I’ve been dealing with a lot of flashbacks this week. Not the kind cool people who came of age in the ‘60s have, but the kind that make you wish you had paid more attention to grammar in high school.
I know why screenwriting “gurus” like Robert McKee strongly advise against using flashbacks in screenplays. Unless you’re really good at it, flashback sequences are clumsy excuses for not setting up the backstory when you should have. As you type you can practically hear the little musical interlude notes familiar to viewers of bad soap operas in the ‘80s, the kind of music that accompany cheesy visual effects like fuzzy ripples across the screen.
But when you’re writing about a compelling woman whose life spanned from 1909 to 2001, flashbacks are unavoidable. Without them, my book about Byrne Miller would be a three-volume biography instead of a memoir. What I’ve discovered, as I’m getting the manuscript ready for proofreading, is that many of my chapters start in a particular point in time and then float back to an earlier incident to reveal some juicy part of her even earlier past. It all feels pretty seamless, except for the grammar. I’ve been struggling with how long, within each flashback, I’m supposed to use the clunky past perfect tense – remember helping verbs? Not so helpful, when a flashback sequence is pages long.
Here’s where it pays to have brilliant poets and college writing professors as friends. Quitman Marshall put my mind at rest this afternoon when he told me that the reader only needs one grammatical cue that it’s a flashback – a simple she had worried, briefly, if two inches of cloth was enough costume to prevent arrest for indecency. Then I can revert right back to standard past tense. “Now that’s how to fill a costume,” the wardrobe mistress said when Byrne emerged from behind the curtain.
Thanks Q – I feel all buttoned up now. Cue the music!