Friday, July 24, 2009

Narratives and Timelines

On the way back from Texas, I started listening to The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. I was a little put off by the cheesy title, but I gave it a chance, and it did a decent job of hooking me. I hadn't read any of Lamb's stuff before, but he's a good writer.

There's only one problem, and it's making me lose interest in the book, even though I'm now into the third disk on audio. And that's how he handles time.

I think flashbacks are fine if used sparingly, or if the bulk of a story is a flashback, but there's really not much to the narrative in the "present" of the story, e.g. an old man is recounting his life story to a journalist. But I think there are real problems with a narrative structure in which the reader is interested in the forward progression of the story in the "present", but keeps getting flung back into repeated, extended flashbacks.

That's the way this book is. The story is ostensibly about a high school teacher who taught at Columbine High School when the massacre took place. The story starts the Friday a few days before the massacre, but so far the bulk of the narrative has taken place in the past, relating the main character's marital problems, his attempt to befriend and rehabilitate a screwed-up female student, and in the section I'm currently on, we go all the way back to the main character's childhood for stories about his family's corn maze.

I remember reading Stephen King's Dark Tower series and like Wizard and Glass the least, mostly because the book was one giant flashback. I was interested in seeing forward progression in the present-day quest, not getting a bunch of back story. So I read it very impatiently. Several years later, when I read the series again, I enjoyed W&G a lot more, mostly because there wasn't the urgency of seeing how the main storyline played out.

In general I think this kind of structure is a mistake. There are clever ways to fill in backstory, which is important for any story. But the bulk of the narrative should take place in the time frame in which your primary story is set. Otherwise the reader feels like they're taking one step forward and three steps back. I can't think of a work where this kind of structure worked very well. If any of you can, please share.

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