Wednesday, June 30, 2010

C.L. Gray said...
Perhaps a teaching on how to avoid "had" in events that happened two or three days in the past.

Okay, let me think about this.

First thing I'm going to say is... don't go back. That is, if you don't recount things that happened three days ago, you won't need "had". (Talk about evading the issue...:) That is, "had" as the past-perfect auxiliary verb

But really, I don't like flashbacks as I think they tend to detract from the verisimilitude of the scene. Here they are, having an argument, and she says the "D" word (divorce), and they're both shocked, and ... and then he thinks back to the last time they went to dinner three nights ago, "and she had ordered calimari though he hated even the sight of it, and....", and there goes the immediacy, there goes the sense of being in the moment, and there perhaps goes the characterization (does he just drift off in the middle of an argument? No wonder she's talking divorce!).

It reminds me of a Friends episode re-run I saw the other day, or rather one moment in it, where Joey (the actor) is telling how a mentor had taught him the trick of seeming to ruminate and remember as "smelling your farts." And then there's a flashback to Joey as a character, and he stops in the middle of the scene and tilts his head like he's smelling his fart.

The joke is that flashing back can be rather like, you know, smelling your farts-- it looks sort of significant, but it's not.

Okay, okay, I know I don't persuade anyone who loves flashbacks not to use them (though I defy you all to try that-- go ahead, write the flashback now without thinking, oh, no, I'm smelling my farts!).

So how about a flashback without that annoying "had" everywhere?

Well, I think we should distinguish between just a line or two about something in the past, and a real flashback.
If it's just a line or two-- She raised her hand to show off the time travel wristband she had been awarded at graduation-- then go ahead and use "had" and don't fret it. It's the most expeditious way to set the one event in the past of the story. (And of course, it's also correct, which matters to me. :)

But a flashback is a -scene-, not just a reference to a past event. A flashback takes the reader back to a time before the story present and presents this passage of time as if it's a scene, with setting, action, dialogue. (We should have a discussion of whether there should be introspection/POV in a flashback... also, is the flashback a character flashing back and remembering something, or an independent scene, or... see all these existential questions that arise when you mess with the time continuum???)

So with a real flashback, I'd suggest maybe starting with "had" to mark the descent into the past, but then once you get there, no more had (until maybe the very end of the flashback scene, when you're transitting back to the present of the story). So:

She had been so proud at that graduation. She had proudly worn her blue time-agent uniform, and her parents had beamed when they saw her. When the director called her name, she walked up the aisle to get her diploma, and she stood as still as she could as he strapped on the wristband...

That is, get us into the past scene with "had been", then once we're in the scene, just go with simple past to make it feel like a scene, to make us feel right there experiencing it.

How do you all handle this?



Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I do the same. A couple past perfect tense (or whatever it is) and then into straight past. As you say, it makes the scene more alive.

C.L. Gray said...

Excellent. Thank you so much. My use of "had" are not flashbacks, but just a few sentences to explain how an army got from Knoxville to Chattanooga without having to put the army on the road. I used the "had" before going into straight past tense, but was unsure if I should do it.

I do appreciate this blog very much.

Thank you!

Julie Harrington said...

I know there's a stigma with the whole had/was thing because of the passive voice subject touched on a few days ago but sometimes had or was is a perfectly good way to go. If I find myself twisting a sentence into a pretzel to avoid the was or the had? Screw it. Use the was or the had. But anywhoo... past events. I actually just did this in a chapter but I tried to keep it short. looking at it now, I just kept it in simple past form. The other recapping of a past event was done almost in the here and now, sort of the heroine reliving a specific moment/line of dialog as if it were happening all over again.


Leona said...

Awesome, Awesome Awesome. I swear I watched for this blog everyday, and all I have to do is check it for the last time for more then 24 hrs and BOOM, Alicia goes on a terror. At least it's paragraphing this time. I have a general idea of the language she's going to use :D

Here's something I've used as a paragraph. In this story, I've tried to not let paragraphs get too long, yet keep the rythm varied. But in places, there is a lot of dialogue and reactions. Example:

The mage hesitated, his stiffened back to Lord Kyle. “If she’s the only close family, then why are you wasting your time and men on a trap?”

That is all one paragraph, yet I've got much longer ones. I think, instinct has some play in it. Also, clarity.

tinlizzie said...

This, exactly.

I do tend to use a lot of flashbacks (thanks a lot, Alicia, for that wonderful olfactory image!) and that is exactly how I do them. Sometimes, I can also dispense with the past perfect at the end of the flashback and substitute a line that brings both the character and the reader back to the present. An example:

A sudden scream from inside the house startled Meacham out of his reverie ..."

Alicia said...

Tinlizzie, report back, please, about what goes through your head the next time you do a flashback. :)

Hey, I might not be all that consequential, but who else implants "smelling your farts" into writers' heads, huh? For the rest of your lives....