Prologue There is a story our parents told us, only once. When they received their immigration papers from America, they considered leaving one of us behind in Pakistan to live with relatives, believing that one child would be…
I’m a sucker for a certain kind of story: one in which a character carries a sense of being haunted, burdened by a past trauma or loss. In these stories, the past, as alive and as embodied as an actual character, makes its appearance in the present moment and the character must answer to that long-ago event or seek to understand its unanswered questions.
Students of writing are often taught that the openings of novels must establish the stakes for characters, indicate a change in the status quo, and provide a sense of urgency. In short, narrative momentum must be generated. But in a story in which the defining event that compels the character occurred previously and off-screen, how can the snapping forward of momentum be achieved? I think of it as a rubber band, that is, the pulling back of the character into the past propels the narrative forward into the present.
By definition, these kinds of novels are retrospective. With a character held captive by a particular memory or trauma, the present action in the novel becomes an effort to reconcile or resolve the past. The character is typically in a moment of transition or disequilibrium. The reason for the telling is because the past has popped into the present, forcing the character to deal with it. Usually, there is a mystery, in both the big and small sense. That is, mysteries that will be answered within the confines of the narrative, and mysteries that cannot be answered because the answer is inherently unknowable.
Writers can utilize the rubber-band effect – the duality of retrospection and propulsion –via various craft tools, some of which can be seen in the opening excerpt of my novel The Bad One. I will focus on the two that gave me the most challenge.
I knew that multiple and shifting time frames were required to tell this story and that I needed to find a way to incorporate all of them. Over the course of the first few versions of this novel, I had to ask myself whether the past was an independent story or whether it was intended to only inform and contextualize the present story. Was only the present haunted – or the past, as well? Many different layers of the past needed to be excavated, and I needed to be able to touch on the key parts of each without getting bogged down in any one time.
The second craft technique with which I struggled was the ratio of the known versus the unknown. The rate of revelation and the type of revelation works differently in a retrospective story than one in which the narrative is in a single time frame. What’s apparent on the surface in the present can be juxtaposed with the events swirling underneath in the past. Resolution of a small mystery can provide much needed information while, at the same time, open up the narrative to new questions and hint at the larger mysteries still to be understood.
I relied on the rubber-band effect to launch my novel, The Bad One. But also came to understand that the voice of one of my main characters needs the dual look-back and push-forward to power the narrative throughout the book. I used the craft techniques outlined in this essay, as well as others I learned along the way.
SONNY BUTTAR earned her Master of Fine Arts from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers in July 2023. She is currently working on completing her first novel. In her regular life, she is the Chief Legal & Administrative Officer of a publicly traded company and manages to find consistent time for writing by waking up in the middle of the night. Find her on Instagram @sonny_buttar.