Thursday, January 27, 2011

Immediate, not retrospect

I was writing a scene where a married couple were having one of those married conversations, about what to get his daughter for a wedding gift. The husband says they have to buy a gift. And I had the wife think that the daughter and her groom would probably prefer money. But she doesn't say that because (she thinks in her head) the last time she suggested that (giving a gift of money to a wedding couple), the husband (who is older and richer) scoffed at her, saying that it's tasteless to give money as a wedding gift.

And the wife thinks that she'll never understand the upper classes, all these rules, all this "taste" stuff.

See the problem? There's a conversation taking place NOW. In the scene. And yet the most interesting part of it, the exchange that reveals the class conflict between them, took place sometime before, about some other wedding. The conflict is in retrospect, not right here right now.

It's sort of scary how often I do that, slide into a retrospective of something that ought to be happening now. Easy to fix here, however!

Husband says they need to shop for a wedding gift (maybe specify something "tasteful" like crystal).

Wife says NOW, "Why not just give them the money and let them decide how to spend it?"

Husband NOW says, "We can't give my daughter a check for her wedding! That's -- that's tasteless."

And since it's happening NOW, the wife can maybe draw this out a bit more, demand what he means by tasteless, that when her sister got married, the groom's parents gave them enough for a down payment on a house, and no one thought that was tasteless.

And he can say, kind of coldly, well, of course, for your family, that was probably considered the height of good taste. But the rule is, money is not a good gift for a wedding. Something that indicates a long life together, family, tradition, that is in good taste. Like crystal.

And she can think about how she will never understand all these rules of the upper classes, that seem to be so at odds with real life.

But NOW she could give in, to keep the peace, and to prevent her husband thinking too much of her lower-class origins. The catalyst for her giving in would have just happened this way, not weeks ago.

And can I make the giving in more concrete? Maybe by her gathering up her purse and saying, "Let's go then to that crystal shop on Pike St." That would be a concrete representation of her capitulation.

Anyway, something to watch out for-- make the retrospective immediate if possible. Then again, this might be a problem only for me!



PatriciaW said...

Now that you mention it, I think I do this quite a bit. Have to take a hard look at my writing. But this type of help is just the reason I read--and recommend--Editorrent.

Isaac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Isaac said...

I have to ask: why exactly is it a problem to slip into the retrospective? Is this an extension of the oft-cited need to preserve narrative flow?

Wes said...

I totally agree after receiving a critique back from Theresa on my WIP. (Thanks, T, great editing) She pointed out places where I was trying to be deep in my MC's POV reflecting on past events, but that I was actually slowing down the story with backstory. In my rewrite I changing several of these into scenes depicting action. The same points get across without taking the reader out of the story.

Sue Burke said...

I've always understood that the bride's parents' gift was to pay for the wedding, and that tradition cuts across all class lines.

That, of course, means fighting about how big the wedding is going to be, where, who is invited, etc., and this fight will go on for several chapters.

Edittorrent said...

Isaac, yes, it's good to maintain the forward momentum. But it's not actually retrospective narration that's the problem. It's inadvertent retrospective, where there's no reason for the event to be shown in the past, but it just happens because the writer hasn't challenged herself to make it happen in the present.

I think in a way, the reader is making up the scene while reading, and he can't do that effectively if he keeps having to stop and factor in something that happened yesterday-- especially if it could have happened today (didn't need to happen yesterday).

I also think at the opening, it's important to establish the time of the book, and an early retrospective or flashback might get in the way of that. What do you think? What would be good reasons for doing something in retrospective?

green_knight said...

I can't say I have caught myself doing this, which does not mean I haven't done it. I think the important part is to drag it out of her head into something that plays out before the reader. Whether this is the first instance or whether you use her memories of the previous occasion to bring the plot forward depends on everything else in the story - I can see it working both ways.

Wes said...

How about these as reasons to have retrospective passages?

The MC must make a decision, and he/she reflects on the outcomes of past decisions in similar situations.

The MC mourns the loss of a love or friend and thinks back on good times.

The MC wonders how he/she got in such a mess (This last one is common for me in real life.).

Edittorrent said...

Wes, I remember Stephen King said something about starting with the character hanging off a cliff with a bad guy about to stamp on his fingers, and the character thinks, "How did I get myself into this mess?" And then most of the book goes back to tell what led up to this.

Interesting structure!

Isaac said...

It's a strange example and it's in a not strictly textual medium, but I was just reading the Firefly comic about Shepherd Book. The story is told backwards in an episodic excavation of his past. It's compelling because each episode leaves open questions about what brought him into that story which are incompletely answered by the following episode (further in the past). The transitions are made by a key phrase which he had heard before. Of course, the visual medium makes signaling the shift in scene a lot clearer. The challenge to a writer would be setting the scene in a way that oriented the reader.

Wes said...

That's the only thing I have in common with Stephen King...........

Edittorrent said...

Sue, he's paying for half the wedding too (ex-wife paying for the rest), but still needs to give a gift that's not monetary. I know-- seems dumb, but this is totally the way my grandmother-in-law would think. "You must ALSO give a gift!" I think I'm going to have the bride decide to elope after all this!