Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.
No doubt you’ve heard the phrase in medias res, a Latin expression meaning in the middle of things, the starting point for literature. In other words, we readers and viewers agree to believe that the characters and places have lived a full, rich, complex life before the first page or scene presented to us. Gatsby had a childhood. East and West Egg did not spring to life at the moment that Gatstby or the Buchanans took up residence there.
Still, readers need expostion, also known as an explanation of the antecedent action. We need a sense of who these characters are, how they came to be in conflict, and how the place affects their actions. Writers do this by introducing us to them and their circumstances in the opening pages. Shakespeare usually used all of Act 1 and sometimes a bit of Act 2 to introduce us to his protagonists, antagonists, and foils. John D. MacDonald used hundreds of words and several chapters at the beginning of Please Write for Details to introduce five key characters in Cuernavaca, Mexico and thirteen more who register for the Cuernavaca Art School.
Sometimes, authors understand that giving us all the information we need in the opening pages would burden us unnecessarily so authors give us just enough to spark the conflict—the engine of the tale—and use other techniques throughout the novel or play to give us the rest. These techniques include dialogue and flashback.
In Peter Robinson’s novel, In a Dry Season, the police need to learn about a town that ceased to exist when a reservoir project flooded it, but as the title suggests, drought exposes some of the old town and a long-buried body. In the course of telling the story of the old town, Hobb’s End, comes alive through both techniques: dialogue and flashback.
In one section, policewoman Cabbot interviews an elderly woman who once lived in Hobb’s End. Through their dialogue, readers learn about the institutions and services the village offered to its residents and a little more about a few of the citizens.
One of the citizens, Michael Stanhope, created a painting of the village and gave it to the elerly woman being interviewed. She invites Cabbot to see it, then by describing the painting and the painter’s impression of it through Cabbot, author Robinson maps Hobb’s End for the readers and suggests that it was not the pastoral haven one might have presumed it to be. The painter and what he might have known then becomes part of the mystery.
In addition to first-hand testimony in the present and artifacts such as the painting, Robinson uses flashback, switching from present to past, especially as one former resident of Hobb’s End remembers the time before the Thrushcross Resevoir, especially the World War II years. Thus, the novel switches between two time frames, the present and the 1940s, in order to reveal all the explanation about characters and setting that readers need in order to solve several mysteries.
Other authors who make use of dialogue and flashback to shift the narrative from the present into the past are:
o William Golding in Lord of the Flies. Piggy reveals his childhood to Ralph through dialogue; Ralph reveals his safe, protected childhood in reverie or reflection, a type of flashback.
o J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. The Pensieve facilitates flashbacks and becomes an element of Dumbledore’s lessons and Harry’s quest. In addition, conversations between Sirius Black and Hagrid or Hermione, Ron and Harry provide insights into antecedent action.
o Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse Five, and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man recreate a human mind experiencing trauma. Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, imprisoned in an abandoned slaughterhouse, drifts from a chronological reality into a present imbued with the past. Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus searches in his present for his identity while tethered tightly to his parochial, provincial past. In both these novels, the present and past are woven so tightly together that readers must be vigilant and willing to pursue the story.
Read Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season, noting the ways in which Robinson reveals the past. Or read the film Memento as it moves through one flashback after another, each one a bit further in the past than the previous one, to solve the mystery in the present.
Explain your expectations for birthday celebrations, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas by including a flashback about the one celebration or holiday that set the bar for you.
GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): More Commonly Confused Words: Appraise and Apprise
“On the PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, people lucky enough to win a ticket bring personal possessions to experts who will appraise the possessions and apprise the owner as well as viewers of its value.”
Appraise means to evaluate and apprise means to inform.