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Short story writing: time in a short story, part 2


Flashbacks continued: A flashback always needs to be prepared for by establishing something going on in the present which can be returned to when the flashback is over. The example of a train journey is given above, but it can be just about anything which gives the central character time to sit and remember for a few minutes. She might make herself a cup of coffee, sit down, drift into a daydream about something which happened ten years ago, then come back to the present to realise her coffee has gone cold.

The pluperfect tense ('had') is often needed to introduce a flashback, but long passages in the pluperfect are uncomfortable to read, and can lose the reader's attention because they are implicitly a digression away from the action. If the flashback is to be a long one it is usually fairly easy to switch back to the simple past tense after the introduction. Look out for the way it is done in published stories.

Several days later

Phrases like 'three days later', 'a week later' should be avoided, even though they can fit comfortably into the time scale of a short story. The problem with them is that they imply that the author is telling us about events, instead of dramatising them from the central character's point of view. (see 'Dramatisation')

Suppose Janet doesn't hear from John for three days, then receives a 'phone call from him. Rather than ending the first section of the story with a gap in the text, (a gap indicates a passage of time), then opening the next section 'Three days later . . . ' we can open the next section with Janet answering the 'phone and saying: "Hello John. Where on earth have you been for the last three days?"

The idea here, as in all areas of story writing, is to avoid giving information directly to the reader. The information is transmitted in dramatic form so that the reader picks it up for himself.

As the days passed. As the weeks rolled by

Phrases like this give the reader the idea that nothing of very much interest happened for quite a long time. They are usually easy to avoid, in a similar manner to the example above. Instead of saying: 'As the days passed I grew more and more despondent, and I could see I was getting on Janet's nerves.' We can have: "What's the matter with you John?" said Janet. "You've done nothing but complain for the last five days." Instead of: 'As the weeks rolled by we slipped more and more into a dull routine.' We could have something like: 'Passing the travel agents one morning I realised Janet and I needed a holiday. We'd been trapped in the same old routine for weeks, it was high time we got away for a few days.' That way the information about passing time is not given directly, but conveyed unobtrusively while we focus attention on the next important piece of action.

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