The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
The full title of this section is The Frame, as against the Flashback. Following up on the previous section, Hills demonstrates how two different techniques — the fame and the flashback — relate to sequence, causality and juxtaposition.
As Hills notes, everyone knows what a flashback is from watching movies:
The screen ripples over, music ripples up, and we drop back in time for a sequence of action that “explains” why a character is the way he is or gives the “background” of the situation that exists “now” in the movie.
A flashback can function in one of two ways: as an explanation of something already disclosed, or as foreshadowing of something yet to come. Conceivably both goals can be met in an artful flashback, where the sequence both resolves and introduces elements of a story. Billy is forty years old and hates dogs: flash back to Billy as a boy being terrorized by his grandmother’s Poodle. Here an aspect of character is the motivation for the flashback, but that aspect could spill over into plot (Billy is a burglar regularly confronted by guard dogs), or introduce new characters or plot elements (the grandmother, who owns a warehouse Billy intends to rob).
In every story aspects of plot and character are expressed in cause-and-effect fashion. Flashbacks are useful in explaining the cause of an effect that is presented in the ‘now’ of a story. By the same token, a flashforward treats an event in the ‘now’ of a story as the cause, then flashes forward to show the effect. Driving home drunk one evening Billy intentionally swerves to hit a dog being walked by a young boy. Flashforward to Billy in prison, where one of the guards is the now-adult owner of the dog he hit.
Stories like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life make liberal use of both flashbacks and flashforwards, dramatizing cause-and-effect relationships both past and future. As to craft, the authorial decision to flash forward or back in a story is usually driven by two factors.
First is the scope of the story. If you plan to cover a character’s entire life you don’t need to flash back as a means of explaining something that happened early in life. On the other hand, if your story covers only a character’s later years, then in order to present that information you literally need to flash back in time. (As noted in the previous section with regard to Catch-22, you can also elect to tell a scope-limited story out of its natural chronological sequence, effectively creating a series of forward and/or backward time transitions purely for dramatic effect. This, however, is an artistic choice, not a demand of the story.)
The second consideration is whether the information you want to pass along demands dramatization. If it does, then you’ve obligated yourself to a flashback. If it doesn’t there are simpler ways to deliver such information without transitioning out of time. In third person: “Billy hated dogs. Every summer for six straight years he was terrorized by his grandmother’s poodle, until finally….” In first person: “‘I hate dogs. Every summer my parents sent me to stay with my grandmother and she had this spastic, hateful poodle named Pepper. I hate pepper now, too….”
As a general rule I think flashbacks and flashforwards should be mission-critical to a story. If not, the relevant information should be dispensed in some other way. It’s easy to be clever with transitions in time, but in my experience as a reader a little cleverness goes a long way, while a lot of cleverness tends to overpower everything else. (Another reason Catch-22 succeeds: for all its complexities it is also hilarious. And as a general rule, audiences will forgive anything in pursuit of a laugh.)
Where a flashback (or flashforward) can theoretically appear almost anywhere in a story, a frame is structural:
The method here is to set a story inside another story that enhances it, or the other way around — or both ways is what I really mean, I guess. In the classic or cliche form of the frame, you have a group of characters discussing a matter until one of them says he’ll tell a tale that seems relevant, the tale follows, then the group discusses it.
As Hills notes, it sounds “dopy,” but it’s actually a powerful structure that can employed for a variety of narrative ends. Whether dramatizing context or helping to introduce and ground the voice and point of view of a narrator, the frame has much to recommend it. (Now that you know what a frame is, you’ll see it used everywhere.)
It’s probably also worth noting that a frame is simply the inevitable result of expanding a flashback until it becomes dominant. A flashback (or flashforward) is usually small in proportion to the “now” of a story. In a frame the story-within-a-story is all flashback while the “now” is the part at the beginning and end and that introduces and concludes the flashback. (I’m sure there are also stories in which the framed part is actually a flashforward, but the same proportional relationship holds.)
If you’ve ever run across advice that says a story should never start with a flashback, now you know why. Not only does it make it impossible to establish the “now” of a story, it makes it impossible to know whether or not the subsequent transition to “now” is part of a frame or not. Again, a little cleverness goes a long way, and starting a story with a flashback is cleverness run amok. (Here I also lump in all introductory flashforwards, where the story begins with an explosion or murder or sex scene to get the audience hooked by cheap mystery, only to then “flash back” to “now” in order to set up the context for the story. Yes, I’m looking at you, Michael Clayton.)
Next up: Pattern in Plot.
— Mark Barrett
pattern in plot! Nice. Thanks for doing this series, Mark.
The question of pattern in plot is really one of exercising caution. It’s so easy for the structural components of a story to stick out, which is the opposite of what a writer should strive for. I think it’s easier to see in poetry, where literal patterns may be used in laying out a poem. Sometimes it works; for the most part it doesn’t precisely because it stands apart and distracts.