The Techniques and Dramatic and Structural Devices of the Time Tale

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The day will come when the man at the telephone will be able to see the distant person to whom he is speaking.”

Alexander Graham Bell

Message in a Time Bottle – Communication Across Time

For plot reasons it is sometimes necessary to allow characters in one time period to communicate with those in another. BACK TO THE FUTURE came up with a brilliant wheeze, if somewhat complicated, as to how this could be done:

DOC BROWN: This can’t be happening! You can’t be here! It doesn’t make sense for you to be here! I refuse to even believe it that you are here!

MARTY: Doc, I am here, and it doesn’t make sense. Look, I came back to 1955 again with you, the you from 1985, ‘cause we had to get a book from Biff. So once I got the book back, you – that is, the you from 1985 – were in the DeLorean and it got struck by lightning, and got sent back to 1885!

DOC BROWN: 1885? It’s a very interesting story, future boy, but there’s just one little thing that doesn’t make sense. If the me of the future is now in the past, how could you possible know about it?

MARTY: (HOLDING IT UP) You sent me a letter.

Using Western Union proved to be such a brilliantly inventive method in the BACK TO THE FUTURE series that it was later borrowed for the television series TIMELESS, only for Wyatt Logan that telegram was less successful. Jiya fared better when she got stranded in the past and used photographs of her herself in history books to communicate with the team in the present day.

Weirdly in TRAVELERS (using the American spelling of the series), messages are dispatched from the future and delivered to the present by temporally taking over the consciousness of children (adults, it is explained, could not survive the process). These children are then sent to wherever the Travelers are. “Where is my mom?” is often what they say when they are released from being what is essentially incarnated talking telegram. Yet how this bizarre communication is actually achieved is never fully explained. Doubtless there is an explanation, and it may be a very reasonable one, but sometimes too much explaining for what is an impossibility anyway, simply slows things down. Better perhaps just to get on with the story.

Those clever people back at Project Tic-Toc in the 1960s TIME TUNNEL series use the radiation left on their time travellers after their ‘radiation bath’ to locate them in time. There is also a means of sending messages to the Travellers via a location probe, the F-5, but frustratingly this doesn’t always work. Still, it’s all very useful in constructing the plot.

There are no such problems communicating across the centuries or indeed millenniums in DOCTOR WHO. Here, mobile phones seem able to get a signal no matter which time zone or era characters are in. Which isn’t exactly what you’d call real life, for clearly DOCTOR WHO writers have never spent a weekend in Norfolk.

In the Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU), there’s a scene where two time travellers are in the same space but different time dimensions. But there’s no need to worry, not when you have Post-it Pads you can simply put on the wall. Sometimes solving the problem of a dislocation in the space-time continuum is that easy.

Communication between different time periods via a radio is a key feature in the crime movie FREQUENCY and the romantic Japanese drama DITTO (2000). Contact between the young people in YOUR NAME (2016) is achieved not surprisingly via their smart phones. In THE LAKE HOUSE, a remake of the South Korean film IL MARE, it is an old fashioned mailbox that allows an architect living in 2004 and a doctor living in 2006 to communicate. In the movie, with Keanu Reeves as the architect and Sandra Bullock as the doctor, letters are left in the mailbox in real time two years apart, but somehow the red arrow pops up immediately in the other time period and when Keanu and Sandra open the box, there they are. The best postal service that has ever existed in any era. Well, perhaps it’s because THE LAKE HOUSE is a Romantic Time Drama which of course has an huge advantage over any other type of Time Drama for, as will all know, Love will always find a way.

“If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me.”

Jimmy Buffet

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“Here’s something to think about: How come you never see a headline like ‘Psychic Wins Lottery’?”

Jay Leno


Gifts from the Future

Several stories use the knowledge of time travellers from the future to offer some sort or help or gift to those in the present. Including themselves. Which is basically the plot of BACK TO THE FUTURE II. Winning the pools or the lottery can also be found in of THE FLIPSIDE OF DOMINICK HIDE and THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE. In SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (also known as SISYPHUS) written by Lee Je-in and Jeon Chan-ho, there’s a neat twist on the lottery scenario. In fact in the story, the lottery is said to have been created specifically to fund the Control Bureau, an organisation that polices illegal time immigrants from the future. Not only that, in a rather clever way the lottery becomes one of the main methods of tracking down such illegals as many try and use the lottery as an easy route to making money. Find the big winners and they’re likely to be your illegal time travellers. The mysterious Sigma character however, avoids this trap by putting on small sure bets at the race track and then taking that cash to buy and sell stocks and shares. This is way of creating the mammoth wealth that, somewhat indirectly, leads to the creation of the time machine itself.

