Backwards and Forwards
Here’s what we’re looking to accomplish this week:
- Learn how to have all the time in the world, because you’ve got a time machine—and it’s called fiction;
- Read a short story by that leaps backwards and forwards in time with seeming ease; and,
- Write a story where we try to do that same.
Leaps Through Time
Fiction can take us backward and forward in time faster than any other storytelling medium, and with far less fanfare. If an author turns a phrase just so, they can leap us dozens of years at a stretch, or even millennia (as in the case of Jill McCorkle’s masterful story “Hominids”).
Finding that perfect phrase is all about practice, just like so many other things in writing. And rather than me go on and on about the theory of how you might do that, I’m going to leap us right into the reading assignment for this week. I think the assignment will do a great job of teaching us how the pros do it, and get us one step closer to becoming prose pros ourselves.
Read “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. After you’ve read it once for pleasure, read it again and note each time the narrator transports us from one period in time to another. On a sheet of paper (or in a note on your phone or computer), use letters or numbers to denote each period in time.
Then try putting those lettered/numbered time periods into chronological order. Kind of a mess, right? You’ll find that’s probably true of a great many stories you’ve read (or watched) and loved.
Now go back through the story one more time and note the phrases or words Machado uses to signal each travel through time. Ask yourself how you might use similar techniques in your own writing.
If this proves useful—and I think it will, or I wouldn’t be asking you to do it—try it with other stories or novels you love.
One Last Thing Before I Get You Writing…
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway tells us that there are two primary methods of treating time in fiction: summary and scene. Knowing when to use each is another skill for you to master.
You may have heard that you should show, not tell when writing. And those two words are probably the easiest way to understand the difference between summary and scene—summary tells and scene shows—but the truth of the matter is that sometimes you just have to tell. You can’t show everything, especially in a short story.
A good rule of thumb is to summarize as a way getting from one exciting bit to the next. When it’s time for a confrontation, you need a full-fledged scene. But if you’re dealing with anything other than a confrontation, either A) consider summarizing it, or B) considering cutting it.
Here’s a metaphor I’m going to try on for size for the first time, right here in front of you: summary is the tendon that holds together the individual muscles that are scenes. You need the tendon, or else your fucking leg falls apart. But you can’t stretch it too far or too hard, or it’s going to break and your audience is going to turn away in horror.
Speaking of muscles and tendons, let’s wrap up with our exercise:
Imagine a pivotal moment in your life (or the life of a character you’ve been working on) where a great deal of reflection on the past was used to come to life-altering decision.
Now write a story where that pivotal moment is told in the present tense (as if it’s happening right now), the reflections on the past are told in the past tense (because they happened before now, of course), and there are at least three brief uses of the future tense to indicate what will happen in the weeks, months, and years to come.
The idea here is to test using a combination of tenses to smooth out transitions between different periods in time. We may long to write transitions as smooth as the ones we picked out in Machado above, but a lot of us ain’t there yet. And this is another technique for going back and forth in time without drawing too much attention to ourselves.
Good luck! And we’ll see you back here next week.