Contemplating Structure, Time and the First-Person

In another incarnation I spent some time teaching screenwriting, which, as you may know, is all about structure. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there is no screenwriting without structure. Typically, that means three acts highlighting a tightly causal chain of events with linear narration. In films that utilize flashback structure, these flashbacks are usually ordered so that they unfold in a linear fashion. Even Memento, to provide a notable example of a film that plays with time, employs linear temporality after a fashion. In other words, when it comes to time, things can only get so complex.

Not so in the novel. While linear temporality ends up being the default position for ordering plot events–particularly in long novels–the nature of the novel allows for temporal dislocation to occur whenever the author requires. Here’s an example from Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep:

I didn’t see Sin-Jun again before she left with her father, and I thought that maybe I’d never see her again, but I was wrong; she returned the next fall for our senior year. That summer between our junior and senior years, I received a letter from her, the address of my parents’ house in Indiana printed in her careful script on a pale blue international envelope. My mother suggested I save the envelope for my scrapbook, forgetting, I think, that I did not keep a scrapbook.

You know I have love relationship with Clara, but it ends, the letter read. I will not roommate with Clara next year. I hope you don’t tell no one what you saw.

She signed the letter Your friend always, Sin-Jun, and she drew a smiley face next to her name. And when we saw each other again the following September, our relationship functioned, amazingly enough, just about as it had before she took the aspirin, which is to say we treated each other with affection and never spoke about anything of substance. But later–Sin-Jun was one of the few classmates I stayed in touch with after Ault–after she’d come out to the extent that it was clear to everyone except her parents she was a lesbian (she kept her hair short and spiky, she wore silver hoops up one ear), I did learn the whole story.

Many times, when employing a first-person narration, writers don’t let the narrators have this kind of perspective on the story events. They tell the story as it’s happening; any commentary that occurs stays solidly within what the character felt at the moment of the event’s occurrence. They might jump back in time to examine how events of the past brought them to this moment, but rarely do they follow the chain of thought forward. This technique offers the reader a sense of urgency and immediacy, and sutures us into the main character’s experience by denying us an external frame of reference. We are given nothing that is not currently available to the character.

It’s important, then, to define the temporal point of entry to the story. Sittenfeld allows us to believe, for the most part, that we are following Lee’s story as it occurs, rather than getting her perspective on it from a later point in Lee’s life. She opens the book by saying, “I think that everything, or at least the part of everything that happened to me, started with the Roman architecture mix-up.” And then Lee launches into freshman year at Ault. Sittenfield never orients us in the when of Lee’s narration, providing the illusion of immediacy, which is then punctured by the types of passages like the one I quoted above. We’re then reminded that we’re getting a version of events as interpreted by a later Lee, one who seems not to have gained any real perspective on what it was that actually “happened to me.” She’s reliving her memories without purpose, apart from a seeming befuddlement that life actually does continue after high school ends. And this ends up being a problem for the novel as a whole, because Sittenfeld failed to decide when–and therefore why–Lee is telling her story.

Defining the temporal point of entry is, perhaps, the most important decision the author makes, because it informs the structure, the tone, the point-of-view, and even selection of plot events. The point of entry can differ from the the time of the opening scene of the book, a choice that can open the door to some delightful complexity and game-playing on the part of the author. It’s been awhile since I read him, but I recall that Patrick McGrath (Asylum, The Grotesque, Spider) does this very well.

This post was inspired by a book I read for work that tried something audacious with structure, but failed.

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