Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
Issue 29, October-December 2012
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Moving Through Time:
Scene, Summary, Flashbacks, Backstory, and Transitions in Short Stories
by Jody Forrester
Now we’re at the door. The persistence of material objects is becoming an amazement to me. It’s the same door—the one I used to go in through, out through, year after year, in my daily clothing or in various outfits and disguises, not thinking at all that I would some day be standing in front of this very same door with my grey-haired little sister (49).
But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neuro-transmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and long since lost to memory (266).
Aren’t you the lady that used to be on television? But after a year or so, this passed. She spent a lot of time sitting and reading, drinking coffee at sidewalk tables, and nobody noticed her. She let her hair grow out. During the years that it had been dyed red it had lost the vigor of its natural brown—it was a silvery brown now, fine and wavy. She was reminded of her mother, Sara. Sara’s soft, fair, flyaway hair, going gray and then white (126).
I moved out of that city, and then into another one, and then another. I had a lot of moves still ahead of me. Yet things did work out after all. I met Tig, and then followed the cats and dogs and children, and the baking, and even the frilly white window curtains, though they eventually vanished in their turn: they got dirty too quickly, I discovered, and were hard to take down and put back up. I didn’t become any of the things I’d feared. I didn’t get the pimply bum I’d been threatening myself with, nor did I become a cast-out wandering orphan. I’ve lived in the same house now for decades (89).
When Joe Reed was a boy of fifteen, his craziness over a girl became such a burden to his family, and such a curiosity to the small town where they lived, that his mother threatened to pack him off to his married sister in San Diego. But before this could happen Joe’s father died and his mother collected a large sum from Northwestern Mutual, sold the family pharmacy, and moved both Joe and herself to California. Thirty years passed. (my italics) In that time he heard nothing from the girl, Mary Claude Moore, but now and then word of her reached him through people back in Dunston. She dropped out of high school in her senior year, had a baby, got married, divorced, then remarried a few years later. That second marriage was the last thing Joe know about Mary Claude until he learned of her death (363).
"Not so good, I guess,” said my father, in his old way—apologetic but self-respecting. “I think your mother’s gone.” I knew that gone meant dead. I knew that. But for a second or so I saw my mother in her black straw hat setting off down the lane. The word gone seemed full of nothing but a deep relief and even an excitement—the excitement you feel when a door closes and your house sinks back to normal and you let yourself loose into all the free space around you. That was in my father’s voice too—behind the apology, a queer sound like a gulped breath. But my mother hadn’t been a burden—she hadn’t been sick a day—and far from feeling relieved at her death, my father took it hard. He never got used to living alone, he said. He went to the Netterfield County Home quite willingly (324).
They go to sit in what Maya used to call, with a certain flat cheerfulness, ‘the family room.’ (One evening Raymond had said to Ben and Georgia that it looked as if Maya wasn’t going to be able to have any children. “We try our best,” he said. “We use pillows and everything. But no luck…Maya and Georgia smile at each other primly while their husbands continued their playful conversation)” (499).
In their old age the aunts rented the farm, but continued to live on it. Some got cataracts in their eyes, some got arthritis, but they stayed on and looked after each other, and died there, all except the last one, Aunt Lizzie, who had to go to the County House (237).
Tobias Wolff uses ellipses within white space to alert the reader that time is about to take a big leap forward. In "Firelight," the first-person narrator is a boy who, on a chilly day, is visiting a house that his mother hopes to rent. He warms himself by the lit fireplace while his mother speaks with the current tenants. When she is ready to leave, he is held captive by the heat and ignores her calls. Following the penultimate paragraph, dotted white space precedes a single sentence—its placement meant to resolve the story's conflict by transporting us to the narrator's future. “I have my own fireplace now” (262).
Munro also uses ellipses within white space to jump further back in time than what follows the more typical clear white spaces. In her story, “The Progress of Love,” the narrator moves back in her own time following white space, while she moves back to the time before she is born following ellipses, per the following: white space precedes “In the summer of 1947, when I was twelve, I helped my mother paper the downstairs bedroom, the spare room” (328); ellipses precede “My mother’s name as a child was Marietta” (330).
A transitional phrase in the right place can reveal volumes. The narrator in Munro’s "Miles City, Montana," tells the story of a traumatic episode that occurred when her children were young. The passage concludes in the family car, her husband, Andrew, driving, their young children in the back seat. They are joyful to have the incident behind them and decide to celebrate. But a one-sentence paragraph interrupts the story to inform the reader that the marriage has been over for a long time. “I haven’t seen Andrew for years, don’t know if he is still thin, has gone completely gray, insists on lettuce, tells the truth, or is hearty and disappointed” (383). As a way of referencing time within the story, the reader knows the outcome even as the family road trip continues.
