Does a flashback or a back-and-forth narrative between past and future constitute “temporal transposition,” in Viktor Shklovsky’s sense? (A temporal transposition refers to the presentation of one sequence of events while another sequence, simultaneous to the one presented, is not itself presented—but it nonetheless bears on the narrative.) The interspersing of two stories that are in fact arranged in a linear timeline is a kind of self-deceleration via temporal rhythm (progressive/anticipatory and regressive/referential being the operative concepts here). It’s not exactly a digression because it’s one contiguous thread, which has been cut up and rearranged.

I say “self-deceleration” because the deceleration is accomplished through an internal arrangement of elements rather than an interruption through the introduction of an (initially) external element like a tangent, another character’s arrival or interjection, or, on a smaller scale, a repetition that does nothing to increase the clarity (a device Gogol implements frequently).

The resulting narrative construction is a temporal form, the material for which is a diachronic storyline. In order to be a form, it must have deformed some form that came along with the material. In this case, that which is deformed is the linear organization of events. This reorganization effects the progressive, or anticipatory, and the regressive, or referential, aspects of the ordering of a story. (These paired concepts come from Jurij Tynianov’s Problem of Verse Language, where he applied them to rhythm in poetry.) These two aspects are experienced in the consumption of a narrative, in the sensations of its flow. While the progressive-regressive valences of that flow operate in a straightfoward plot (they contribute to experiencing its organic composition), temporal transposition renders it a dominant element.

How about the jump cut in cinematic dialogue? There is a simultaneity of action on a small scale: namely, while one person speaks, the other reacts. But the camera only ever shows one at a time, without backing up to show the other half that had been left out of the frame.

Shklovsky introduces the device of temporal transposition in the context of his analysis of how Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories work as mysteries. On its own, temporal transposition does not make a mystery. Rather, the author uses it to present situations open to ambiguous interpretation. For the reader aware of the genre they are reading, that ambiguity enters into the very presentation of clues prior to even guessing what actually took place in the story. Hence the importance of misdirection via oblique phrases and subordinate clauses, the narrator’s lack of awareness of Holmes’s thoughts as they occur, and homonyms.

Her Story and Telling Lies, both mystery games by Sam Barlow, have the player investigate a repository of full-motion videos. In Telling Lies, the player watches video conference calls one side at a time and not in any set order. Crucially, only the audio of the person being shown can be heard. So while their reactions are shown, the player does not hear the other caller’s speech. Similarly, in Her Story, the player uncovers video clips from police interviews in a keyword-searchable database. Again, the interviewer is not heard, only the interviewee’s responses.

With Telling Lies, the temporal transposition comprises both the contextual events referred to in conversation as well as the other parts of recorded dialogue viewed at later times by the player. This device constructs a temporal field that the player fills out with clues and ambiguous connections between those clues.

In a linearly constructed narrative, the progressive aspect would align with the storyline’s future because the reader expects certain outcomes; and the regressive aspect would align with its past because the reader traces effects back to their causes. (Of course, this involves much more than cause-and-effect but also the recurrence of motifs, themes, and language.) By contrast, with a non-linear narrative construction, the progressive element most often refers to what of the past and present has yet to be revealed. And the regressive is less a reference back than it is a synthetic operation in the experience of the narrative. The narrative rhythm manifests through a process of stitching together time forms.


Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Translated by Benjamin Sher. Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.

Her Story. Developed and published by Sam Barlow. 2016.

Telling Lies. Developed by Sam Barlow and Furious Bee. Published by Annapurna Interactive. 2019.