The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Anachrony: The literary technique of presenting material out of chronological order; alternatively, the achronological presentation of events. Anachronous narratives are characterized by plots in which events are recounted in an order different from their chronological sequence. Narratologist Mieke Bal therefore described anachrony as “chronological deviation” in De theorie van vertellen en verhalen (Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative) (2nd ed. 1980).

There are three major types of anachrony: (1) analepsis, the insertion of scenes that have occurred in the past; (2) prolepsis, the insertion of scenes that take place in the future; and (3) ellipsis, the omission of material in a narrative that creates a chronological gap. Analepsis, the most common form of which is flashback, usually occurs near the beginning of a work and often recounts an event that occurred before the opening scene. Prolepsis, which includes flashforward and other techniques for previewing future events or developments, is often used in television and film to create feelings of anticipation, curiosity, and suspense. Sometimes prolepsis takes the form of a figure of speech that hints at an eventual outcome. Ellipsis is a form of chronological deviation that enables an author to skip over periods rather than directing the reader or audience backward or forward in time. Some authors use ellipses to invite the reader to “fill in the gap,” whereas others use this technique to achieve brevity.

French reader-response critic Gérard Genette further classified types of anachrony in Discours du récit (Narrative Discourse) (1972), distinguishing internal, external, partial, completing, and repeating analepses and prolepses. Internal analepses and prolepses refer to events that take place within the work’s timeline, external ones to events occurring outside the work’s chronological boundaries, that is, before the beginning or after the ending of the time period covered by the story proper. Partial analepses or prolepses recount an isolated moment, past or future, in the story; completing ones fill in gaps left by ellipses. Repeating analepses and prolepses flash back or forward to events that have been previously presented or that will be presented later.

EXAMPLES: George Lucas’s Star Wars film series unfolds anachronously, beginning in medias res with the trilogy Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and The Return of the Jedi (1983); continuing with the prequels The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005); and concluding with The Force Awakens (2015) and additional episodes continuing the story told in the original three films. Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 (2012; adapted to television 2016) chronicles the repeated attempts of its protagonist, Jake Epping, to travel back in time via a portal he finds in the storeroom of a diner to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “BEFOImageE” and “AFTEImage” are used in Mary Kubica’s The Good Girl (2014), a novel told from the points of view of a mother; her daughter, Mia; Mia’s abductor; and a police detective, to indicate whether the events in the ensuing chapter took place before or after Mia’s recovery.

Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town (1938) contains an analeptic flashback to the twelfth birthday of Emily Webb, the play’s main character. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602) displays proleptic anachrony when the wounded protagonist says, figuratively, “Horatio, I am dead.”

Movies about psychics regularly use internal prolepsis to flash forward to what their prescient protagonists subconsciously know. The television series The Simpsons (1989— ) periodically uses external prolepsis to reveal what certain family members will look and be like twenty years in the future.

The phrase “FOUR YEARS LATER,” which fills the screen near the end of the movie Cast Away (2000), is an example of elliptic anachrony, indicating the omission of the intervening four years, which are presumably irrelevant to the movie.