Micro-Lesson | Narrative Time with Michael Shilling

Posted Mon, 4/27/2015 - 2:07pm by  |  Category:


It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits
around saying, “I drank too much last night.” You might
have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church,
heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his
cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the
tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the
leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible
hangover. “I drank too much,” said Donald Westerhazy. “We
all drank too much,” said Lucinda Merrill. “It must have been
the wine,” said Helen Westerhazy. “I drank too much of that
claret.” — from “The Swimmer,” by John Cheever

We’re going to be looking at the ways that time is shaped by and interacts with other prose elements—syntax, diction, and rhythm, for example—to create narrative tension and stakes. This piece, which opens John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” immediately establishes the tension between the past and the present and uses dialogue and setting in a deft way to draw out that tension.

Time must help distill down the excitement of a protagonist’s experience. There is very little about what happens in a protagonist’s life that you can recount on paper, so the passage of time must be used a tool to conveying inner conflict to make exterior conflict more dramatic without being melodramatic.


Write about what happened to you on a given day, in two sentences. Then in five sentences. Then in ten sentences. How does the length of each piece shape how you use time as an element of describing that day? Is the passage of time more present in any? Not very present in others?

Among other activities, in the next class, we’ll be looking at the first two chapters of The Great Gatsby, to see how Fitzgerald temporally sets up a complex story. What experiences does Nick talk about in the first chapter? How much time on the page does he spend describing those experiences? Why does he give more space to some events and less to others, and how does this editing of memory begin to create interest/curiosity in the reader?

Michael Shilling
is the author of Rock Bottom, a novel published by Little, Brown. The musical adaptation of the book, which he co-wrote, was staged in 2014 by the Landless Theater Company as part of the DC Fringe Festival. His stories have been published in The Sun, Fugue, and Other Voices.