The narrative tools of time distillation, revealing backstory, and the adroit placing of flashback are significant enough to engage, or lose, a reader. Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Tobias Wolff all demonstrate well that time, to be believed, must pass unseen.
Atwood, Margaret. Moral Disorder: Stories. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2006. Print. 49;88;21;89.
Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2008. Print. 3.
Munro, Alice. Runaway: Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2004. Hardcover. 9;11;126;324;325;499;504;454;407;237;262;328;383;602.
Prose, Francine. Reading for Writers, A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want To Write Them. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Hardcover. 88.
Wolff, Tobias. Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories. New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Hardcover. 262;266;363.
Jody A. Forrester, a former chiropractor, is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars (2010). Recent publications include Open City, Citron Review, Straylight, Two Hawks Quarterly, and the Missouri Review web-blog. She lives with her husband, musician John Schneider, in Venice, Calif.
In the fiction-writing genre, interjecting backstory and accounting for transitions in time is a modern dilemma. The expansive novels of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and George Eliot were grounded in real time, starting at the beginning and ending at the end, and if somehow readers should lose track along the way, they need only refer to an extensive table of contents that could also double as a plot outline. The stories open with descriptive narrative and pages of exposition that set the scene and then proceed to unfold on a linear path of time. If further clarification or illumination were needed, the narrator didn’t hesitate to step out of the story to address the reader directly.
In his book, The Art of Time in Memoir, Sven Birkerts notes, “There is in fact no faster way to smother the core meaning of a life, its elusive threads and connections, than with the heavy blanket of narrated event. Even the juiciest of scandals and revelations topple before the drone of, ‘And then…and then…’” (3).With that caveat, I seek, in my own writing, the transparency of time passing. The challenges inherent in the short story genre, where a minimum of well chosen words can exponentially amplify, are well met with the techniques detailed in this essay in stories penned by Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. These writers are, for this student and reader, among those most worthy of study and emulation.
In modern literature, time as the infrastructure of a story has become passé. The concept of beginnings and ends is muddied with stories being launched somewhere in the middle. Time became labile as the internal voice and personal emotional landscape gained primacy. As the protagonist and cast of characters went inward, the rigid lines of time have become an abstracted concept rather than an organizing structure for storytelling. Guides insinuated into the storyline have become necessary for the reader to maintain orientation and connection. Time passing or past has become embedded in narrative, dialogue, setting, and character description. Transitions in time are implied with the use of white space or noted in the narrative in an apt transitional phrase.
These tools are used by the writer to insert flashbacks and to reveal backstory. The trick, Francine Prose suggests in Reading for Writers, is “…to glide across the skips in time that propel the plot forward" (88). The three short story writers previously mentioned are excellent manipulators of time—at keeping the reader informed without losing the forward momentum of the primary story.
Backstory is adroitly compressed in Margaret Atwood’s “The Headless Horseman.” The adult narrator stands on the threshold of her childhood home, lost in time:
The terse observation of her younger self reveals legions and contrasts sharply with her sense of herself as an adult. In a different story of Margaret Atwood’s, “The Other Place,” the reader learns from a tag at the end that the first-person narrator has told a story that occurred in the past. “That was all quite long ago. I see it in retrospect, indulgently, from the point I’ve reached now. But how else could I see it? We can’t really travel to the past, no matter how we try. If we do, it’s as tourists” (88). In the former, the recollection is inserted into a paragraph, mid-story; in the latter, the recollection is the story itself, but the reader is apprised of that only when the frame of reference is revealed in the end-tag. Narrators can observe and comment on what they don’t understand, permitting the reader insight into a character’s past experiences to give context to their current motivations.
Alice Munro’s story, "Walker Brothers Cowboy," is set in the Great Depression. A man has lost his business, a fox farm, and is selling Walker Brothers products on a rural route in Eastern Ontario. His ten year-old daughter injects his backstory, per the following lean observation: “There are dogs lying in any kind of shade they can find, dreaming, their lean sides rising and sinking rapidly. They get up when my father opens the car door, he has to speak to them…He should know how to quiet animals, he has held desperate foxes with tongs around their necks” (my italics) (9).
This is the reader’s first view into the narrator's past, informing us that her father hasn’t always been a salesman, and also gives context to his frustration and subsequent actions. The information is revealed in the daughter’s innocence of what is about to unfold. On that particular day, he leaves his wife at home to nurse her chronic headache and takes the children along as he drives his route.
After a humiliating encounter at one of the homes he stops in at, he returns to the car and continues driving, no longer pulling into the farms and homesteads he passes, until he reaches the yard of a “short, sturdy woman” who is picking up washing that has been left outside to bleach and dry. “Oh, my Lord God,” she says harshly, “it’s you” (11).
