The time covered by the action of a short story should be short, and preferably continuous. Generally speaking a day or two, a week, or at the most two weeks is enough. We should be focussing on one single incident in the central character’s life, and it should take place in as few episodes as possible. More time can be brought in by the use of flashbacks, but trying to cover a longer period in the action of the story can bring problems with maintaining suspense and continuity
If you find yourself wanting to use phrases such as ‘a month later’, or ‘a year later’ this is a sign that there is a problem to do with the time scale. Often the solution is to open the story at a more advanced stage than you had originally planned, and indicate what has gone on before in the form of a flashback.
A flashback is a section of a story in which the forward progress of time is temporarily broken while we look back to the past. Like every other aspect of the story it is governed by point of view, and thus represents the central character remembering.
Flashbacks should only be used to bring in material which is relevant and essential to the story, and which cannot be brought in any other way. For example we might have a story about a woman who had a boyfriend when she was a teenager, then lost contact with him, then five years later received a letter from him inviting her to go and visit him. How would we organise the time scale here?
The way not to do it would be to open with her first meeting with the boy, show how the friendship developed, and how they parted, then have ‘Five years later . . ‘, and continue the story with her going to visit him. This would be a rambling episodic plot with little or no suspense to hold the reader’s attention.
Much better would be to open the story with the woman on the train on her way to the reunion, and to show the past in the form of a flashback, then, when the train arrives at its destination, bring the story back to the present. Journeys are opportune settings for flashbacks, because they break continuity of place just as memory breaks continuity of time, they evoke the idea of connections being made, and they are occasions when, with little else to do, we are apt to drift into memories and daydreams.
A trigger is often helpful to set a flashback in motion, and a letter is an ideal trigger. So we can open our story with Janet sitting on the train, watching the countryside drift past the window. She is excited and apprehensive about meeting John again. Will he have changed? Will they still have the same feelings for each other? She takes his letter from her handbag and starts reading, and remembering . . . and we are into a flashback as she re-lives events of five years ago. Then the train pulls into the station, bringing Janet out of her reverie, and we continue the story in the present.
This way we will have opened the story on a note of anticipation and suspense, and set up a structure in which the immediate action can take place over a short and continuous period of time.
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.
Copyright: Ian Mackean