2.17. Action time and space


Action time is "the amount of time required by the events that are said to occur" ("Thematics" 78) and should not be confused with reading time, which is related to the size of the work. Action time is the time that takes place in the real or fictional world to which the narrative refers; accordingly, it may have a closer or looser relationship to real time (e.g. we relate to time in Ivanhoe  in one way and to time in The Lord of the Rings   in another.

            Action time is pluridimensional, since an action is not a thin narrative line but a volume of relationships progressing in time.  But a story presupposes the encoding of those events in a semiotic thread of signs.  Simultaneity therefore will have to be rendered implicitly or through sequentiality.  Study of story time can be described as study of how a pluridimensional phenomenon has been mapped on a limited semiotic system; or, conversely, of how a linear and sequential text manages to construct, to represent, the fulness of a lived temporality.   


            Action time may exist in two main forms: objective ("real" time) and subjective time.    Subjective time is the representation of time in the minds of the characters in the action.  It is therefore an element of the fictive world, just as the characters themselves, but it is already subject to distortion and patterning (let us remember here Bergson's concept of durée).   Subjective time may already be considered a transitional form towards story time, which is also a represented time.  Subjective time is not represented in language (at least not exclusively), but it is nonetheless a semiotic phenomenon to the extent that time and identity are subjective phenomena.  It is of course this inherent semiotization of action time which makes it amenable to representation as a story.  The characters (or people) can be thought of as being subject to brute, shapeless temporality, but in fact they live their experience of time in a form much closer to an ordered narrative, with significant connections between the events of their lives, anticipations, memories and projects.  Subjective time is in one sense a simplification and in another sense a complication of real action time.  Subjective time, like narrative, involves to some extent a linearization of the multidimensional action time.  Consciousness can oscillate between several threads of thought, but it can hardly encompass all aspects of reality.  It is therefore only natural that subjective time, like the subjective realm of experience as a whole, is used as a partially elaborated material in the construction of a story; it is used to motivate narrative structures at this level.  But subjective time also complicates narrative temporality in that it disrupts the uniformity of its direction: flashbacks and flashforwards are a feature of memory work before they become a feature of narrative.  Characters may likewise construct fictional temporal sequences through their wishes, dreams, tales, etc.  A story may use all of these without giving the narrator the direct responsibility for any of them, since they are in a sense ready-made, a part of the action.  Of course they are only significant for analysis due to the fact that they are a part of the story  as well, but it is useful to distinguish these features from those which are introduced at story level, since they give rise to different narrative structures. 

            As to the place of the action, according to Tomashevski it can be static or dynamic ("Thematics" 78).  Place he completely subordinates to action. The emphasis is formal: place is not merely referential but a constructive device which allows the development of the action.