Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction: 

Going Back in Time

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
October 2006

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.

". . . your fiction’s mind will continue to move forward while a flashback unfolds."

A set of manuscripts I recently received from the women in one of the writing workshops I lead made me realize that while I spend a lot of time talking about a story’s mind, I’ve spent very little talking about flashbacks. We all know what a flashback is, and, if you’re a regular reader, you also know that your fiction’s mind will continue to move forward while a flashback unfolds.

But there is far more to flashbacks than the simple writing of them. In this column, we’ll discuss not only the whys and wherefores of this favorite fictive technique but ways to decide when to reveal a character’s backstory through simple flashback, a more complicated time-shift, or stream-of-consciousness shift, and when to withhold it.

"A character’s past
is always relevant to her
present and future."

Why Go Back in Time?

A character’s past is always relevant to her present and future. After all, we are products of everything that has gone before in our lives, a sum that is often equal to more than its mere parts. But just as certain parts of our own lives are more relevant at one moment than another, the moments of our characters’ pasts we choose to reveal must be relevant to the given moment in their stories. In other words, you can’t go back in time simply because it seems a good moment to do so. The past you choose to reveal must color your fiction in some important way.

Remember that your main goal is to keep your fiction’s mind moving ever forward. This means that even when you utilize a time-shift, that motion will continue. A marvelous example of how this can work can be found in Katherine Anne Porter’s classic short story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.”

This passage occurs about halfway through the story, which itself takes place on the last day of Granny’s life.

Such a fresh breeze blowing and such a green day with no threats in it. But he had not come, just the same. What does a woman do when she has put on the white veil and set out the white cake for a man and he doesn’t come?

Because “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is told in stream-of-consciousness style, there is no need for that herald of flashback, a mnemonic reminder. (An example of this might be a photograph which leads a character to recall the time it was taken.) Instead we move seamlessly from the present breeze to the breeze on a day sixty years ago, when Granny was left at the altar.

"A number of questions come into play whenever you think it’s appropriate to go back in time."

Time Shifting Questions

A number of questions come into play whenever you think it’s appropriate to go back in time. Let’s look at each of them individually.

1. When is a Time Shift Appropriate?

As any agent or editor will tell you, it’s best to get your story’s present going at a good pace before you slip into its past. One of the errors I often see in early drafts of novels is a time shift in the first five pages. A rule of thumb is to get at least 1/10th into your narrative before you begin going back in time. In a 75,000-word novel, this would translate to 7500 words—well into your story’s present narrative.

2. Why This Time Shift Now?

You can’t shift time simply because there doesn’t seem to be anything going on in your fiction’s present. As I said above, the past you choose to reveal must color your fiction in some important way, but more than this, it must color your fiction at this moment in its telling in some important way. You can’t simply drop in flashbacks arbitrarily: They must matter now.

I had a great deal of fun moving back and forth in time in my short story, “Men on White Horses” (Southwest Review, 91:1, 2006). For example, from a photographic display on the protagonist’s refrigerator I move straight back to her childhood:

The front of the nonworking refrigerator serves as impromptu photo display. Here are Franny’s grown daughters, Leslie and Marie, and here’s her sister Frieda, pretending she’s about to fly off the Whirlpool Trail. They could hike that trail in their sleep, and in her dreams Franny still does, the sheer drop down to the swirling water below never signifying danger as it ought to but instead something familiar and true.

Their father told them that when he’d been a boy, he sometimes found arrowheads along the trail. Animals—deer and wolves, he said—had made the trail down to the river, and then the Indians, stalking the animals, widened it with their stealthy footsteps. Now, us, he said. We’re followers, not pathmakers. Listen. Pay attention. Sooner or later, you’ll find an arrowhead of your own.

Franny strained to pay attention. She reminded herself to pay attention. And yet when something unexpected happened it always surprised her. Like that time Frieda had suddenly shoved her against the sheer wall along the trail…

Look at how many different moments from Franny’s past occur in these two-and-a-half paragraphs. There’s the story’s present (in present tense, in this case). There’s Franny and her sister Frieda, hiking the Whirlpool Trail as girls. There are things their father said to them, then a move back to the story’s present before a shift back to a specific moment when Franny and Frieda were hiking the trail. For Franny, at this moment in her life still surprised by the unexpected and still seeking her own arrowhead, each of these past moments colors her present in a significant way.

"But many of the things we know simply don’t matter to the fiction we’re telling."

3. Is This Time Shift for Me or for My Reader?

When we know as much as we do about our characters, it’s tempting to try to squeeze it all into the fiction. But many of the things we know simply don’t matter to the fiction we’re telling. No matter how interesting an episode from a character’s past may be, if it doesn’t color the current story in some important way, it’s likely there for you rather than for your reader.

4. Do I Need This Particular Time Shift?

This same rule holds true for time shifts that do nothing to move your narrative forward. Remember, the most important purpose of a time shift is to keep your fiction moving along while revealing something from your character’s past that colors its present in some significant way. You’ve got to be utterly ruthless about weeding out unnecessary time shifts. If a reader says, “That’s interesting, but what’s it got to do with what’s going on now?” chances are that time shift isn’t needed.

5. Do I Need A Time Shift That’s Not Yet Here?

Finally, you need to consider what’s missing. Is there some crucial scene that you’ve not yet shown? Through the nine pages of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” Porter touches on everyone who’s been important in Granny’s life, until this, nearly to the end of the story:

Oh, I always hated surprises. I wanted to give Cornelia the amethyst set—Cornelia, you’re to have the amethyst set, but Hapsy’s to wear it when she wants, and, Doctor Harry, do shut up. Nobody’s sent for you. Oh, my dear Lord, do wait a minute. I meant to do something about the Forty Acres, Jimmy doesn’t need it and Lydia will later on, with that worthless husband of hers. I meant to finish the altar cloth and send six bottles of wine to Sister Borgia for her dyspepsia. I want to send six bottles of wine to Sister Borgia, Father Connolly, now don’t let me forget.

A number of things are particularly marvelous about this passage: There’s the way Granny’s dying mind ends up focusing—no, obsessing—about something utterly trivial: the six bottles of wine for Sister Borgia. But more, there’s the utter pathos of the juxtaposition of that triviality with all the things she never got around to doing, those repetitive “I meant to’s”.

Now what if this time shift weren’t here? What if we went straight from Father Connolly giving Granny her Last Rites to the second to last paragraph, in which we learn that Hapsy died before Granny, that Granny’s hoping to see her again when she dies? The answer is that the power of the final paragraph, where, “For the second time there was no sign,” would be diluted. It’s time shifts like this that in the end can make the difference for fictions that beg for one last transcendent moment to make them true.

Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.