Thursday, 17 May 2012

Making flashbacks work (1)

In novels and motion pictures a flashback is a narrative technique to interrupt the chronology of the story to cut away to something that has happened in the past.

The flashback technique is as old as Western literature. In The Odyssey, most of the adventures that blighted Odysseus' return journey from Troy are told in flashback by Odysseus when he is at the Phoenician court.

Roger Levy is a writer who’s deservedly been said to be "the heir to Philip K Dick". His science fiction novels, Reckless Sleep, Dark Heavens and Icarus are all published by Gollancz. He is one of the founding members of the Zenazzurians, a writing group that I was privileged to have been asked to join 8 years ago. Roger nicknamed me “The Flashback Queen” because flashbacks occurred so frequently in the novel I was then reading to the Zens. And he was right. In The Speed of Dark I relied on them too heavily and didn’t handle them skillfully enough for the reader to be unaware of their presence. 

What most readers are interested in is the story moving forward in the present, not making distracting detours into the past. But if you need to have a flashback, the reader shouldn’t notice it. In the 1986 edition of my first novel, No Angel Hotel, the flashbacks weren’t handled well, as is evident in this Chapter 11 excerpt because it is immediately followed by a flashforward in time. The flashback below is indicated in bold.

Ivan went to Cabourg each year. Each time he walked up the Avenue de la Mer he saw the face of the Grand Hotel as he would a friend, a little older, a little changed.
  At the hotel he could lie all day in his room; he could remain an outsider. In September he could order a plate of chaudfroid, the maître d'hôtel not protesting, 'But monsieur, that was on the summer menu.' Instead, a red-boleroed waiter would serve the filleted poultry in jelly and withdraw.
He had first gone to the Grand Hotel in Cabourg with his father five months before he died. Helen Doran had gone too, to look after the boy. She had been twirling a new, cream parasol with flounces.
The first morning they'd eaten breakfast in the glass-sided dining-room which faced the Channel. She had thanked his father for the gift of the parasol; she had called his father James. The boy cried, 'He's not James to you!' and Helen had looked up from her plate in surprise. His father had turned towards the glass wall. The two adults on opposite sides of the table, tears on her face, the glass's reflection on his.
Twenty-five years later, in his son's jacket pocket, was a note he'd received the morning he left for his annual visit to France:

Ivan, I was quite surprised to hear that you are to be married! You could have had the decency to tell me. I am, after all, your mother. I wouldn't have known except for the enclosed which appeared in the SentinelIt was the thing to do as far as Pellipar is concerned, though I would have thought you could have found someone more in your league. Having said that, I did find her that night at dinner rather charming and, of course,  quite beautiful. My congratulations to you both.

He folded the note and engagement notice and returned them to his breast pocket thinking, Mother dear, you're not the only one she should have had the decency to tell. 

Below is the re-edited page from the 2012 revised edition. Only the first paragraph in this excerpt is in the present. The rest is a flashback, but because it’s extended, it’s more active because this "umbrella scene" unfolds as if it were the present:   

He went to Cabourg each year. Every time he walked up the Avenue de la Mer, he looked forward to seeing the façade of the Grand Hotel like he would an old friend. He knew the bellboys, the night staff, the chambermaids. With the casino next door, he could gamble all night and sleep all day. If he went in the off-season, he could order chaud-froid from room service and not be told, ‘Monsieur Pakenham, filleted chicken in jelly is only available on the menu of summer.’ 
He had first gone to the Grand Hotel in Cabourg with his father five months before he’d died. His mother was supposed to have accompanied them, but the doctor had sent her to bed with ‘nervous exhaustion’. His new nanny, Miss Doran, had gone instead to look after him. 
They had arrived at the Dives-Cabourg railway station on a hot July afternoon. They checked into the Grand Hotel, then went for a walk on the mile-long promenade above the seawall his father told him was called the digue
Halfway down the beach was an umbrella shop with a scalloped blue awning. Miss Doran stepped into its dark rectangle of shade to fan herself.
He turned to his father. ‘Why are we stopping, papa?’ 
Miss Doran leaned down and explained the heat was making her feel faint.
His father asked if she had an umbrella and she said she’d forgotten to pack one. Then his father said that he must do something to remedy that. 
Leaving them on the promenade to watch the waves, his father went into the shop and came out with a big, banana-coloured parasol with a handle in the shape of a swan’s neck. 
Miss Doran twirled her new umbrella as they walked in the direction of the cliffs. They were passing a cafe on the promenade that had a flaking lattice screen hung with framed pictures. Ivan was a few steps ahead when he turned back and saw Miss Doran slip her hand into his father’s. He heard her thank him for the gift of the parasol. He heard her call his father James. 
In the 1986 version the leap from a flashback into the present (flashforwarded 25 years) was too jarring. This was solved by editing out the section about the letter and engagement notice and inserting them into the following chapter so the time frame was more straight forward.

A postscript. After Roger called me the "Flashback Queen", I began to wonder why I was so drawn to using them until I realized that it was because I was more interested in my characters' past than in their present. That must be why I'm so fond of this quote by Kirkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards." 

Stay tuned . . . 

2 comments:

  1. Do you know Walter Benjamin's figure of the Angel of History, always moving forward, but facing the past, looking backwards at the wreckage?

    Stuart

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  2. I didn't know the Benjamin quote. Thanks for sharing it, Stuart . . . Yes, better the "Angel of history" seeing the wreckage rather than a mortal! Hopefully when one looks backwards, it is with equal measures of gladness and gratitude, only a pinch of nostalgia and very little regret.

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