Coming to (Literary) Terms: Anachrony

I may edit this post later to incorporate images. I’ve been out of town, then under the weather, but I wanted to get this out there since it’s been almost two weeks since I posted! (I know barely anyone is reading at the moment, but one day we’ll all fondly look back on this with fuzzy memories).

Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.

The term of the day is Anachrony!

Anachrony is a pretty simple term and technique that is better known as non linear story telling. In other words, the general chronology of the story is manipulated so that not all parts are aligned in the recounting of the plot. Examples like Homer’s Odyssey, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge”, Nolan’s Memento, Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, or AMC’s Breaking Bad are stories that utilize a manipulation of chronology to deliver a story in a different, and theoretically, more poignant way.

To clarify, the term is a narrative device, not so much a plot element. This isn’t about time travel, but revealing information to the reader in a deliberate order to create humor, contrast, suspense, or any element the creators see fit. Also, don’t confuse this term with its more common counterpart, anachronism, which focuses on a different time related issue in stories.

So where do we see it in the popular culture domains? The first work that comes to mind is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons iconic work Watchmen. The story uses anachrony in various parts, most equally with the recollection of the Comedian through the memories of the various heroes. The story requires the use of flashbacks in order to fill in the gaps of the relationships and provide relevant reflection from the characters attending the funeral. My personal favorite is Doctor Manhattan’s story, as his narrative is both an explanation of his history, but also a revealing of his perspective. The dialogue and art are coupled well to show how the passage of time to the character is anachrony itself. In this case, the technique has a fairly singular goal of complementing characterization, and to display the perspective Dr. Manhattan has alluded to in previous chapters. I think it is a great way to encapsulate his alienation and detachment from people, by showing that his concepts of time are so different from everyone else.

The CW series Arrow, also implements this by telling stories of the past and present in parallel with each other, typically with a sense of theme or context. The benefit of having the story told in this way is that it reduces the need for flashback specific episodes, so the characterizations and plot can always move forward in a distinct way. The structure remained fairly static in the sense that the separation of events was always 5 years apart. I haven’t paid too close attention to the time frame in the recent seasons, but I have a feeling the structure has changed somewhat.

It isn’t too uncommon to reveal a result at the beginning of a work. Many popular titles begin with what appears to be the defeat of the main character, or some chaotic event that needs explaining. This builds both a sense of suspense and trust for the readers; it’s pretty exciting to see Spider-Man facing off with the big bad, as the rest of the Avengers are laid out, but you also trust that the lead up and conclusion will be paid off within the issue as well, so you read on with trust, hoping your suspense was well worth it.

So, the next time you read a book or watch a film, you can now safely assess the non-linear narrative with a new literary terminology. Have a great one and thanks for reading.


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