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Antecedent Action: Definition & Example

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You may have begged for more antecedent action in a story or for expository scenes to end. Either way, these previous moments can play a big role in our experiences with narrative. Learn more on the subject in this lesson and explore some examples!

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!

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  • 0:00 Antecedent Action Defined
  • 2:28 Examples from J.R.R. Tolkien
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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…

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