Medical cures from the future, notably cures for cancer, are key plot elements in both SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH and the American television series TRAVELERS. There’s more of a comedy moment in STAR TREK IV: THE VOAYGE HOME when McCoy cures a patient who then starts running round the hospital shouting about it.

Time travellers occasionally allow themselves a gift of sorts that helps them in their adventure. Bill and Ted in BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE discovery a set of keys behind as bush that they themselves apparently put there in the future knowing that they would be needed. A neat gag on this Time Tale trope. And in SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH characters leave a message on the wall that allows for a rescue from the future. A deux ex machina unique to Time Tales.

“I figure you have the same chance of winning the lottery whether you play or not.”

Fran Lebowitz

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“Dreams about the future are always filled with gadgets.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson


Time Gadgets (Patents Pending) 

Very conveniently, the TARDIS, the means by which the Doctor in DOCTOR WHO travels through space and time, has a ‘translation circuit’, which is a gift of the TARDIS. In simple terms the translation circuit is a telepathic field stretching from the TARDIS that gets inside your brain and translates what the aliens are saying. But, as with many things relating to the TARDIS, the system isn’t infallible. On some occasions, the telepathic field is limited to a certain radius around the TARDIS. Also the translation circuit is one hundred per cent accurate for it has a swear filter, which means that if an alien or even a speaker of ancient Greece uses a rude phrase, all potentially impressionable young viewers would only ever hear is something like “You’re all a bunch of naughty melon pluckers!” There have been occasions when the translation circuits have failed to work or even hacked. The Master’s odd humour came into play when he disrupted what the Doctor was saying by altering the telepathic circuits of the TARDIS with the bizarre result that when the Doctor’s own words were fed back to him they came out backwards. The TARDIS does however seem able to deal quite cleverly with accents, as when Donna arrived in Pompeii and met one Latin speaker who thought she was Celtic. But maybe the bigger clue was in the hair.

The Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, stays firmly on Earth and so doesn’t have any alien languages to worry about. That said, those clever people at Alice did come up with a one brilliant gadget that surprisingly hasn’t yet been fully exploited on the commercial market. Older looking time travellers when they travel back in time to see a loved one simply put in their ear some sort of device that allows their older selves to look thirty years younger. For some people, this would undoubtedly be an invention far more important than time travelling itself, yet in the series it is never fully explained or even developed that much. Ah well, back to Botox.

The wormhole timepiece carried around by travellers in DARK is about the size of a cricket ball, but trust Korean technology from Alice to come up with something even smaller. You see, travellers in ALICE (AELLISEU) carry a Time Card, no bigger than a credit card, which, when pressed, allows them to travel in time. Detective Park Jin-gyeom’s mother Yoon Tae-yi did have one, but hers was damaged. Jin-gyeom asks her doppelganger, Professor Yoon Tae-yi, to examine it and she finds inside various mathematical equations that are similar to those she has been working on. There are hints here of a Causal Loop, that is something that itself is not invented but rather comes from the future to the past where it becomes the cause of that which it will become. Put simply, if you take the technology of a time machine back in time, you can then use that wizardry to put together the very time machine that took you. Causal loops save you lots of hard work in the lab.


“When I was a kid, I never wanted to be James Bond. I wanted to be Q, because he was the guy who made all the gadgets. I guess you could say that engineering came naturally.”

Grant Imahara

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“The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”

Roald Dahl


Time Buried Treasure

There’s a plot point in BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE where Bill and Ted need to release from the jail cells the historical figures they have collected from across time, but the problems is they don’t have the keys to the cell, which anyway, it has already been established, have been missing from the very beginning of the movie. But Bill has a thought:

BILL: If only we could go back to two days ago before your dad lost his keys, and steal them.

TED: Well, why don’t we?

BILL: Cuz we don’t have the time, dude.

TED: We could do it after the report.

BILL: Oh yeah! Where should we put ‘em?

