One challenge for writers is to get in background information without interrupting the narrative flow or alienating your reader.
This is true whether you’re writing a novel, a business email, or a newspaper column. In a novel, the reader might be in the middle of a tense scene and then suddenly the story grinds to a halt because the author adds a flashback. Or worse, the author starts with background information and the reader becomes impatient waiting for the story to start.
If you’re writing an email or a report and you start by including all the background information you have a high probability of frustrating the reader because you haven’t made your point yet or asked what you want the reader to do or conclude.
My recommendation: never start in the past. Start somewhere in the middle and when the time is right, when your reader needs to know something about the past in order to understand the present, that’s when you put in background or a flashback.
I had this challenge when writing FLIGHT RISK. The beginning of the novel is all action, with Robert Besch surviving a plane accident but then suffering such psychological trauma that he forgets his identity and disappears from the scene and behaves as if he were someone else. Eventually, he is found, setting up the rest of the story where he has to rebuild his life.
I wanted to get in information that helped the reader understand his character and helped set up the rest of the story. Information about his attitudes, his marriage, his family, his personality. I couldn’t just explain this in an expository writing dump. Instead, I chose to have a psychiatrist interview Robert at the hospital where he was taken after being found. At this point, we’re on page 89.
My intent was to move the story forward while planting some important information. I thought it worked pretty well. Some others weren’t so enamored with this technique. What do you think?
From FLIGHT RISK . . .
By the time Dr. Shaw sat down with Robert, he had already spoken to the attending neurologist and read the police report. Here was a patient who survived the crash landing of a jet, had no recollection of rescuing passengers from the burning plane, or of picking up his rental car, driving to Niagara Falls, gambling at a casino hotel, renting its most expensive suite, and spending thousands of dollars on food, liquor, and clothing.
Robert listened to this summary of his actions as if it he were being briefed about someone unknown to him. A different man. One that had little in common with Robert, who didn’t have Robert’s high IQ, or his attention to detail, or his self-control and accountability. And yet, he remembered nothing. He had no idea how he ended up in a hotel with a woman, a fellow passenger on the plane.
“You didn’t know her previously?” Dr. Shaw asked.
“I met her for the first time on the plane,” Robert said. “She sat across from me.” He did remember the events prior to the crash.
“You spoke to her?”
“Yes, some. Before the plane took off.”
“Did you arrange to meet her later or agree to get together at some point?”
“No. Definitely not.” Then, no longer sure: “Not that I know of.”
“And you don’t remember the accident itself? Or anything that happened afterward?”
He told Shaw he had this enormous blank space in his memory, like a closed-off, darkened room in his brain. He knew the information was in there, he just couldn’t get at it.
Shaw hummed in agreement, as if expecting Robert’s response.
“We’ll be able to find out?” Robert said. “I’ll be able to remember?”
Shaw didn’t answer right away. In the quiet interval Robert wondered if he might be better off not remembering.
Shaw told Robert he’d like to administer a test called the Structured Clinical Interview for Dissociative Disorder.
“Dissociative disorder?” Robert didn’t like the sound of it.
“It refers to any number of conditions appearing along a continuum of psychological and emotional detachment,” Shaw said. “But rather than get into any detailed explanation now, I suggest we go through the test—it’s a diagnostic tool, an interview, as the title says. I’ll ask questions, and you answer as honestly as you can. The results will give us context to engage in a more meaningful analysis and discussion.”
“Right. That makes sense,” Robert agreed. He appreciated the idea of taking an analytical approach to solving the problem. The problem being . . . What the fuck happened to him!?
Shaw squatted in front of a metal filing cabinet and spent a minute digging in the back of the bottom drawer.
“Here we go. I haven’t used one of these in a while.” He groaned as he straightened—arthritic knees, he said. He was holding a printed booklet that looked like some kind of standardized school test.
He wrote down Robert’s name at the top of the first page and chugged through the basic demographic questions. Gender: male; Age: 48; Race: white non-Hispanic; Religious preference: none; Educational level: post-graduate; Marital status: married; Occupation: corporate management; Income level: over $400K.
Shaw proceeded to the interview. Robert did his best to answer the questions.
Have you ever had a drinking problem?
Have you ever used street drugs extensively?
No. He smoked weed in high school and early college years, and he tried speed a couple of times, but nothing serious or lasting. Nothing in the last twenty years.
You mean like LSD or mushrooms?
Have you ever had treatment or counseling for an emotional problem or mental disorder?
No and No.
Have you ever been prescribed a psychiatric medication?
Are you currently taking any prescription medications?
No. (He should be taking the blood pressure meds, but he’d made the decision some time ago to rely on diet and exercise and hope for the best. He hadn’t seen a doctor in three years, until today.)
Is there any history in your family of origin—parents or siblings—of emotional or psychological problems?
Any diagnosed mental illnesses?
Any history of childhood trauma or childhood abuse in your family?
No. He insisted his childhood had nothing to do with his current dilemma. Everyone’s quick to investigate the parents, the upbringing, the toxic home front, the excessive and impossible expectations—but Robert had liked his parents. He loved them. They were good, hard-working people. They had strong morals they passed on to their children. They taught Robert to be independent and to take care of himself and to make well-reasoned decisions. His father had been a civil engineer. He worked on municipal projects: water treatment plants and sewer infrastructure. His mother had been a math teacher and a private tutor. His parents sent their children to quality schools and paid for their college educations. His brother was an economist living in London. His sister worked for a charitable foundation. They were both married with families of their own. Robert’s mother died of a ruptured aorta when Robert was nineteen and away at college. His father has been suffering for years from Alzheimer’s disease and now lived (existed marginally; mindless; didn’t recognize his children) in a facility outside of Worcester near Robert’s childhood home, and Robert and his siblings pooled resources and sent a check to the nursing home every month to pay for his care.
“Wait a minute—is that what’s happening to me? I have some form of dementia?”
Shaw let a moment of silence settle over them. Robert felt his insides begin to boil. That was it: he had early onset Alzheimer’s. He’d just received a long, drawn-out death sentence.
“Tell me,” Robert said.
Finally, Shaw spoke: “Mr. Besch, have you ever been prescribed psychiatric medication?”
“You asked me that a few minutes ago,” Robert said. “I already told you no.” He raged over the injustice of his slowly deteriorating mind. Soon, he would forget everything about his life. He will become a zombie like his father.
“This interview we’re conducting, this . . .” Shaw trailed off.
Robert waited, his impatience swelling. Shaw was stalling, reluctant to deliver the devastating news.
“This interview, the . . .” Shaw stopped again.
“The Structured Clinical Interview for Dissociative Disorder,” Robert snapped at him.
Shaw gave a modest but satisfied smile. “Mr. Besch, you’re not suffering early signs of dementia,” he said. “Your short-term memory seems unaffected. You have excellent recall.”
“What? Oh, you were testing me just now,” Robert said, sinking back in his chair. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have raised my voice.”
Shaw waved away Robert’s comment. “Not to worry.”
“So dementia’s not the problem?”
“With certainty I’d say not.”
“Then can we get back to the questions?” He wanted to get this over with.
“Yes, let’s do that. Now where were we?” Shaw ran his index finger down a page in the booklet. “Here we are.”
Do you have difficulty concentrating or making decisions?
Have you been under any unusual or extreme stress at work?
Just the usual extreme. Difficult decisions, tight deadlines, too much on his plate and never enough time. But nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing he wasn’t accustomed to on a daily basis. Even the layoffs: it was part of the package when you’re in his position. That reminded Robert he hadn’t been in touch with the office; no one knew where he was. How strange that work had completely slipped his mind, even now, when his lucidity had returned.
Have you ever experienced a loss of interest or pleasure in your usual activities?
Realistically, he didn’t have time for a lot of activities outside of work, husband, and father. Maybe it was a good thing they didn’t end up with four or five children—how would he have time for them all? He’d barely had time for Erin. As for interests . . . He liked cars and made it a point to get up to New Hampshire once a year to drive a Lamborghini or Ferrari on a test track. He owned a 1965 Shelby Mustang fastback that he wanted to restore but it sat in his garage because he didn’t have time to work on it, although he would someday—he hadn’t lost interest. He also enjoyed working with tools and wood; he’d built a picnic table and made several birdhouses for the backyard. He liked to go to restaurants with his wife. He liked to travel with her (when he had time). He liked to buy her jewelry.
Have you experienced a decrease in sexual drive?
No. Not really. Well . . . sort of. A slight decrease in sexual drive—slight—which Robert attributed to the natural aging process and diminishing testosterone levels (he recalled now his regrettable calculation about his projected frequency of sex: he managed to remember that detail, of course), but overall he was still very much attracted to his wife and very much enjoyed making love to her. Physical intimacy played an important role in his life and marriage. Which as far as Robert knew made him closer to the exception than the rule for a man married almost twenty years.
Shaw jotted down a note. Robert couldn’t see what he’d written.
Do you ever experience feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach, or excessive or inappropriate guilt?
“Not until now,” Robert said.
Shaw nodded for him to continue.
“Look, I woke up in bed with another woman and have no memory of what happened. No idea what I did. But I’m a married man. I love my wife. I have a daughter. Worthlessness, self-reproach . . . What was the other one—guilt? You could say I have all of those.”
“How about before the recent events in Niagara Falls?”
No, those weren’t the type of words he would have used in relation to himself.
Shaw asked him to describe his marriage. Robert had a solid answer. He and Sasha were different people, but theirs was a strong marriage. They complemented each other, filled in missing parts. On those occasions when Sasha doubted herself and got down, Robert tried to pick her up and encourage her. He’d been the catalyst in helping Sasha re-launch her acting career. For Sasha’s part, she kept Robert from isolation and loneliness. He worked and supported the family; she gave him a reason to come home every night. She kept herself in shape, and he tried to do the same. They parented well together. They rarely argued. They read each other stories from the newspaper. It wasn’t perfect. They had their disagreements, there were frustrations, and recently there had been . . . well, no. Overall . . .
“What about recently?” Shaw asked. “You were going to say something?”
“It’s nothing. I couldn’t imagine my life without Sasha,” Robert said. “I loved her from the moment I first saw her and nothing has changed since.”
“How did you meet your wife, Mr. Besch?”
“Look, it was years ago. How is this relevant to what just happened to me?”
“If you don’t mind. You’d be surprised how helpful any information can be.”
They’d met in Santa Cruz. Robert was working at the time for a small venture firm, Wu Capital, which was considering an investment in an independent feature film produced and directed by the son of a friend of Michael Wu’s. More as a favor to the friend than as a viable investment, Wu planned to write a check to enable the director to finish the project. He sent Robert to where the production team was filming, to make sure they were at least making a real movie and not just trying to scam a few bucks.
Robert showed up on location at the harbor where the crew was setting up and there was Sasha, the film’s female lead, preparing for a scene. He always believed he’d recognize the right woman for him the moment he met her, and when he saw Sasha the switch flipped on. He couldn’t stop looking at her. His heart beat high in his chest. Making love to her, winning her heart—this mission became his consuming focus. Yet he knew nothing of her. How can he explain such immediate fixation? He can’t. He’s twenty-seven years old, living and working a coast away from where he grew up and he’s doing okay, he’s on a path now, he’s got a couple of work friends and he’s had a few girlfriends, yet he’s restless and unsettled, there’s a void because he hasn’t yet discovered the meaning or purpose of his life, he’s never been deeply in love, and not that many months ago this woman, about his age, she died in the Loma Prieta earthquake when the brick walls of the Santa Cruz Bookstore toppled on her, and although he hadn’t known her well or dated her for long, it could have been Robert dying there, and the event changed him; a sense of urgency and need drove him, yet at the same time his life remained a slow trudge through a thick swamp—and then he meets this beautiful, intelligent woman and his world spins faster and gives him the momentum to cross the void and he begins to believe anything is possible. But it was complicated. She was complicated. She had this boyfriend, the producer and director of the movie. Simon Staser. He went on to have a career in Hollywood. He’s directed some films since then. You probably haven’t heard of him.
