Time Analysis

The analysis of the use of time in a narrative centres around three aspects: order, duration and frequency (Genette 1980: chs 1-3, good summary in Jahn 2002: N5.2). One analyses the relation of story-time to discourse-time from these three angles. To recall, a narrative can be divided into elements of story, relating to questions of WHAT happens, and elements of discourse, relating to questions of HOW it is told (see Chatman's distinctions in Story and Discourse).

Story-time is the sequence of events and the length of time that passes in the story. Discourse-time, on the other hand, covers the length of time that is taken up by the telling (or reading) of the story and the sequence of events as they are presented in discourse.


No narrative retells absolutely everything that presumably 'happened' in a story; those events that are considered most important will normally be told in some detail, others will be left out or summarised. This discrepancy between the events of the (assumed) story and the events as rendered by the narrative's discourse is the focus of attention when one considers the aspect of duration.

In the case of a story about a man and his life which lasts 80 years, the duration of story-time would be 80 years. Story-time could be just one hour, if the story happens to be about a woman who is waiting for a train for an hour and who makes an important discovery in this hour which changes her life.

The duration of discourse-time in the case of the man's 80 years of life is likely (or so one hopes) to be shorter than the 80 years of story-time. In the case of the woman waiting for a train it might easily be longer than one hour, if say, the woman remembers a lot about her past life which takes longer than an hour to narrate.

There are five possible relations between story-time and discourse-time: scene, summary, stretch, ellipsis and pause. All these influence the reader's perception of the speed of a narrative. Notably, many stretches and pauses slow things down considerably, scene and ellipsis give the impression of things happening quickly.

Term Definition Example
scene/real-time story-time and discourse-time are equal (this is usually the case in dialogue) -When did you last see her?
-On the bridge.
-No, with a man.
summary /speed-up story-time is longer than discourse-time So they lived contentedly the next 20 years.
stretch/slow-down discourse-time exceeds story-time She suddenly realised how very much alone she was with her favourable opinion of the young visitor and how much opposition she would have to content with later from her querulous aunt. All this took no more than a split second and there was no hesitation in her movement as she came forward to welcome him.
ellipsis discourse-time skips to a later part in story-time Ten years later we meet the little girl again, now grown into a handsome woman.
pause Story-time comes to a standstill while discourse time continues This usually involves a description or narrator comment: Cecilia entered the library with a heavy heart. But before we follow her and enter upon the events which were to follow, let us consider her position in life. Cecilia had grown up an orphan under the care of a retiring uncle very much preoccupied with his studies. As soon as she was able to deal with them, the cares of the household had fallen to her and had curtailed the freedoms of her childhood. This information imparted to the interested reader, let us return to Cecilia on the threshold of the library.