TED: How ’bout behind this sign?



BILL: Whao! It worked!

TED: Right, so when we’re done with the report, we have to remember to do this or else it won’t happen… but it did happened! Wow, it was me who stole my dad’s keys.

Need something, dude? Whoa! Simply leave that something in the past and let ourselves find it when it’s wanted. Excellent!

Discovering something hidden that has been especially placed there to be found at a later date, is a popular plot device in Time Tales. The DeLorean left in the mine shaft in BACK TO THE FUTURE III, for example. In Stranded, episode seven of Season One of TIMELESS, Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus are left high and dry in 1754. However, Rufus leaves a literal message in a bottle inside the damaged Lifeboat for Mason Industries to find in 2016 buried underground in what is now a suburb of Pennsylvania. Rufus manages some repairs in 1754 but is more worried about the cryptic message for it is a clue to help the base get then home. However, this is eventually understood by Jiya in 2016 to be a reference to STAR WARS and she is ultimately able to guide the team and the Lifeboat back to base.

In DARK, the younger Claudia Tiedemann in 1987, uses a map given by her older self to find the exact spot behind her house where the time machine was buried by the older Claudia Tiedemann in 1954. This allows the 1987 Claudia to travel in time to 2000. Be careful then where you dig in your garden with your shovel. You never know what a time traveller might have left there back in 1883.


“Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”

Albert Einstein

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“There are so many different narrative traditions across the world, and each of those traditions has evolved dramatically over time. Once I understood that, I felt truly free; I could write and invent the way I wanted to because there never has been only one way to tell a story.”

Ken Liu


Narrative Voice – Who is it that is Telling the Time Tale?

Narrative voice does not necessarily mean a literal human voice, but ‘voice’ more in the sense of how a novel or movie is told. The standard narrative voice of Hollywood movies, and indeed most novels, is Objective Narration or Implied Author. Someone has put this tale or movie together and controls how, when and what the reader or viewer sees and hears. Think here of TIMELESS or AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

Unrestricted Narration goes a lot further than this for here the narration is unlimited and omniscient, and can go anywhere, including inside the mind of a character. THE JACKET, for example, takes the audience into the mind/memories/hallucinations of Jack Starks (Adrien Brody).

Restricted Narration limits the range of knowledge and this is usually to one character who acts as a kind of ‘Reflector’ through whose perspective the reader or viewer will experience the action. The Reflector can sometimes change as the story goes on. Jonas, for example, is the main Reflector in DARK, but not exclusively so. Restricted Narration is popular in mysteries or crime tales. IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON is a film noir crime story that is seen from the standpoint of the cop called Locke where the serial killer is a time traveller who seems to know Locke very well. In this story the mystery of the identity of the serial killer is eventually explained (it’s his granddaughter from the future) but some Restricted Narrations that are very restricted don’t go that far. PRIMER is presented pretty much exclusively from the perspective of Aaron and Abe, but so many of the pieces in the jig-saw puzzle of this Time Tale remain missing, that even at the end, making full comprehension of the plot is impossible. Detractors mock this but those who are admirers see it as one of the movie’s greatest strengths.

Subjective Narration takes the restriction of the narration a step further for in Subjective Narration one character alone is the ‘centre of consciousness’, as Henry James once put it. This style of narration in movies often includes voice-over of internal thoughts, plus subjective sound, meaning what a character is thinking and hearing. Or imagining what they are hearing. Pure Subjective Narration is very rare in cinema, it’s far more common in the novel form, but one example of it might be said to be JACOB’S LADDER. In a pure Subjective Narration in movies you would also have subjective camera or POV (Point of View), but again this is very rare all the way through a movie, though LADY IN THE LAKE and the opening sequence of HALLOWEEN are examples, though of course neither are Time Tales. Subjective camera can be used occasionally and very effectively. A case in point would be the red images from the red-eyed Model 101 in THE TERMINATOR. The ultimate Subjective Narration is stream of consciousness or ‘mindscreen’, and this can include dreams, memories and interior monologues. Epistolary Tales based on letters or journals can also be classified as Subjective Narrations.

A First Person narration in a novel is similar to Restricted Narration in a movie, but it is difficult to use the term Narrator to mean the same in both mediums for a written fiction and a visual movie are very different forms. The Narrator in fiction can never be truly equivalent to a voice over narration in a movie as the later also comes with an unrestricted visual presentation. What is seen in one shot in a movie could take a whole chapter for a writer to describe.

Unreliable Narration is where the narration or the narrator is not being entirely honest in what is being told or presented and this can included dreams that are not at first revealed to be dreams and memories that are discovered to be false memories. An example of this in a Time Tale would be SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE. Billy Pilgrim is suffering from what used to be called ‘shell-shock’ or ‘battle-fatigue’ but is now classified as PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Patients with this condition lose the ability to discriminate between past and present experiences or correctly interpret environmental contexts. They become, as it were, unhooked and unglued from Time. Almost outside of it sometimes. Are the Tralfamadororians in the story real? Who truly knows? Perhaps not even Billy Pilgrim himself.

It is also possible to have an unreliable narrator telling a story within the story or diegesis. Prairie Johnson in THE OA and Eduard in IF I HAN’T MET YOU could be said to be examples of this, or at least it is suggested in the narrative that they are unreliable. Seeding doubt is always a useful dramatic technique.

Intrusive Narration is basically a narration with some sort of outsider commentary, for example in an educational film, travelogue or newsreel. These can also include intrusive subtitles or inter-titles. A basic example of this would be the words Makeshift British Headquarter suddenly appearing at the bottom of the screen in AUSTIN POWERS. Such intrusive narration subtitles are put there for expositional and explanatory reasons, usually what year it is or where we are geographically in a story, but sometimes they are added for humorous or even didactic purposes. Academics in Film Studies call these non-diegetic intrusions as it comes from outside the world of the story of diegesis. Music that accompanies the movies can be included as non-diegetic intrusions, but not of course music that is played on the radio, for the radio is in the story. Those intercut musical ‘stings’ in AUSTIN POWERS are most definitely non-diegetic intrusions. Not that you’d ever want to cut them. They’re groovy, baby.

Many of these narrative styles are not mutually exclusive. There’s no reason why a Restrictive Narration might includes some Intrusive Narration in the form of subtitles, as DARK sometimes does in explaining where and when we are on the timeline. It’s certainly useful in what is a very complex plot. That said, a First Person or Subjective Narration shouldn’t be able to relate events first hand or show scenes where the character narrating the tale wasn’t present.


“Inside each of us is a natural-born storyteller, waiting to be released.”

Robin Moore

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“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

Patrick Rothfuss


Retrospective Narration and Praesens Historicum

H.G. Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE is a retrospective narration. And twice over, in a way. First, there is the unnamed ‘Time Traveller’ himself. His retrospective narration, which is basically the Time Traveller telling the story of the experiences he had in the future to his dinner guests, accounts for nearly eighty percent of the book. The second retrospective narration is from the unnamed narrator of the novel itself. Some believe this to be a character called Hillyer, who is mentioned by the Time Traveller, but others assume that Hillyer is more probably a servant. Anyway, whatever his name is or isn’t, like most of the other guests, we are told very little about him. We do know our narrator goes to the Linnaean Society, so he might have a science background, but he also talks about having a meeting with his publisher, so he might be a writer. Or he could be both. Whatever his occupation, the important point is our narrator is open to the possibility of time travel and, in part at least, believes the story the Time Traveller tells. A narrator who was sceptical, as some dinner guests are, would have given the novel an entirely different feel. Our narrator doesn’t share the philosophical pessimism of the Time Traveller, but, compared to some of the guests, our narrator is a thoughtful and deep thinker.

First person narration can be written either in the present tense or retrospectively in the past tense. If a book is written in the present tense, there’s always the niggly problem of where’s the pen and paper when you’re doing all this? Or why would you still be writing this down when, for example, you may well be in perilous danger? PAMELA; OR, VIRTUE REWARDED by Samuel Richardson is an early epistolary novel that in part is written in the present tense. However, why the heroine is writing letters at the same time she is in genuine danger is much mocked by Henry Fielding in his satire AN APOLOGY FOR THE LIFE OF MRS. SHAMELA ANDREWS, or simply SHAMELA. Of course, in most modern present tense narrations the reader can assume the writer isn’t actually scribbling it all down on bits of paper as she or he goes along. Present tense narration is now simply an accepted writing convention. However, it certainly isn’t a form that suits all stories or indeed most writers. Philip Pullman is a particular critic of novels written in the first person. “There’s a close parallel here with the increasing use of the hand-held camera in cinema,” he wrote in THE GUARDIAN, “ Just like the present tense, the hand-held camera is an expressive device whose expressive power is being drained away by making it the only way of shooting a film. And I dislike that too, you won’t be surprised to hear.” Pullman isn’t against the use of present tense in a novel as such and points to both Charlotte Brontë and Charles, writers, he argues, who employed in it wisely. His advice to young writers is to follow their paths and not modern trends. “I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.” And that is – or should we say was – a point well made.

