Thursday, 3 June 2010

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then let's talk some more about stories. In my last post, we looked at Genette's ideas about how stories work, and particularly the different ways that order gets changed in different tellings of a story. But we didn't look at duration, mood, frequency, or voice. For now, we'll look at duration and mood, and save frequency and voice for another post.

Duration is all about the relationship between the time the events in the story take, and the amount of time it takes to tell them, and whether the narrative speeds up or slows down. A narrative that stays the same speed all the way through would be isochronous, but no one can actually produce a perfectly isochronous narrative: all stories speed up to skip over boring bits or to summarise things that happened, and all stories slow down to focus on important bits. Let me tell you about the icecream I had for dinner last night: I went to the freezer to pick up an icecream. As I opened the door, cold air whirled out, freezing my eyebrows. I looked in the drawer, and there it was: my icecream. How shiny its wrapper. How sweet the promise of frozen goodness it held out to me. I breathed in, summoning up the courage to brave the cold, and plunged my arm into the freezer, grasping the cone through the crackling wrapper. It was mine! I ate it lasciviously. Four years later, I was fat. The speed of that narrative varied between the fastest possible speed - ellipsis - where you just skip bits (four years later), and the slowest speed - pause - where time stops (there it was). In-between speed are scene, where the time of the story corresponds to the time of the narrative, and summary, where the narrative goes faster than the story.

Mood is about the distance and the perspective of the narrative from the story. In diegesis, the narrator is just themselves, the narrator; in mimesis, the narrator tells the story as if they're a character within the story. Diegesis is further away from the story; mimesis feels like it's in the story. If you want to tell a story so it sounds like you're in it, one way is to chuck in random details that aren't really relevant to the story: that way it sounds like you were really there, because why would you relate an irrelevant detail if it didn't happen? For example, in Genesis 37, the story of Joseph, there's a bit where Joseph goes looking for his brothers. Jacob tells him they're in Shechem, so off Joe goes, except his brothers aren't there, so he talks to a random guy: "They have moved on from here," the man answered. "I heard them say, 'Let's go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. It's totally pointless, from a narrative point of view (why add boring bits that don't contribute to the story), and so it makes it sound more like something that really happened. Perspective is all about where the narrator is in relation to the story. In a narrative with zero focalisation, the narrator knows everything, even the bits the characters don't know. In a narrative with internal focalisation, the narrator doesn't know everything - perhaps they know everything that one character knows; or maybe a couple of characters; or maybe they know even less than the characters know.

Photo credit: Pensiero on Flickr

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