Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.
A Moment Before: Antecedent Action Defined
You may recall learning about grammatical structures called 'antecedents' in English class. In the linguistic world, antecedents are words that usually fall before pronouns, telling you what those pronouns are referring to. For example, in the sentence ''Stacy and Brian said they'd bring some ice cream'', 'Stacy and Brian' are the antecedent to the pronoun 'they.' Similarly in the realm of storytelling, antecedent action represents any event occurring before the main action of a narrative.
Antecedents (Latin antecedens, 'going before') do more than simply come before their associated pronouns, though. By indicating what or whom the pronoun is referring to, the antecedent provides a frame of reference so that the pronoun isn't just a meaningless word. Screenwriters or other authors may not always find it necessary to provide information on antecedent action in their works; however, when they do, it's typically to give audiences this same sort of reference point so as not to leave the present action without meaning or context.
When writers do include pertinent references to antecedent action in their work, they generally do so through exposition, which involves relaying information that would be otherwise undetectable from a narrative. Expositions can be long and complicated character descriptions or simple one-line statements on how a tavern got its name. Whatever the case, exposition is helpful in letting audiences know information that they'd otherwise be without just from taking in the main story (e.g. how a transporter works), and this often includes foreknowledge relevant to the present situation.
When an exposition goes beyond simply relaying information to entirely transporting audiences to a previous point in time, the result is known as a flashback. When other forms of exposition can be inserted into scenes and dialogue, flashbacks are entire scenes unto themselves set in a time prior to the main narrative. We can usually distinguish these scenes from the rest of the story not only by their temporal differences, but also often by a change in setting or composition of characters.
Now that we've seen how antecedent action can be displayed in a story, let's take a look at some examples from a saga you're sure to recognize!
Examples of Antecedent Action from the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is an epic tale with a long history of antecedent action behind it. In fact, The Hobbit is practically nothing but antecedent action in relation to the events surrounding the destruction of the One Ring! Prequels like this one are called such because they represent whole independent narratives occurring prior and related to another. However, the narrative structure of both novels also allows for some internal references to antecedent action.
During the very climax of action in The Hobbit, Bilbo was struck in the head by a falling rock, 'and he fell with a crash and knew no more.' After regaining consciousness and returning to find Thorin on his deathbed, the hobbit hears the story of what happened after he'd been knocked-out:
All that had happened after he was stunned, Bilbo learned later; but it gave him more sorrow than joy, and he was now weary of his adventure. He was aching in his bones for the homeward journey. That, however, was a little delayed, so in the meantime I will tell something of events…
The narrator then flashes back to the turning point in the Battle of Five Armies when the Eagles and Beorn arrived in the knick of time to help claim victory over the Orcs and Goblins as Bilbo blacks out at the end of the previous chapter. The narrative of the battle's closing events is brief, but helps fill-in the gaps and transition into the final stages of Bilbo's adventure.
This extraordinary hobbit's amazing journey is, of course, what sets up events for Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Upon returning to Hobbiton from his rip-roaring adventure, though, Bilbo apparently became quite the talk of the town. In the opening paragraphs of Book I, the narrator provides a bit of exposition on the matter:
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure.
For those unfamiliar with the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, the narrator has offered some brief background information and has even hinted at where Bilbo's full story can be found. '…his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return' reflects the alternate title to The Hobbit - There and Back Again.
From the Latin antecedens ('going before'), antecedent action is any event occurring before the main action of a narrative. Writers may not always include information regarding antecedent action. However, they might often insert it if doing so helps provide the main narrative with meaning or important context.
When such references are included, they're generally done so through exposition, which involves relaying information that would be otherwise undetectable from a narrative. Where other forms of exposition can be inserted into scenes and dialogue, flashbacks are themselves entire scenes set in a time prior to the main narrative. There are also entire works that are essentially all antecedent action known as prequels, which are independent narratives occurring prior and related to another.
Antecedent Action Terms & Definitions
|Antecedents||words that usually fall before pronouns, telling you what those pronouns are referring to|
|Antecedent action||represents any event occurring before the main action of a narrative|
|Exposition||involves relaying information that would be otherwise undetectable from a narrative|
|Flashback||transporting audiences to a previous point in time|
|Prequels||independent narratives occurring prior and related to another|
When this lesson ends, you should be able to:
- Identify antecedent action
- Define antecedents and exposition
- Contrast flashbacks and prequels
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack