Piecing together a past

Posted: July 5, 2013 in writing
Tags: , , , , , ,

A recent post about time by everwalker got me thinking about how we relate to the past in fiction.

Often, the past is a matter of back story, presented in scattered references throughout the story, or in cruder examples dumped on the reader through dialogue and exposition. Uncovering that past becomes a matter of literary archaeology, piecing together the clues so that you can understand where the characters are coming from. That’s part of why the exposition dump is less satisfying to read – it takes away the satisfaction of putting together the pieces.

Time travel stories are obviously different. Characters step back into the past, whether their own personal past, as in Looper, or a bit of history, as in Doctor Who. This allows the story teller to play with our perspective on reality, to question how reliable the truth is that’s been presented to us, as when The Doctor discovered that the eruption at Pompeii was caused by an alien. It also raises questions about how we are shaped by our past, as when history is re-written and characters change – shown entertainingly, if not coherently, when a character in Misfits headbutted Hitler.


Writers can play around with the past through story structure too. Iain M Banks did this in Use of Weapons, with one narrative strand moving forward and the other back, diverging chronologically but coming together thematically. While challenging to pull off, this can make for some interesting storytelling, and give the writer more control over the order they reveal information in. And of course this can be used to heighten tensions and create dramatic irony – those moments when a character says ‘of course that could never happen’, but we know it’s happened there three weeks into the future.

Some of my favourite examples come not from sci-fi but from sitcoms. Before he was the brains behind Doctor Who, Steven Moffat wrote Coupling, in which time was fractured to comedic and dramatic effect several times, most notably in the episode Nine and a Half Minutes, which showed the same period of time from three different perspectives, giving the same events different meaning in each version. And then there’s How I Met Your Mother, a mostly unremarkable American sitcom, but which presents the whole show as past events told by an unreliable narrator, allowing his faulty memory, imagination and deceptions to be presented directly on screen, as he rambles around and occasionally re-writes his own past.

The past isn’t just a foreign country. It’s a puzzle that has to be pieced together any time we write a story. But it’s a puzzle with many different solutions, and the order we put it in, as much as the pieces, help create the story. I haven’t had the courage to properly experiment with this yet, but I look forward to the day when I will. And in the meantime, if you can think of other good examples, let me know below.

  1. Jon Taylor says:

    Memento (remember that film?) was a really innovative and interesting in the way it turned the storytelling process on its head. Ironically, I can’t remember the name of the main characters (I’m just going to call him Guy Pearce), but he couldn’t make long term memory, so he only remembered the last few minutes. It was like starting the story with the last scene and then rewinding back to the previous scene, then the one before that, and so on.

    It had this intoxicating mixture of foreknowledge and ignorance, and each scene of the film mutated the story and your view of the characters into something new. Also, it lent itself to nice moments such as this [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvljC8HTgwA].

    I wonder whether its possible to reproduce something so unique in a different story, but still one of my favourite films.

    • Can’t believe I didn’t think of that one – it’s one of the best examples ever. I love the way it builds twists that only work because of the backwards narrative structure – it’s not just a flashy trick, but the whole basis of the story. I’d be very wary of trying the same trick, given how much Memento is about it, but it shows how the reader’s experience of a narrative is as much about how it’s presented as what it’s about.

  2. […] The only comparable example I can think of is Top Boy, which like Misfits neither glamorises nor condemns lives of boredom and petty crime. Both shows, in very different ways, show people living on the edge of the society we normally talk about. What’s special about Misfits is that it addresses this not with seriousness, but with grim humour and a touch of the fantastic. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s