At the end of “A Slim Blade of Air,” I wrote a brief flash forward that gives a sense of what Kay Riven does with the moment of great stress that concludes the dramatic action of the story. I didn’t have the flash forward in my first few drafts. Yet when I had written the final scene, I found I wanted to know what she’d think about all of this later.
What happens afterward?
What will life be like after the present drama?
These questions feel so basic to the project of fiction. A satisfying side effect of creating a character, whether by thought or intuition, is that she becomes so knowable that it is possible to foresee her future—in contrast to one’s own.
A magnificent flash forward occurs in To The Lighthouse as an entire section of the novel, called Time Passes. The opening sentences read:
“Well, we must wait for the future to show,” said Mr. Bankes, coming in from the terrace.
“It’s almost too dark to see,” said Andrew, coming up from the beach.
The section then proceeds to illuminate the future, resolving both Andrew and Mr. Bankes’ remarks. The past and present are mixed up in the section, death is parenthetical and mentioned as having already happened while time and the effects of weather on the house trudge forward. The resignation expressed in that first sentence, of having to wait for the future to show, seems to me to be one of the facts of life that writers refuse to accept. The tension of waiting is too much to bear, so we take the future on, and make it happen.
I am highly aware in myself of the tension of waiting. I experience it as torture. I reveal this here because I have come to believe that no small percentage of craft choices mirror our own deep corrosive weathers. I want to know what happens. In bookstores, when I am browsing, I always read the last page, not the first, to decide if I want to buy a book. Endings reveal what an author can live with.
Small flash forwards often appear in the midst of stories, in the form of phrases such as ‘years later, she would…’ or ‘she didn’t know it yet, but…’ Ah, I think. The tension has become too great; the future must be alluded to to tolerate the present.
When I looked at Kay’s predicament at the end of the story, I saw how thoroughly I’d stripped her of all her defenses and attachments. She is alone, and knows only grief and fear. I could hear what she was thinking. ‘What will become of me?’ Sometime later I was able to place that plaintive cry. Audrey Hepburn utters it in her hard-earned posh accent as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Professor Higgins has won his bet that he could pass her off as a lady at a society ball. He no longer needs her; she is free to go. She recognizes her plight: she belongs nowhere. She utters the phrase in the moment of her greatest desolation. I remembered seeing the movie when it first opened in Philadelphia. Out of curiosity, I looked up the year. 1964. My father died in January of that year. That summer, I went to Holland with my mother and new stepfather. I didn’t have an older brother, or three younger brothers, and I didn’t go to the Anne Frank house. But I was afraid, and had no idea what would become of me.
Flash forwards can enhance tension by offering a respite from it and reassuring the reader that there is life beyond the harrowing moment at hand. They go beyond the scope of a story but abide by its constructed rules. In a story such as this one, which is narrated but also contains a close third person point of view from a child’s perspective, the flash forward directly accesses an adult sensibility that adds authority and makes the report of what happened more reliable via its observable connection to later life. It modifies the fairy tale conclusion of ‘happily ever after’ —a form of flash forward—to suggest growth and substance. Kay will make something of this event. That is her choice, and mine.
ALICE ELLIOTT DARK is the author of the novel, Think of England, and two collections of short stories, In The Gloaming and Naked to the Waist. Her work has appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Redbook, DoubleTake, Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O.Henry Awards, and translated into many languages. “In the Gloaming,” a story, was chosen by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Stories of The Century and was made into films by HBO and Trinity Playhouse. Her non-fiction reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many anthologies. She is an Associate Professor at Rutgers-Newark in the English department and the MFA program. Upcoming is a novel, Fellowship Point.