Friday, April 22, 2011

Margin Notes: Every Last One, Ellen Goodman

I certainly can’t teach Ellen Goodman anything about making a story and characters come to life.  I made many notes to myself as I began Every Last One.  I admired her sharp characterizations and brilliant descriptions that conjure up protagonist Mary Beth’s house and allow the gardens she tends to bloom before me.  Her vivid writing makes it hard to resist the pull of her characters and story.  That’s the way it’s done, I found myself saying time and again in Goodman's melancholy portrait of an American family. But, of course, writers who win Pulitzer Prizes and end up on the best-seller lists have these skills.  They know how to animate their characters and draw us into their settings.   But other techniques she employed had me wondering, specifically about flashbacks.

Three Kinds of Flashbacks

One of my tough writing lessons came early when, figuratively, I had my knuckles cracked with a ruler every time I resorted to flashbacks at the expense of moving the story forward.  I came to realize that flashbacks can be an easy short hand when you don’t want to delve into an episode in detail that is not central to your story but does ground a scene in some way.  Let’s say a character appears late for an important meeting and you spend a line or two mentioning a storm that held up traffic, or some such.  Storm drama is not important here, but you have to account for her being late.  So you start in present time.  “She opened the door and stood on the threshold drenched from the storm that delayed her arrival (maybe some more description for dramatic effect,)” then immediately jump forward to present time in the story.  “She closed the door and said, “Am I too late?”  For purposes of my point, we assume the writer chooses not to use another device, such as dialogue to explain the late hour.  So the movement is:  Present time; quick flashback, present time again and moving forward.  Done and done. 

The trap that flashback holds for us, though, is that in referring to an earlier event, we can become engrossed the past.  Our heroine arrives late from the storm that delayed her arrival, and then we give the details of the storm, the flooding river, the rescue attempts, the dog wandering the storm-tossed river bank.  Interesting, but this doesn’t advance the story and the reader is left either wondering what the storm has to do with anything, or, having become so engrossed in the storm, is confused when the present story reappears, wondering which is the real story.  In another back story technique that Percy Lubbock calls regression and retardation, this is done for a specific effect, but I'm not going to discuss that here.    

Goodman uses flashback in a third way.  She starts a new paragraph at some point in time after the ending of the scene in the previous paragraph.  Fair enough.  But then she quickly jumps back to fill in what happened in between, information that, unlike the storm in the previous example, is quite relevant.  Why, I asked myself, did she not start with the fill-in since it was important to the story and she gives most of it anyway, then move forward to the event that opened the chapter?  I don’t know the answer, but the effect for me was two-fold.  First, she gave away the punchline, so to speak, by telling me what happened, and then going back to the drama that led to the episode she started with (it is even cumbersome to describe).  Throughout the book there was this two steps forward and three steps back movement that I found jarring.  I think it is a question of starting at the beginning.  Not starting in the middle and going back to the beginning, which you can do once, maybe twice, and then no more.

In addition, by jumping back and forward in time, she skimmed along the surface of the story, rather than revealing the depth of joy or suffering the characters were experiencing.  This is what I mean by flashback that can be shorthand.  I’m not going to give away Goodman’s story, so I’ll make something up that might approximate her approach. 

Let’s say the character wakes up in the hospital and the nurse puts her new baby in her arms.  (We’ve been waiting for this event and we're expecting to move forward as she experiences motherhood for the first time.)  Then the new mother reflects on the drive to the hospital, which we saw in the previous paragraph.  All we get is,  “She refuses to think about her husband telling her about his affair.”  What affair?  This is the first we're hearing of this.  How can she brush that from her mind?  When the father walks in the door to meet his new infant, the meeting with the mother is frosty.  No wonder, but we need to know more.  We are told the essential information, but not how it resonates on the character (this has happened in the past we are not shown--that's the shorthand).  If, much later the writer mentions in a telling fashion (as Goodman does) the scene in the car with the big revelation, the ride to the hospital, some of the labor, her finally holding the baby knowing what she knows about the father, she's already had the meeting with the father, so this information doesn't have the same impact it would have had if we had experienced with her in real time hearing the news on the way to the hospital and all that followed.  How much better we would know the character, empathize with her, and him, for that matter, depending on their story, if we went through that experience with them instead of being told after the fact.  How much tension the reader would feel when the father walks into the room to greet his new child.

In Goodman’s book, I found the moving back and forth with tidbits to fill in the story, not only distracting, but it kept Mary Beth at a remove.  We see her reflecting or recounting on some important events in the story, rather than go through them with her.  We don’t feel her pain.  I know we can’t give every moment of a character’s life, and we often have to skip along and leave some events to the reader’s imagination, but we shouldn’t short change the reader on the ones that matter.

What I took away from the book:  Handling time and backstory is difficult, but we run the risk of alientating the reader to some degree when we mishandle it and use it too often.  Flashback can be an easier way to tell a story, but overdone, it is at some cost to the reader.  So I made a note to watch how I handle flashbacks in my own work in an attempt to keep it from distracting and diluting my story. 

Despite my problems with flashback, I also discovered once again in Goodman's book the power of sharply drawn scenes that reveal characters, such as those with the children.  I learned that if you let the reader get to know your characters in their ordinary moments, free of trauma, he or she will care more deeply about them when life is cruel to them.  As a teacher of mine once said, “If you want me to care about a character’s death, make me care about their life.”

 I also found myself grieving with this family because Goodman's portrayal of loss had touched some of my own unacknowledged griefs.  Some personal loss came to the surface for me to examine.  And despite the flaws I found in this book, that is its true gift.

1 comment:

  1. This is such an accurate and insightful analysis of flashback! As a reader, I also feel frustrated when authors withhold necessary information and/or fail to connect emotionally. Wonderful lesson, Helen. Thank you so much!