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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