Models of time in storytelling

‘Bullet time’ goes back to the film The Matrix with its slow-motion image capture techniques that used multiple cameras to simultaneously record the same moment from a shifting viewpoint. Tobias Wolff’s short story, Bullet in the Brain (1995) achieved the same kind of effect by using words to slow down time.

Time is a sequence of ‘bullet time’ moments most of which go unnoticed in the flow of the conscious present. The conscious present is probably the most immediate model of time in storytelling because it’s rooted in the senses. It relates to how we perceive the world through the brain’s constructed awareness of the world, through a ‘remembered present’. In writing, this is the present tense where everything is happen-ing, and I’m-ing through an always-experiencing subject. In non-literary terms its the first person shooter viewpoint in computer games and in cinematic terms its camera as the character, see-ing, observes-ing, and do-ing.

The past tense gets a bit of a bad wrap these days because it feels like a has-been in comparison to the filmic ever-present and experiencing-ing world of the always now. We live in the -ing. People often say that the first person present tense feels closer to how the brain works (it’s more ‘real’) — but storytelling isn’t a facsimile of reality, it’s something else. I suppose the common analogy, cliché perhaps, would be to call it a mirror that people can use to help them understand the world. And that’s why the past tense world is better tuned to reflection, to what’s happen-ed.

The ‘it happened in the past’ story reflects on time, usually through a personal experience. I was twenty-three when… or Last year, when I was living in Spain… Time as memory can also work as an extended cultural memory, other peoples’ memories, and group recollections. In this sense history is bigger than ‘I’ or ‘me’, ‘her’ or ‘him’ — it’s about ‘us’ or ‘them’.

The family saga story takes places over multiple generations. These generational stories show change over time (from poverty to wealth, the transference of power and status, empire building, etc). This generational story can be enlarged to include nations, tribes, and other identified groups, to create a sense of time through a group history. In this kind of story the ‘I’ or ‘me’ is too small. This is definitely a past tense and third person ‘him’ or ‘her’ story, and there are probably more than one ‘him’ and ‘her’.

As time scales up in storytelling it goes beyond the immediate senses, beyond individuals and beyond one generation. And yet individual characters can be taken back through time by the smell of a food or hearing a song. Generally though, there’s less and less emphasis on the one person experience and more emphasis on a succession of characters who are contextualised by their predecessors — stories about father and sons, mothers and daughters, mentors and learners, and mafia bosses.

It some point there are more and more generations and it becomes impossible to tell the story of just a single person or a family. Humanity’s importance is dwarfed by the cosmos. This is cosmic time. It’s the biggest kind of story, if it is a human story. It is astrophysics and the story of the universe.

In the film Aniara a spaceship travels through space and time, from the conscious now, into personal memory and generational time, and it culminates with a dawning awareness about the implications of cosmic time.