This third installment on self-editing offers basic editing tips around the use of time. A writer can effect these tips to bring a manuscript to a higher level of finish before sending the piece off to a professional editor. In this section, I write about time sequencing: specifically, cause and effect sequencing and the flashback.
Part 1: What You Can Do Before You Send a Manuscript To An Editor! Click here.
Part 2: Before Sending Your Manuscript to an Editor. Click here.
Cause and Effect
In the previous post on use of time, I wrote about the cause-and-effect sequence as a sub aspect of proper chronology.
Before I get to the cause-and-effect sequence which is an absolutely necessary styling element to understand, I need to review an essential element of memoir writing (as of fiction): the suspension of disbelief.
A writer can effect these tips to bring a manuscript to a higher level of finish before sending the piece off to a professional editor. In this section, I write about time sequencing: specifically, cause and effect sequencing and the flashback.
Improper sequencing impedes the suspension of disbelief. If, as I am reading your story, I keep telling myself that the narrative is not true, that this story is not really happening, then I have not suspended my disbelief.
Conversely, if, as I read your memoir (or fiction), I lose track of time and of the present, I can be said to have suspended my disbelief. I am allowing myself to be in a state of mind that says, “This is a story that is happening right before my eyes and I have entered into it.”
Without suspension of disbelief, it is perhaps impossible to enjoy a story and certainly impossible to enter into its universe. Concurrent with the reader’s responsibility to be willing to suspend disbelief, there is a responsibility on the author’s part not to write anything to cause readers to be unable to suspend their disbelief.
Proper use of timing
If you write “They were homeless” and the scene you have created has not informed the reader they are homeless—and what is worse you show the “homeless people” inside a house having supper, you are not likely to get the reader to believe you. S/he is not likely to suspend disbelief. What you have not done is created a cause and effect sequence that supports your story and leads the reader to believe what you are telling.
The cause of homelessness has to be depicted. Was this homelessness due to profligacy or to ill luck? We can’t know. If you offer that they are now at the father’s brother’s house having supper and were homeless because their house has burned down, your reader now knows the reason that these characters in the memoir were homeless. However, the reader will only know after s/he reads to the end of the sentence. In that need to wait, you have created a momentary challenge to the suspension of disbelief. Rather than stay with the characters, the reader’s mind now begins to wander and come up with reasons why they are homeless. How much more easy on the reader—and better for the flow of the memoir—is it to write in a cause and effect sequence “because their house burned down, they were homeless.” This respects the chronology of the events.
In your writing, it is almost always more effective to write the cause first (often in a subordinate clause) and the effect next (often in the main clause.)
Flashback, of course, refers to mentioning events after they occur and is a strategic alteration of chronology. Generally flashbacks are used to present, explain, or review something that has happened and which is necessary to understanding the story. Let me give an example.
I prefer mentioning something in the story as it happens and then mentioning it again subsequently when knowledge of that material is once more important to our understanding. That place in the manuscript where understanding is once again important is a proper place to introduce a flashback—but only if it refers to something already mentioned.
A flashback ought to be an opportunity to recall what the reader already knows, to put the awareness into a perspective the reader needs, and even to add some details that the author now knows or realizes that s/he didn’t earlier. (This is a conceit, of course, as the author [aka “the narrator”] knows the whole story, but we write as if we [the author/narrator] are discovering the story as the readers are, too.)
A flashback is not an occasion for you to present major new material that the reader cannot know otherwise. This authorial intervention can cause the suspension of disbelief to fall apart.
Flashbacks can also be problematic.
When you write, “This was an occasion for me to think back on when she was a little girl” and go on to describe something that happened years earlier what this does is create a gimmick for having avoided writing about things in their proper sequence.
Proper use of time separates the professional or polished writer from the amateur. Present yourself as a professional by implementing the writing techniques I write about here.
For free articles on working with an editor, please visit The Memoir Writer’s Blog Archives / Memoir Editing.