Please welcome Nina Schuyler  to Writer Unboxed. Nina is the author of The Translator , which won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award for General Fiction and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her novel The Painting  was nominated for a Northern California Book Award and named a Best Book by the San Francisco Chronicle. Nina teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.
The Translator involved weaving memories into the present story line. I wanted to get underneath the advice—“use memories or the past to advance the story”—and figure out the effective ways to use the past to enhance the story.
Time Travel Done Right: Weaving Memories into a Storyline
Keep the present action going. Don’t include the past at all. Include it, but don’t put it there. Or there. Or there.
There’s an abundance of writing advice, regarding the past and the use of memories in fiction. Some of it is contradictory, most of it confusing, because well-regarded writers often use memories to create rich and compelling stories.
By including memories, you can heighten tension by raising the stakes, dramatize a character’s change, complicate motivation, and create subtext to guide the reader to the heart of the story.
Raise the Stakes
In Joseph O’Neil’s wonderful novel, Netherland, Hans van den Broek’s wife has taken their child and moved back to London, leaving him alone in New York City. Hans discovers a cricket bat in the trunk of a taxi cab, and the driver, seeing Hans’ interest, invites him to play.
[pullquote]By including memories, you can heighten tension by raising the stakes, dramatize a character’s change, complicate motivation, and create subtext to guide the reader to the heart of the story.[/pullquote]
If the scene ended there, the act of playing cricket might be viewed as a way to distract the narrator from his troubles. But the present action causes Hans to remember his boyhood in Holland, where he lived alone with his mother. As a boy, Hans fell in love with cricket. It provided surrogate fathers, and there, in his memories, he sees his mother on the sidelines, watching him, supporting him.
“From September through April I played football, proudly wearing the club’s black shirt and black shorts bought at the sporting goods store on Fahrenheitstraat; and from May through August I played cricket. I loved both sports equally; but by my midteens, cricket had claimed its first place.”
And then, “It was her (his mother) habit to unfold a portable chair by the western sightscreen and sit there for hours, grading homework and occasionally looking up to follow the game.”
The stakes are raised—what can be gained, what can be lost—by including these memories of his boyhood; the reader understands that Hans is depending on cricket, not only as a distraction, but also to help him through this difficult time.
By including a memory, a writer can convey a change in character. In my novel, The Translator, my protagonist, Hanne Schubert encounters Moto, an unemployed Noh actor whose behavior and mannerisms remind her of her daughter. Through one of her interactions with Moto, she recalls a fight, in which her daughter wished to quit French lessons and study, instead, Mandarin. Hanne lectured and cajoled her, until she forbade her from quitting French. Hanne won the battle, but in the present action, she also remembers things she’s conveniently forgotten: “And now she sees her daughter slumped in her chair, her face pale, shoulders rounded, a posture of exquisite dejection. How cruel, how unrelenting Hanne was.”
Memories can be used to complicate motivation, as Junot Diaz does in his short story, “Fiesta, 1980,” from the collection, Drown. In the present action, the ten-year-old narrator, Yunior, and his family are heading to a relative’s party. There’s a problem, though. Whenever Yunior rides in his father’s new VW van, he throws up.
If Diaz left it at that, Yunior’s desire not to vomit in his father’s car—and the motivations tied to that—to please his father, not get him angry—would be pretty straight-forward. But Diaz includes a memory, in which Yunior and his older brother met their father’s mistress, but did not tell their mother. Smartly, Diaz musses up neat causation between Yunior’s vomiting and his knowledge of the mistress by having Yunior throw up in the van before he meets the mistress. But the point here is the flashback provides another motivation behind Yunior’s vomiting—his emotional distress, regarding his father’s affair.
Subtext and Theme
Let me stay with “Fiesta, 1980.” By using memory and sequencing—the placement of the memory in relation to the present action—Diaz creates subtext and helps the reader understand what the story is really about.
At the end of the story, Yunior remembers how his mother cornered him in the apartment, right after he met his father’s mistress. “I don’t remember being out of sorts after I met the Puerto Rican woman, but I must have been because Mami only asked me questions when she thought something was wrong in my life.” Yunior lies, telling her he’s had trouble in school, but in a flash forward, he questions his response. “Later I would think, maybe if I had told her, she would have confronted him, would have done something, but who can know these things?” This last memory is positioned right before the final scene, with the family in the van and Yunior, feeling ill, calls out for his mother, right before he vomits. This warning is the best he can do, in terms of exposing his father.
After you’ve decided the purpose of the memory, there are several ways to make the movement from the present action to the past a smooth ride.
- Use as little as possible. To decide how much to use, you need to know your protagonist’s arc and the heart of the story. As you revise, go back to the memories and review how and why you are using the memory. To show a change in character? To raise the stakes? Cut the superfluous.
- Placement of the memory. Has the memory come too early, before the reader has emotionally engaged with your protagonist? Before tension and conflict are established in the present narration? Can you place the memory in such a way as to generate more subtext?
- Present Narration Trigger. In the example from Netherland, Hans saw a cricket bat in the taxi’s trunk. Look for a present action detail that naturally leads your character to think about the memory. Avoid clunky transitions, such as “She thought about the time when…”
- Clarify time. When the memory ends, indicate you are returning to the present action by repeating an action or image from the basic time period. Don’t be afraid to begin with “Now.”
- Details, details. Make the memory vivid by including precise details, just as you would do with a present action scene.
- Verb Tense. If you’re writing your story in past tense, the memory will be in the past perfect, with the construction “had (verb)” two or three times. Then you can switch to the simple past. O’Neill used past tense for Netherland. Here’s how he moved into a memory: “The circumstances were, I should say, unbearable. Almost a year had passed since my wife’s announcement that she was leaving New York and returning to London with Jake.” If you are writing in the present tense, you may want to keep the whole flashback in the past. For The Translator, I wrote the present action in present tense. Here’s how I moved from present action to a memory and back to present action: “Hanne imagines Tomas’s serious face, his lips tightening into two thin wires, brooding over the best way to phrase what he wants to tell her. He was always a careful, orderly boy, all his toys in separate cardboard boxes, which he neatly labeled, “cars,” “trains,” and a Christmas file begun in January where he stores his desires. Now Tomas is considered a success.”
Beyond the common advice of sticking to the present action exists a rich variety of ways of creating story. By including memories—for the right purpose, handled the right way—we can tell stories that dramatize the full complexity of our characters, and, in the end, create richer, more meaningful stories.
What memories have you used in your stories—how and for what purpose? When you use them, what are some ways that you ensure that it’s a “smooth ride” from memory to present action?