Traditionally, the first person retrospective narration has been written in past tense – the events have already happened, after all. However, whenever we become a storyteller ourselves, for example telling the events that happened in the pub last night, we often slip into what is known as the ‘historical present’ (sometimes also referred to as the ‘dramatic present’ or the ‘narrative present’). Historical present is a term from linguistics and rhetoric and simple means the employment of the present tense when narrating past events. The historical present has been widely used in writing about history in Latin where it is sometimes referred to by its Latin name, praesens historicum. Well, not only Roman history but also, of course, when you’re relating to friends the escapades of what happened to you last night. “There I am,” you say, “I’m carrying four bags of crisps, two bottles and a pint of larger. What can go wrong?”Praesens historicum then is a rhetorical style that naturally heightens the dramatic force of the narrative by describing events as if they were still unfolding. In a way, you could argue that a primarily past tense retrospective narration that occasionally drops into the historical present at the most dramatic moments has the best of both worlds. Yes, it’s right to use past tense because the past is past, but the occasional use of the present tense does give any narration an immediacy and excitement.

The main advantage of any type of first person narration is its accessibility in that you get to know the character who’s writing. First person narration allows for a form of storytelling that is usually very direct – you’re always right there inside the narrator’s mind, after all. Yet the style of speech or writing can also be very conversational. It needed have the formality of third person narration or the ‘assumed narrator’ as writing theorists say. First person narration is restricted narration it is true, but this can be particularly useful when it comes to mystery tales. For example, many of the Canon Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories are told by Dr Watson from a first person point of view. Watson is not stupid but he’s not as clever as Holmes and never knows (or at least never reveals) what it is that Holmes himself knows. Of course it is still Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle writing the stories and, as it were, through Dr Watson, Doyle does offer the reader certain clues. The trick is that we the reader aren’t quite as slow as Watson but we’re nowhere near the genius of Holmes either. We’re somewhere in between. And Agatha Christie, of course, used essentially the same technique Hastings and Poirot.

The first person narration allows for personal interpretation, which may or may not be correct (Watson rarely is!), but we also mustn’t forget that a first person narrator may not be telling us the whole truth, as readers of Agatha Christie’s THE MURDER OF RODER ACKROYD, who have throughout put their trust in the narrator Dr Jack Sheppard, discover. Audible gasps can still be heard on buses when readers reach the page where… well, perhaps it’s best if you read it yourself.

The first person narration has other advantages. The narrator can, for example, move back and forth in the story’s plotline or, indeed, cleverly use foreshadowing to hint at what is to come without actually giving the whole game way. And the emotional stakes are always likely to be much higher for readers who have got to know the narrator as a result of living inside their head for hours on end. Yes, there is the disadvantage you can’t describe the narrator objectively, but on the other hand the narrator is constantly revealing their thoughts to you and anyway they can ultimately be judged by their actions.

Interesting, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger uses dual first person narratives, the time travelling husband and the non-time travelling wife. Clare’s narrative not surprisingly is more liner and anchored than that of her time travelling time travelling husband Henry, but the two very personal narratives are clever woven together, each shedding light on the other.

What then of third person narration and the assumed narrator? The main advantages of third person narration are that it allows for omniscience across the whole story and potentially insight into multiple characters. Most authors rarely tell us the secrets until they need to, not do they go inside the heads of every character. Jane Austen, for example, is a restricted narrator who chooses to tell the story from the perspective of a limited number of characters. The readers of EMMA only find out about the secret engagement of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill at the same time that Emma does? Yes, even gossipy Miss Austen knows how to keep a secret when it suits her. Third person narration is supposedly objective, yet that depends on style. There is a degree of detachment in the writing of say George Orwell or Henry James but is objectivity really an appropriate word for the ironic but still judgemental Miss Austen?