Dialogue can have a referential role that informs the reader of the past without extensive narrative or exposition. With six words, the suggestion of past intimacy is lost on his daughter as the narrator, but alerts the reader, bringing us further into the story than a young girl could otherwise accomplish. The story continues without overt reference to what her father and the woman have shared in the past, but bits of dialogue like this as recorded by the daughter continue to inform the reader that they shared a romantic past and that the woman still cares for the father.
Tobias Wolff in "Bullet in the Brain" does a stellar job of suspending time in narrative by making the case, in the third-person voice, that synaptic activity in the brain moves more quickly than a bullet penetrating its tissue. The reader already knows that the man shot during a bank hold-up is an embittered literary critic and an impatient curmudgeon who holds himself aloof and above his fellow humans. The gun was fired when the critic provokes a robber by laughing at his uneducated language. In his final seconds, the more obvious memories, those that comprised the cornerstones of his adult life, are accounted for and dismissed, thus setting the stage for his final memory.
This final image evokes the critic at his best, the purity of his initiation into language. With this culminating revelation, the detestable protagonist strikes a last-minute sympathetic chord in the reader.
Time can be abbreviated to reveal physical and emotional changes in characters. In a skillfully compressed description that moves the reader through the birth and debilitating illness of a mother’s newly born child in Margaret Atwood’s, "The Art of Cooking and Serving," the first-person narrator is the older daughter observing her mother. “From having been too fat, my mother now became too thin. She was gaunt from lack of sleep, her hair dull, her eyes bruised-looking, her shoulders hunched over” (21). This descriptive transitional sentence succeeds in moving the story forward more than two years.
A once prominent television personality in Alice Munro’s story, "Silence," is retired and marks the passage of time by observing peoples’ response to her. They would often stop her to ask,
This passage, similar in function to Atwood's previous paragraph, moves the reader ahead by artfully compressing several years of the protagonist’s life.
Eliminating the need for overt and distracting flashback is well-accomplished by the art of compressing time. In Atwood’s story, "The Other Place," the protagonist notes in her first-person narrative:
The paragraph contextualizes the character as she makes her way through the many obstacles, both real and imagined, that would plague her younger self decades before.
Another gifted example of time passing is the opening paragraph of Tobias Wolff's story, "Deep Kiss”:
Thirty years are spanned, beginning with an adolescent’s obsession, and proceeding through the death of his father, his mother’s move to California, and the marriages, divorces and children borne by the girl he was once enamored of. In transporting the narrative from the past to the present without detailing the delineation of time, the reader can accompany the protagonist, Joe Reed, as he looks over his life.
There is another, equally compelling, concentration of time in the beginning paragraphs of Alice Munro’s, "The Progress of Love" (325). The first-person narrator receives an unexpected call from her father and when she asks how he is, he responds,
The news of her mother’s death, the protagonist's initial disbelief and denial, and her father’s grief and subsequent move to a home are encompassed in a single paragraph. The beauty of this distilled passage is that the reader is moved with great skill from the father’s initial telephone call to the story that follows.
In Munro's story, "The Albanian Virgin," the narrator condenses the long course of a relationship in another one-sentence paragraph interjected mid-stream: “We become distant, close—distant, close—over and over again” (602).
Flashbacks provide explanation to the reader for a character’s motivation by inserting a scene or episode that occurred at an earlier time. Per the examples above, the past can be folded into the story, but sometimes it is necessary that more be revealed. To frame the flashbacks in her story, "Differently," Alice Munro makes frequent use of white space to skip time as well as the occasional use of parentheses.
Georgia, the protagonist, is visiting Maya’s home in the present, having learned that her friend has died. She recalls a story from their shared past, a reference that the reader must rely upon to follow the story as it continues. Nine white spaces followed by flashback carry the story forward with guidance from the past. Georgia and Maya’s ex-husband sit together in the living room. Georgia recalls, for the reader, “The first time that Ben and Georgia went to Maya’s house, Harvey and Hilda were there. Maya was having a dinner party for just the six of them” (504).
We see parentheses used again to inject a simple fact in Munro’s story, "Friend of My Youth." The narrator reveals, “I used to dream about my mother, and though the details in the dream varied, the surprise in it was always the same…In the dream I would be the age I really was, living the life I was really living, and I would discover that my mother was still alive. (The fact is, she died when I was in my early twenties and she in her early fifties” (454).
Munro, in “White Dump,” will also use white space to move the story forward. “Magda is in the kitchen making the salad” (407), moves us ahead from a previous scene of food preparation that takes place during an earlier time in the same kitchen. In Munro’s “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” white space is used to move both backward and forward in time, from childhood to spinsterhood: