Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Art of Flashing Forward

Or, How Alice Munro Pulls Off Those Long Leaps Through Time

An interesting question came up in one of my workshops last spring, from a fiction writer. The question was about how to pull off jumps forward in time. "How do you do it?" this student asked. "Is there a trick?"

This is actually a common question, and one that usually comes from someone in my workshop who is writing from "too close" a perspective. It is certainly natural to want to do that, to be right there, up close with your characters. Writers love that feel of "immediacy." The extreme version of this is to place your prose in the present tense, which a lot of newer writers seem to want to do these days. The problem with this, though, is that it makes the act of moving through time feel very awkward and jarring. If you are firmly rooted in a single moment, it's harder to shift to another time period.

While there's no single "trick" to making leaps forward in time, the best thing you can do is to "back off" a little in terms of your temporal distance as narrator. Gaining some retrospective distance on your material makes moving around through time much easier. In fact, if you are going to be making a lot of long leaps through time, as Alice Munro often does in her stories, you will want to place your narrator (or the teller of your story) as far forward in time as possible, so that the narrator is looking well back upon events of the story.

That way, even if you leap forward ten or more years with your characters, they will still seem to be standing "in the past" as far as your narrative-perspective is concerned. This will make your leaps forward seem more natural, and more like ordinary human memory--where you might remember different events from various time periods in the past all in one thought.

Munro, you will notice, often uses a deep retrospective viewpoint to pull off her dramatic leaps forward through time, often called "flashing forward."

For great examples of such "flash forwards," check out Alice Munro's story collections. My personal favorites are Open Secrets and The Beggar Maid.

A Brief Tribute to Alice Munro

This week, Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Price in Literature, a recognition that thrilled a lot of us women writers. Munro is one of the few working writers today who has really been able to capture the complexity of women's lives, our struggles for independence from our families and the orbits of men, the different stages that we go through in our lives (daughter, mother, lover, worker), and the many ways that others regard us as we go along, and the demands they make upon us. Munro has explored how we often become our own worst enemies, has charted the lusts and rages that consume and distort us, and, like no one else, has captured the bewildering flow of time which has a way of leaving us dismissed and marginalized beyond a certain age, our energies dissipated by obligation, our youth and beauty spent, yet holding in our hands the cherished and priceless gifts of perspective, memory, and understanding. Nobody else has quite managed to show women as they are the way Alice Munro has. There is such respect and curiosity, and fearlessness, in her portraits of women, assets that are visible from her earliest work, which by the way she first published when she was nearly forty. I hope that Munro serves as a bracing reminder to any writer--man or woman--who hopes to capture women characters in prose, not to succumb to the lazy stereotyping of women so often seen in fiction and memoir, but rather to treat women as full human beings, the way Alice Munro has done. --Kim  


tracynotstacy said...

The other problem with present tense is that it often requires a lot of back story, typically written in past tense, in order to make sense of the current action. I learned early on that present tense has its limits and that past tense allows more depth.

kat-collins.com said...

I had this problem with in the beginning with a memoir that I'm writing now. I kept switching between past and present which only confused things. I had to decide the most uniform path to take in order for it all to make sense! Now that I've chosen a direction, it's flowing much more smoothly.

I'm also blogging parts of the memoir if you want to check it out.

Great advice! Thanks for sharing it.

Kimberly Davis said...

The thing to notice about the present tense is that it's often very hard to compose completely in that mode because you tend not to have access to the past or the future (to foreshadow). Sometimes it works to compose the story in the past tense, and then force it into the present tense for a greater sense of immediacy. Kim

Shaylanne said...

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If you'd like, check out my blog Mnemosyne, at inkwellinc.blogspot.com

Clyde Williams said...

I was just working on this problem, not because I'm too close to my characters, but because I'm trying to work in terms of eons, and making it all fit made me map it out in a timeline. That helps a lot.

Thanks for the great website. If you are looking for something to read with your coffee, give mine a look over - www.hourglasstales.com

Elizabeth R. Bryant said...

A 'Too Close' perspective can be drawn with the power of observational skills. It is to develop sensory conscience; about having eyes that can magnify the minutest details, nose that can smell the possibility of wonder elements, ears that can hear what is unsaid and so on. In fact, there are challenges in other form of writing too, they can also be different ( editing writing, forming structure and so on) but writing in any form is blissful :)