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!
3 thoughts on “Flashbacks”
January 24, 2013 at 5:44 PM
It does get tricky sometimes. I try to focus mostly on keeping a story interesting. If any verb tense inconsistencies rear their ugly heads, I’ll let proof readers catch them, and make corrections. If I catch them myself, all the better. If I don’t make any, even better still. The more unintended errors a proof reader catches, the less flow a story will have. A reader could lose interest.
January 25, 2013 at 2:48 PM
I love the way your mind works. I can’t wait to read this.
January 28, 2013 at 4:31 AM
Ah, the past pluperfect. Such a curious thing that a construct with the word perfect in it causes such toil and trouble. The word derives from the Latin tempus praeteritum plus quam perfectum, meaning “past tense more than perfect.” Perfect in this case means completed, as in the action referred to in the sentence has already occurred.
There are many fine examples of felicitous use of the past pluperfect in literature. Take this paragraph in “Death in Holy Orders” by English writer P. D. James:
“The ash, with its heavy cladding of ivy, was unmissable, but as they turned into the road, which was little more than a lane, one glance showed clearly what had happened. A large bough of the tree had been torn from the trunk and now lay along the grass verge, looking in the growing light as bleached and smooth as a bone. From it sprouted dead branches like gnarled fingers. The main trunk showed the great wound where the branch had been torn away, and the road, now passable, was still strewn with the debris of the fall: curls of ivy, twigs and a scatter of green and yellow leaves.”
Nothing clunky about it.
If I think about past perfect in metaphorical terms, I see heavy, carved ornate furniture built in another century and built to last. This, of course, is markedly different than the furniture used in the construction of modern American writing — clean lines, simple and economical. We are all about active voice and sentences that are light on their casters.
Flashbacks can feel clunky, but shameless back-grounding through dialogue can be even worse. While I like the breezy simplicity of a single past perfect sentence handily signaling to the reader that we are in the zone of a flashback, I would not trade the ease of such a solution to a work of literature where every word ought be considered in the context of the whole.
I am the most fortunate of editors to be working with Teresa and playing with the furniture of her prose. Of the legion of talented writers and thinkers with whom I’ve worked over my long career, I’ve never encountered a voice as pitch-perfect as hers. Couple that with her openness to accept and respond to constructive critique, experiment with ways of making something good better, and her drive and discipline to show up to the page and get the work done, makes her an editor’s dream, this editor’s dream.
I had heard about Byrne Miller from Teresa years ago. I was aware she was working on a memoir about her relationship with this modern dancer, had seen Teresa’s blog and the “womenisms” from the mythic Byrne, gutsy stuff like open marriage and homo-erotica. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2011 that Teresa asked me to take a crack at her memoir, which she had provisionally titled, “Dancing with Byrne,” that I got a whiff of what she was up to.
Teresa had committed years and much effort in finding her way to what she characterized as the greatest love story ever told. She had waxed poetic about the marriage of Byrne and Duncan Miller, about how their love for each other transcended anything she had ever thought possible, about how their relationship had inspired her quest to find her own “Duncan.” This was what “Dancing with Byrne” promised to be.
The manuscript she shared in that fall of 2011, however, did not tell that story. Instead, it told the story of her tempestuous relationship with an illegal Mexican surfer-dude with a mean streak as potent as a six-pack on an empty stomach.
Teresa is not a quitter and so she stuck with that guy longer than was good for either of them and she did the same thing with the manuscript that had him front and center while Byrne Miller stood patiently in the wings of Teresa’s psyche, waiting for a cue to come on stage.
And so I offer you my own flashback to one year ago almost to the day, when Teresa and I began this leg of our journey together. I was on a flight from Charleston to Michigan reading the last handful of chapters in the narrative that had up until then had been an exercise in frustration for me. I was baffled by the amount of ink Teresa had expended in detailing her misbegotten relationship with the malcontent surfer. I found her submissiveness as unappealing as her self-analysis was wearisome. It stood in direct contradiction to the vibrant, autonomous Teresa I knew personally, and it belied her own description that it was a love story of Byrne Miller. I certainly did not see anything that smacked of a love story of mythic proportions.
Here is the flashback, the email I wrote to Teresa on the heels of finishing reading that early iteration of the manuscript:
On Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 9:02 AM, Susan Kammeraad-Campbell wrote:
“. . .I traveled light – as much weight in my suitcase as my briefcase, the weightiest item a certain manuscript crisp from dried water stains splashed on it while tub-bound. When I cracked it on the first leg of the flight, I was in the early 40s chapter-wise. This is the section of the narrative that brings Byrne to life. I had the aisle to myself on the leg to Charlotte. On the leg to Detroit, I sat next to a man in a leather cowboy hat who looked for all the world like a young Bob Dylan and spoke nary a word. This gave me the time and relative solitude I sought to plunge forth and read the last of ‘Dancing with Byrne.’ And so this is how things were as I read along, coming to the final page just as the landing gear released and the wheels touched ground. When I took in the last word, I let out a sound, kind of a sigh and a gasp mixed together in such a way that it woke Dylan from his slumber. I have much to say, m’dear Teresa, but will focus now on this. In those last chapters, you found your way to the story that you will tell. You breathed life into Byrne, made me know her, made me connect with the young woman who was you. You lifted you both off the page in a combination that ended with a grand jeté. It will be a pleasure to remake this story with you.
“It is time to meet.”
You might wonder at this meandering comment to Teresa’s blog and what was, after all, a direct question about the interface of grammar and narrative flow when dealing with flashbacks. And I can tell you this, that it speaks to the nature of this miraculous journey we’ve been on for the past year, to this unflappable sense I have that I am on a path with a writer who will make her mark on the world as not just a literary force, but one of the greatest America has ever known.
“Neh,” you might say. Heck, if I were reading this for the first time, I might say that. But I have an advantage over you, dear reader. For the past year, Teresa has undertaken a massive rewrite of her work in progress. Now her story and Byrne’s story are entwined and front and center. She has delivered a new chapter, sometimes two, each week for the past year. She has undertaken intense research, visited places and contacted people across the country who knew Byrne and Duncan. I have had the rare privilege of working in tandem with her in real time during this generative process. Last week, she completed the last chapter and epilogue of “Adagio.”
If the written word has the power to allow mortals to live forever, then Teresa Bruce has brought immortality to Duncan and Byrne, and to herself.
At this present time there are only three people on the planet who have read Teresa’s finished manuscript – Teresa, her husband Gary and I. So I am saying this now with the confidence of a literary super-taster: I predict that when we release Teresa’s memoir in September of this year, mine will just be the voice of many saying the same thing. That Teresa Bruce has written the greatest love story ever told.