Events in an assumed story take place in a certain order, for instance a child is born, grows up, marries, leads a contented life, dies. This order of events might be abbreviated as ABCDE.

A narrative can tell about these events chronologically in the order in which they occurred: ABCDE. But it could just as well start with the character's death, then recall the birth, childhood, marriage, married life. The order of discourse would then look like this: EABCD. Discourse could deviate from chronology more radically and present events in orders such as CABED or ACDEB and so on. In such cases events are not told in chronological order, they are anachronological.

When the chronological order of events is changed in discourse, certain techniques are employed to reveal the whole story nonetheless. The most common of these techniques are flashforward (prolepsis) and flashback (analepsis). In a discourse order of BCDAE the section 'A' (the birth in our example) would represent a flashback; in the order AEBCD, the section 'E' (death in our example) would represent a flashforward. A prolepsis is often merely a short remark as in this example:

Ada called to me to let her in; but I said, ‘Not now, my dearest. Go away. There’s nothing the matter; I will come to you presently.’ Ah! It was a long, long time, before my darling girl and I were companions again. (Dickens, Bleak House, ch. 31)


Beginnings and Endings

In the category of order one also considers the question of the beginning and ending of discourse. Strictly speaking, these categories go beyond the concept of order, since they also deal with the information flow in a narrative (see the section on information flow in drama).

The place in the story at which a narrative begins is the point of attack. A narrative that has its point of attack at the beginning of the story is said to begin ab ovo. In such cases the narrative usually starts by giving all the necessary background information about character, place and the very first beginning of those events which are later to develop into the plot of the narrative. In most cases, this preliminary information is given by a narrator before any action has properly started; it functions as an exposition. Charles Dickens, for example, often uses ab ovo beginnings:

My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue coul make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
          I gave Pirrip as my father's family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister - Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. [...] Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems t
o me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. [...] (Dickens, Great Expectations, ch. 1)

Note that an ab ovo beginning does not necessarily imply a beginning with the birth of the protagonist. It always depends on what the story is about. Say, a story is about the protagonist's difficult married life, then the ab ovo beginning would very likely be the wedding, or maybe the moment he fell in love with his future wife. A story about a strange meeting in the forest would have its beginning as the protagonist sets out for the forest and so on. The ab ovo beginning of John Buchan’s story about the successful restoration of the monarchy in Evallonia lies in McCunn’s rheumatism, contracted when he slips into the river while fishing:

Great events, says the philosophic historian, spring only from great causes, though the immediate occasion may be small; but I think his law must have exceptions. Of the not inconsiderable events which I am about to chronicle, the occasion was trivial, and I find it had to detect the majestic agency behind them. What world force, for example, ordained that Mr. Dickson McCunn should slip into the Tod's hole in his little salmon river on a bleak night in April; and, without changing his clothes, should thereafter make a tour of inspection of his young lambs? His action was the proximate cause of this tale, but I can see no profounder explanation of it than the inherent perversity of man.
(Buchan, The House of the Four Winds, ch. 1)

It is often considered a more interesting beginning to start in medias res, that is to say, to have the point of attack when developments are already well under way, plunge the reader right into the middle of things, and give necessary information about earlier developments in various flashbacks or as part of the events in the story as in the following example.

"I wonder when in the world you're going to do anything, Rudolf?" said my brother's wife.
"My dear Rose," I answered, laying down my egg-spoon, "why in the world should I do anything? My position is a comfortable one. I have an income nearly sufficient for my wants (no one's income is ever quite sufficient, you know), I enjoy an enviable social position: I am brother to Lord Burlesdon, and brother-in-law to that charming lady, his countess. Behold, it is enough!"
"You are nine-and twenty," she observed, "and you've done nothing [...]"
(Hope, Prisoner of Zenda, ch.1)

Other narratives take their point of attack right to the end of the story, they start in ultimas res and then most of the story is gradually revealed in a series of flashbacks, explaining how things had come about.

Such different techniques in the arrangement of order on the discourse level obviously produce different types of suspense, one type of suspense created by an interest in how things happened, another type created by an interest in what will happen next (the distinction discussed usefully in Pfister 1988: ch. 3.7.4.).

Endings fall into two major categories: open and closed. In closed endings all plot difficulties are resolved into some (preliminary) order: death, marriage, or simply restored peace after disagreements as in the following example:

Ever since that day there has been the old friendly sociability in Cranford society; which I am thankful for, because my dear Miss Matty's love of peace and kindliness. We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us. (Gaskell, Cranford, end of ch. 16.)

In open endings no definite resolutions are offered. It even happens, as in John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman and other postmodern fiction, that several different endings are offered for the reader to choose. Though each one of these may be a closed ending, the effect is that of an open ending, because there does not seem to be one definite conclusion to the events of the story.



The third element of time analysis relates to the question of how many references are made on the discourse level to any given event on the story level. There are three possibilities:


an event takes place once and is referred to once ('They married in June 1865 on a beautiful sunny day').


an event takes place once but is referred to repeatedly. (This is the case for instance when a character is obsessed by an event and keeps coming back to it or when the same event is told from different narrator perspectives, as for instance in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. An extreme example is the movie Groundhog Day where the protagonist has to relive the same day over and over again).


an event takes place several times but is referred to only once ('Every day when Frida sat down to her sewing, she asked herself what she had done to deserve this').


   • chronology    
   • anachronology
   • flashforward    
   • flashback    
   • point of attack
   • ab ovo    
   • in medias res    
   • in ultimas res
   • suspense    
   • closed/open    
singulative    telling
repetitive telling
iterative telling