘Me, I’m next.’ And, ‘I’ve got one.’ Sam’s voice broke in.  He had been listening carefully. ‘Knock knock,’ he said.

He repeated his chorus several times before we managed to call a hush and respond, ‘Who’s there?’

‘Tractor.’

‘Tractor who’

‘A tractor and a trailer go out in the field,’ said Sam, looking round proudly as we began to laugh.

Encouraged, he made up another, and another, delighted with our delight.

When we moved onto the, ‘black and white and red all over’ ones, Sam quickly picked up the formula. Forget our blushing penguins and read newspapers, he took his turns and gave us first, ‘an orange’, then, ‘Postman Pat’s cat’ and ‘Scoop’ as his solutions.

There were no barriers to his inventions.  Although his sister and cousins are only a few years older, they had already forgotten going through that same process and made an enthusiastic audience.

I suppose you are wondering what it is I am writing about here?

I’ve been thinking about that as I put it together, and wondering how to draw this piece to a close neatly.  I suppose, as it stands it could be an anecdote, or perhaps a sketch…

It lacks a lot of the standard constructs we use to create story.  I’ve given no description, though I can see, hear and smell the scene clearly: the way the september sunset slanted in through a side-window to light up the serving dishes and bowls shouldered together on the large table; the emptied plates with their smears of ketchup, pickle-vinegar and chewed crusts and the noise as six adults and four children competed for attention.

It had movement too.  We fidgeted on chairs that were crammed too close.  Our feet tangled beneath the table as above it we passed dishes and cups.  Only Sam was small enough to roam, finding spaces to squeeze in between elbows and drive his Lego boat between the debris on the shiny table-cloth.

Do these details matter?

Depends on the writer, surely?

Why have I told you this?

Perhaps because I am in the process of working something out, and the best way I can think of to tell you is not by creating a fully worked out and rounded situation, it is by showing you some of the steps I have taken.  I’m not sure I’ve reached a neat conclusion, so I cannot sum anything up.

Should I have written it?

How could I not?

I suppose the more relevent question is, ‘Should I have posted it?’

Quick news:

Paragraph Planet have just published a second 75 word flash fiction of mine.

Not heard of Paragraph Planet?

Check out: http://www.paragraphplanet.com/  They publish a new paragraph everyday, so I’m not just publicising mine, have a go.

It’s an interesting exercise in brevity.  But be careful, it can be addictive.