When telling a tale of a childhood experience or incident authors tend to use retrospective first person narration, for example, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD by Harper Lee and STAND BY ME by Stephen King. Often the events themselves occurred some time ago and so the distance in time offers a more mature perspective. Nevertheless, the author usually tries to get inside the head of who they were at that age. This is certainly true of classic novels such as Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS and DAVID COPPERFIELD. In the childhood sections of the story, Dickens becomes, as it were, a boy again and we are presented with the world from that point of view.

All narrative forms and styles have their strengths. Ultimately the narrative form that is chosen by the writer should be the one that best suits the story being told. The choice was made in the SWIDGERS Time Adventure book series for our hero William to be the narrator of his own story which means the reader is always right there with William in the midst of action as the pen hits the page. William’s first person narration makes it more natural for the reader to connect with William, plus it gives the events a real sense of immediacy and intimacy. Like most natural storytellers, William sometimes slips into the historical present as he’s telling you about the most exciting or dramatic scenes such as when he hides behind the hidden door, discovers the secret at the end of the passageway or is involved in that cliff edge battle to the death. William shouldn’t then be criticised for occasional tense confusion. The truth is, he simply can’t help himself, for that’s how he instinctively wants to tell his thrilling and very unusual Time Tale.

The overall arc of the story in SWIDGERS is that of a developing child who is on a quest of discovery about himself and the universe around him and for that reason too it makes sense that he should tell his story himself. THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS, the first book in the SWIDGERS book series, is essentially a mystery story, which, as seen with the novels and stories of both Conan Doyle and Agatha Christies, suits the first person narration. William, who we must assume like Dr Watson or even Dr James Sheppard, has knowledge of what happens in the end (or at least up to a certain point in the story), but William, like Watson and Sheppard, is careful not to reveal all he knows too early. And there’s something else too, as he explains himself early in his tale:

 “As I got dressed that morning, I had no answers, but there’d come a day when I would… The Time We Saved Tomorrow. Forgive me, again I jump ahead. Better for now that I tell my tale as it happened and not as it came to be understood. And I do this as much for myself as for you. For isn’t it sometimes in the very telling of our story that we come to understand it?”

In a way then, the reason William is writing his tale is at least in part to fully understand it himself, for sometimes in life, it’s as we are describing to a friend a strange happening that we suddenly understand its significance. You see, it’s the telling of the tale itself that leads to that self revelation where in a single moment everything becomes clear. It’s a method of course that’s also used in psychology, where it’s simply called Talking Therapy. Talking it out, or indeed writing it out, telling the story of who you are or who you believe yourself to be, can lead to suddenly seeing of yourself and others in a completely new light.


“The most powerful words in English are, ‘Tell me a story’”


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“The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

Oscar Wilde


Narrative Information – Suspense, Dramatic Irony and Mystery

Narrative Information simply means the knowledge the audience, viewer or reader, is given or presented with as the telling of the story progresses.  In a typical Suspense Story, neither the characters nor the audience should know too much about what is happening or what will come next for Suspense depends on trepidation – ‘What’s behind the door at the end of that dark passage?’ – for tension and anticipation is what the Suspense Thriller aims to create. That said, withholding all knowledge can lead to a certain amount of frustration. Another key feature of the Suspense Story is that from the first chapter to the last, the main character is rarely out of danger. Dime Novels was what the typical ‘low-brow’ Suspense Story used to be called in the United States, and Shockers was the name given to them in the United Kingdom.

Then there is Dramatic Irony. Here the audience know far more than the characters in the story, or at least more than some of the characters. The result of this is that the full significance of what someone says in a scene is understood by the audience to have a different meaning to the one intended. The effect is sometimes comic, notably in the movie GROUNDHOG DAY, which is pretty much pure comic irony from the first repeated day onwards, but at other times it can lead to pathos, for example the end moments of LOOPER.

In Mystery, one character knows more than any of the others, and the audience does not know what that information is either. The effect here is not so much suspense as curiosity. ‘Who did it? And why?’ PREDESTINATION, HAPPY DEATH DAY and TENET are essentially all mystery stories.

