Backstory and flashbacks are common in fiction. So common that some readers and editors have become weary of them. More than once in a writing book or creative writing class I’ve been given the advice to think twice before moving my story backwards, that what the reader really wants is to know what happens next.
But there’s a diametrically opposite technique that, far from weighing down the narrative, can give the present day story a lift, a frisson of anticipatory excitement. The technique is a kind of psychic, biographical fast-forward that may or may not happen but which nevertheless gives us an insight into a character or at least how that character sees herself.
I’ve lost track of the number of times people have asked me about what I think happens to Milo after the story is finished or about whether Tripi will find his sister or marry Sandy. They ask similar questions of my cast in Norah Wells. Well, this technique allows us, as writers, to answer those questions, to play with them, albeit in a fleeting way, whilst simultaneously enriching our present narrative.
Have a look at this extract from The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg and you’ll get a flavour of what I mean. Look, particularly, at how a seemingly mundane event (washing in this case) can lead to a wonderful flash into the future. I’ve marked the temporal transitions in italics.
In the bathroom, red, dimly lit, lavender-drenched, she used her one good arm to wash herself, her palms and her fingers, with hot water, and then her forehead, her cheeks, her chin, her neck, behind her ears, little drops dipping down onto her shirt. More soap and water, this time lifting her shirt up and splashing and scrubbing under her arms. Sometimes she felt like she could never get clean enough, but she didn’t know why.
As it turned out, she felt that way because her mother had taught her to feel that way, and she’ll figure that out eventually, in college, in New York, when her freshman-year roommate, a Spanish girl from Barcelona named Agnes, studying film just like she is, asks her why she is always washing up and Emily says, without even thinking, “Men like a clean girl,” and then says quickly, “Oh, God, I sound just like my mother, how terrible,” and the Spanish girl says, “and your mother maybe isn’t even so right about this.” Later Agnes will take her to a party in a loft building in Brooklyn, on the waterfront, and they will stand on the roof together holding hands amid other young, excited people like themselves, wearing, smoking, drinking, smiling, feeling extremely sexy, and they’ll look at the city in the distance, lit up magnificently, the length of it blowing their minds. They will try to figure out which bridge is which, and they will confuse the Manhattan Bridge with the Brooklyn Bridge. There will be a young bearded man playing cover songs on an accordion, and all the girls will want to sleep with him, except for the girls who want to sleep with other girls. And then Emily will remember a story her aunt had told her about living in Brooklyn a long time ago, and hating it there, the noise, the dirt, the anger, and fleeing the city for home, Chicago, and never looking back, and all Emily can think is: She must have gone to the wrong Brooklyn. Because I never want to go home again.
But at the age of twelve the most important thing was that whatever was right in front of her face, in this case herself, her eyes, the same eyes as her grandmother’s and her aunt’s, the sweet genetic strain tugging her back out the bathroom for and towards her family.
Why this exercise works:
It’s a wonderful way of getting deeper into your character of making them feel real to you and so to your reader. If you can imagine their future, then you’re invested in their present, on the page. And by getting to know them in the future, you’ll uncover some interesting things about their personality, their relationships and their story in the present.
Exercise: (20 minutes)
- Choose a character you’ve been working on in a short story or novel or create a new one (name, age, gender, defining characteristic).
- Write a paragraph in which your character is doing something seemingly mundane: cooking, eating, driving, staring into the mirror, cleaning, going about their work etc.
- Now use that paragraph in the present as a trigger to a future, imagined scene for your character. Write that scene. Look at how Jami Attenberg has achieved this in the extract above.