Where the Past Comes Alive
Our guest blogger, Kristan Higgins, is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author, as well as a two-time winner of the Romance Writers of America RITA Award, the Oscar of the romance industry. Visit her at www.kristanhiggins.com or at www.Facebook.com/KristanHigginsBooks. To buy her latest book, click on the links following the blog.
Where the past comes alive.
Nope, not talking about Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village (though sure, who doesn’t love those reenactors?). This is more about the grip of the past on a character during a book or movie.
Easy there. Was that screaming I heard? “No flashbacks, please, Higgins!” Right. Not everyone loves a flashback. Personally, I do and think they’re an art form when done right, like in Moneyball or The Debt. (When done wrong, though… I seem to remember All My Children’s Susan Lucci at the age of 50-something playing the 14-year-old version of Erica Kane. Now that was so bad it was fantastic).
Anyway, what I figured I’d talk about today were two moments I absolutely love in a story. The character in ordinary life lacks something, right? They’re in stasis, as good old Blake would say. Why is that? Because of something that happened in the past. Before the movie or book even opens, our character is basically screwed. The entire story is basically the hero saying this: “I desperately want to get over this, but I’m utterly and completely terrified here.” Yearning and fear. Fear and yearning. The motivating factors for everything our character has been doing. Delicious stuff.
And often, there are two moments that clearly depict the yearning and fear… two symbols, maybe. I couldn’t find official Blake-names for these moments, so I made some up. The first one I’m calling “Preview of Coming Attractions.” This one showcases about the yearning, and it comes early on. It’s a small moment, but heck, I love these! One of the best examples of this is from an oldie. Remember that timeless classic, Good Will Hunting? Will, the Matt Damon character, is a super-genius who resists changing and embracing his gifts. He works as a janitor, gets drunk, gets laid, hopes that the Red Sox will win the World Series (poor soul). He says he wants nothing more than that. Except there’s a preview of coming attractions. Where does he work as a janitor? Why, he works at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the Most Brilliant Geeks in the world. That’s no accident. Will had to go fill out a form at MIT, even to clean their floors. He wants to be around all that cool math stuff I failed in college. He’s not ready to fully embrace his superpowers as a mathematician, but he chooses to be there nonetheless.
In another lovely example of a Preview of Coming Attractions, take a look at Bridesmaids, a movie I just loved. I’d argue that the entire movie is pretty much about Annie’s past (and nary a single flashback!). She’s a failed cake shop owner. Her boyfriend left her right after the shop closed. Her father ditched her mom for his mistress. None of this is shown during the movie. We learn the history through a few little lines and very brief moments.
Nevertheless, Annie desperately wants to get over the legacy of the past, even though she’s in stasis, as shown by a very brief scene. She may be a failure who now works in a grubby little jewelry store, but one night, she bakes a single cupcake. She whisks and mixes, pops it in the oven, then decorates it with incredible attention to detail. This cupcake is freakin’ beautiful. She looks at it for a minute, then takes a big bite. The scene shows the viewer that Annie wants more. She wants to put her talent to use, she wants to (forgive me) taste the sweetness of life.
These small moments give the reader a glimpse into the potential of our characters. Is it the promise of the premise? Sort of, sure! Even more, it’s the promise of the person.
And then there’s the flip side of that moment, and this I’m calling “A Glimpse in the Rearview Mirror.” Coming Attractions shows us what could be; the Rearview (giggle) shows us what has been, and how powerful it is. Remember, our character is in stasis, yearning for more but doing squat. Why? He’s scared. That thing in the past …that was the worst moment of his entire life. Ordinary life is all about avoidance. Are our characters aware of this? Not really. They think it’s fine, it’s done, everyone has their little horror story from the past, whether it’s watching Mommy being chainsawed to death (hi, Dexter!) or being left at the altar. But hey. No big deal, right?
Wrong! Instead, the reader (or viewer) is treated to a glimpse of how present that hurt still is. Back to Bridesmaids: Annie has a little breakthrough. Cute Irish Cop has seen bits and pieces of potential in her. Maybe she’s not such a mess after all. They go back to his place, shag like ferrets, and when she wakes up, there it is, her past. Cute Irish Cop has set out all these bowls, all this flour and butter and eggs. The nerve! How dare he! Truly! How dare he imply that she’s wasting her life (she is), that she’s capable of more (ditto), that it’s time to get off her butt and move on (it is). Clearly, she must leave him. Immediately.
It’s much safer to be miserable and stuck than to take an actual chance. Much easier to dwell in the past than to forge a different future. As writers, if we work in a scene or a moment, a symbol of the yearning and the fear, we enrich our pieces by giving our audience a glimpse of the struggle that makes the entire story worthwhile.
What do you think? Got any good examples of Coming Attractions or Rearviews? I know, I know it sounds vaguely dirty. Keep it clean, okay? Do you agree that the past is perhaps the most important element at work in a book or movie? How do you like to see it handled? Love flashbacks, or hate them? Leave a comment, and I’ll send one of you a signed copy of Until There Was You, where the past most definitely has a grip on the present. And yes, it has a couple juicy flashback scenes.