It’s easy to see how different degrees of narrative information can work in Time Tales. BACK TO THE FUTURE is obviously big on Dramatic Irony. There is for example that scene in the dining room in 1955 when Lorraine’s mother asks Marty, “Why do you look so familiar to me? Do I know your mother?” Marty looks in Lorraine’s direction and says, “Yeah, I think maybe you do.” Lorraine’s father later says of Marty, “He’s an idiot. Comes from upbringing. His parents are probably idiots too. Lorraine, if you ever have a kid that acts that way I’ll disown you.” Then there is Goldie Wilson, the black busboy clearing tables in the 1955 diner who believes that he will make something of himself. Marty says that indeed he will for Marty is sure that he will become Mayor because he’s seen it himself. The owner of the soda shop where Goldie works shakes his head in disbelief, but Mary and we the audience know better.

In TRAVELERS (using the American spelling for the series), much of the comedy in the series comes from the Travelers lack of awareness of food. Or at least 21st century fast food. Grace, Traveller 0027, is given some French Fries while awaiting the outcome of her trial. She loves them and says that, “If they throw the book at me, I can say I’ve had 21st century French cuisine.” But there are serious moments too. Grant MacLaren and his wife are discussing children and Kathyrn suggests setting up a Trust Fund for college. “That’s years from now,” says Grant. “We need to learn to think of the future,” replies Kat. “Oh, I have given that some thought,” the traveller from that very place. Dramatic Irony is indeed a rich vein to be tapped in Time Tales.

Mystery is the key narrative drive in Book One in the Swidger Time Adventure series. In THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS, William is a young Swidger going through growing pains. Granny tells William that he is not like other Swidgers for he has a gift, as yet unknown to William, which a Dark Force now seeks. And therein lies the story’s clock, for as soon as William understands what it is that makes him different, well, that is when the final attack will come. Discovery will destroy this young Swidger. Granny of course knows more than she admits but to tell what she knows would put William in danger. But William is a curious Swidger and wants to know exactly what going on and so does his best to find out the truth behind this Mystery and his own special place init.

THE JACKET to some degree is a Whodunnit. Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is a gulf war veteran who dies twice. The first ‘death’ is in the Gulf War, from a shooting where he seems to recover, but the second has a more ambiguous history. As it turns out, it was a simple accident. Not that anything is simple in this mind-bending Time Tale that mixes past, present and future in a way that makes pretty much everything in it a mystery.


“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis for Man’s desire to understand.”

Neil Armstrong

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“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.”

Orson Scott Card


Time Motifs and Image Systems

Time Tales are ultimately stories where the storyteller wants to create a certain atmosphere or get across sometimes subliminally a particular thematic idea or even moral. One method of achieving this is the use of motif, that is, a recurring element within the story. Another technique is imagery, or what is sometimes called The Image System. An Image System is essentially a strategy of symbols and images, physical or metaphorical, that are used to explore themes, create aesthetic emotional responses and increase intellectual awareness. An Image System can incorporate physical objects, but equally it can include use of language and names. Shakespeare famously used images of rottenness and decay to describe the political corrupt court in HAMLET and devouring animal imagery to depict the savagely cruel world of KING LEAR.

In the Time Tale one obvious recurring motif is the clock or watch. The opening shot of HAPPY DEATH DAY is of a university’s clock tower, the striking clock appears early in TIMESCAPE, a ticking watch is there at the opening of NEXT, the gift the elderly lady gives Richard Collier in SOMEWHERE IN TIME is an antique pocket watch, and the alarm clock in Bill Murray’s bed and breakfast room in GROUNDHOG DAY becomes a repeating nightmarish image as it turns from 05:59 TO 06:00.

In BACK TO THE FUTURE, Doc Brown is usually seen wearing two watches and Marty staring at his watch from the movie poster became one of the iconic images of 1985. In fact, timepieces prove to be important plot points throughout BACK TO THE FUTURE. Hitting his head after falling when trying to hang a clock in his toilet back in November 1955 was the pivotal moment the Doc first came up with the idea of the flux capacitor. Then of course there’s the Hill Valley Courthouse clock being struck by lightning and its importance in getting Marty home. For the eagle-eyed movie viewer, there among the dozens of timepieces that feature in the opening credits is one with the figure of the silent movie actor Harold Lloyd hanging off the big hand pointing towards the eleven on the clock face, offering a hint of what will happen to Doc himself on the clock tower. A bit of foreshadowing seems appropriate enough in a movie about past, present and future.

