Thoughts on flashbacks

With spoilers for Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness

Flashbacks are not fashionable. If you’ve read any writing advice, or agents telling you what they’re looking for, a constant seems to be to avoid flashbacks. But if you change writing ground and head towards what people call ‘literary’ fiction (we can debate what, if anything, that word means another time) you find lots of flashbacks, hidden under the fancy name ‘anachrony’. In short, a story which isn’t told in the order in which it happens.

I am actually a big fan of flashbacks. Here’s why I love them: they help pace the story. Nothing helps pacing as much as playing around with time. If you have to go through the events as they happen, in order, you can soon get bogged down in details. But with flashbacks (or flashforwards, I’m not fussy) you can stick all the important bits in the narrative closer together, sparing yourself and the readers the saggy moments of in-between. You can create tension by starting at an interesting point and filling in background information later, or by starting close to the end and then backtracking, in a ‘this is how I got there’ form of framing narrative.

As a writer, I spend about 75% of my time thinking about writing. When I’m reading, I often deconstruct the story in my head and think about how I would have written the book, had I been the author. This isn’t linked to whether I like or dislike the story – it’s a side-effect from too much writing, I suspect. And there’s one story I think could really have benefited from playing around with its timeline: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin.

 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of Ursula Le Guin and her work, and The Left Hand of Darkness is a fantastic book. But when I read it, what struck me was that it has a core – the moment when our narrator and Estraven travel together in the snow – which stays with every reader, resonates with them, carries the story. And then it has the other stuff. The bits which fade from the mind after reading.

For those of you who haven’t read it, The Left Hand of Darkness is both a brilliant concept – people on the alien planet Gethen are ungendered, or ambisexual, and pick male or female shapes only when sexually receptive – and the touching tale of a relationship between Estraven, a native from Gethen, and our traditionally gendered narrator, Genly Ai. It all happens on a wintry, snow-covered planet, with a wealth of beautiful landscape descriptions.

For the sake of the thought experiment, here are the ideas I played with whilst reading it. I think I would have started with Estraven, whom the reader doesn’t know at all, trying to save our narrator Ai, with no explanation as to why Ai needs saving from the freezing death camp he is in. It would make for an in medias res beginning, where the reader is left with lots of questions but a strong hook: there is someone to save.

Knowing the two characters are from different cultures is really all we need at the start. Then they set off across the mountain pass: they have to cross the ice to get across the border without being caught. We have lots of tension, plot and movement forward. Then, and only then, during a quiet evening waiting as the wind howls at the mouth of their tent, I would have started telling the story of how they found themselves in this situation.

Ai meeting Estraven for the first time, in the book, isn’t an obviously important moment. Placed as it is at the start, it’s overshadowed by the fact that Ai is focused on getting to see the king, and that Ai changes country shortly afterwards, and doesn’t see or think about Estraven for quite a long chunk of the narrative. By the time Estraven saves him, we’ve nearly forgotten who they were. We only learn that Estraven was trying to help Ai (by giving him warning about the king and the politics of Gethen) much, much later. In a way, the beginning scene mostly works in retrospect.

 

But if the opening were a flashback, the reader would be clued in that these two characters are the main ones, that this is our focus – this love or friendship is the centre, the core of the book. As readers, we could then enjoy the ‘spot Estraven’ game as the political intrigues unfold, interspacing these moments with the solitary walk across the border. The heart of the story, this meeting of cultures and meeting of minds as two people travel together, could be written as the centrepiece. The rest could serve to clarify their relationship, the culture on Gethen, as well as build more understanding as to what they’re running from and where they’re headed.

It would make for a different book. Of course it would change that central moment, that lonely walk in the snow, which wouldn’t feel quite as lonely and solitary if it kept being interrupted by flashbacks – so maybe it wouldn’t work. But structurally, it would have advantages, and it would focus the story differently. Maybe I’m partly influenced by the 3-second attention-span syndrome, which pushes all the important bits close to the front. This being said, I think for me the story was about two people, but the way it was set up on the page took the spotlight away from Estraven, did them a disservice.

It’s always much easier to look at a story in retrospect and think about what we would have done differently. But I find it’s an interesting exercise to look at books you love, and wonder how they use time, or how they could be using it, to tell their story.

8 Jan. 2021

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© 2020 by Rebecca Zahabi