Clocks and turning cogs are there too in HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN and an old pocket watch is a recurring image in LOOPER, though mechanisms of a slightly different sort could be said to the Image System in TERMINATOR where technology such as answering machines and public phone booths repeatedly let Sarah Connors down. It’s as if all machines have simply turned against her.

The Image System of DARK certainly includes clocks but the dominant image symbols come from religious and theological iconography, for example, the paintings of Adam and Eve, and the term The Watchmaker is an analogous expression for God, The Creator, and this originates from the teleological argument for His existence, known as Intelligent Design. Our complex world, this reasoning goes, is like a watch that has been carefully constructed and therefore, as with the watch, the world requires a Watchmaker or Designer/Creator. And The Watchmaker in DARK, by his actions on building a Time Machine, is the Creator of the two very nightmarish Time Loops.

In YOUR NAME Time is seen as a ‘thread’: “The threads twist, tangle, unravel and connect again. That’s Time.”  The boy wears braided cords round his wrists, but to think that it is these that are making the time connection possible is too literal, it is rather an image representing the complex ebb and flow of Time itself. And when the lovers do meet it is at twilight – ‘Kataware-doki’ – where day and night come together too.

A variation on The Image System is what academics sometimes call ‘Mythical Infra-Narrative’. This is where there is, as it were, a mythical subtext to the story. ET, THE EXTRA TERRESTIAL story has the Christian mythical narrative running underneath. The visual references range from ET being found in a stable beneath a starry sky to his later Resurrection and even Ascension. DARK is at times pure Mythical Infra-Narrative and the myth it is exploring, as has already been hinted at, is the Biblical Creation Story of Adam and Eve (or Adam and Eva). The difference is that in DARK, The Watchmaker (or God as suggested earlier) makes a right mess of things and it is up to our contemporary Adam and Eva to create a ‘Paradise’ by their own self-sacrifice. In DARK, Paradise is the world that was there before The Watchmaker (God) interfered. DARK may have religious imagery and iconography running all the way through it, but it is, ironically, a distinctly secular fable. And one in which God/The Watchmaker doesn’t exactly come out smelling of roses.

A word here as well about the name of The Watchmaker, Heinrich Gustav Tannhauser. The H.G. initials are an obvious reference to H.G. Wells. Tann is a poetic German term for forest (woods feature heavily in DARK), and hauser simply means house. A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME is the name of the book written by the Tannhauser character in DARK and it features this blurb on the front cover: ‘We trust in the linear, forever the same shape of the past, until eternity. But the differences between the past, presence and future are nothing but an illusion.’ The concept of Time as an illusion was, of course, made famous by Albert Einstein when he said: “For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Albert Einstein said these words a few weeks before his death in 1955. In DARK, Words, names and references to other stories and traditions have all been carefully chosen to add depth and emotional resonance with layer upon layer of thought and meaning.

‘Mythical Infra-Narrative’ can sometimes be more of a ‘Narrative Infra-Narrative’, or put another way, a plot that resembles another well-know plot, especially one from the classics. THE LION KING is well-known for its Narrative Infra-Narrative being based on Shakespeare’s most famous prince, for THE LION KING is essentially Hamlet-with-fur. In Requiem for Methuselah, an episode from the original STAR TREK series, Kirk and his party encounter a lonely man who calls himself Flint who claims that he has lived across time and in his ‘lifetimes’ he has been Methuselah, Solomon, Merlin and many more. He has built a beautiful young woman, a humanoid robot, but it cannot love as he wants it to, for it had been deprived of true human contact. A magician, alone with a young woman who needs to find love beyond that of her father? Sound familiar? It’s THE TEMPEST, with Prospero, the old magician, tiring of life, alone with his young daughter Miranda.

THE LAKE HOUSE, a remake of the South Korean film IL MARE starring Keanu Reeves as Alex Wyler and Sandra Bullock as Kate Forster. It is a romance where two characters are separated across Time. And yet, ‘There could have never been two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.’ Not a speech written for the film, but rather words from Jane Austen’s PERSUASION, also about two characters who eventually overcome their own barrier with the help of Time. Well, Time in the sense of waiting and patience than a magical lake house.


“Metaphors are much more tenacious than facts.”

Paul de Man


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