“Didn’t he direct Long & Tall?” Shaw asked. “I saw that a few years ago.”
That’s his most known film, but back then, Staser was a roadblock on Robert’s path to Sasha. Simon and Sasha shared this dream of being a star director/actress couple. They were planning a move to LA, even though she’d been seeing Robert on the side.
Then one day Robert and Sasha visited the monarch butterfly sanctuary at Natural Bridges State Park, surrounded by what must have been a million butterflies flitting about and resting among the eucalyptus trees during their annual migration up from Mexico. They were walking along the path, and suddenly Sasha broke out in tears saying she didn’t know what to do, she shouldn’t be seeing Robert, but he made her feel good about herself, and safe, and loved; she had so many doubts about Simon, who didn’t always treat her well—they fought all the time—and she was afraid their movie was going to be awful.
Robert could smell the angst and indecision emanating from her, as fragrant as the minty smell of eucalyptus, and he breathed in and felt a surge of conviction. He would win her over. A monarch landed on Robert’s shoulder, and Sasha, calmer now, whispered for him to stand very still. She got on her tiptoes and her face within inches of the butterfly, and when it flew away he kissed her and she spoke into his ear asking him what she should do. They went back to his place and made love. She said she was his. Afterward, she slept in his arms.
“That’s an interesting story,” Shaw said.
Shit, had he just said all that out loud? He’s never talked about that time in his life with anybody.
Robert was liking this interview and discovery process less and less. It loosened his tongue in ways that bothered him. He was tired of being asked probing questions about his past. Didn’t see the point in them. He wanted answers.
But Shaw wasn’t ready to provide answers. He shifted back to the present. “We’ve gotten a little sidetracked from the interview,” he said. “But all valuable insight, all good stuff.”
“How so?” Robert challenged him.
Shaw glanced back down to his place in the interview booklet. “Would you like to take a break?”
“No, I want to get this over with.”
“How about something to drink?”
“Do you have bourbon?”
Shaw retrieved two bottles of spring water from a drawer in his desk. “I’m afraid they’re not cold.”
Robert opened his and took a long swallow. “I’m ready,” he said.
“You’re certainly eager,” Shaw said. “I grant you that.”
“I have to know what happened to me.”
Have you ever walked in your sleep?
“I don’t think so.”
Have you ever had a trance-like episode where you lose awareness of what is going on around you and lose track of time or place?
“Do the last few days count?”
“Other than this one period of time.”
“No.” Wait a minute. There was something. He and Sasha had once rented a cottage on a lake and Robert had driven into town for groceries while Sasha stayed back with Erin, and afterward he’d stopped along a pullout to look at the lake and at one point he realized he didn’t know where he was. He wouldn’t say he was lost—but he was disoriented. He thought the episode lasted only a for a moment, and then he righted himself and drove again, but when he got back to the cottage, Sasha said she’d been worried he’d been gone so long.
“Is that what you mean?”
“It’s worth noting,” Shaw said, but wrote nothing down, and continued with his questioning.
Have you ever assumed a new identity?
Of course not.
Have you ever felt like there are two or more very different personalities within yourself, each of which is dominant at a particular time?
Like good Robert and bad Robert?
However you want to think of it.
“Actually, I think I’m a pretty simple person,” Robert said.
Have you ever had visions or seen things that other people couldn’t see or that you know aren’t real?
No—I mean yes. “At one point when I was sure the plane was going to crash, I had this feeling like I had risen up from my body and was looking down on myself from above. I could see the plane and the ground and even inside the plane all at the same time, but I was up above all of it, floating in the sky.”
“As if you were outside of your body?”
“Like astral projection.”
“You know the term?”
“I got into it for a while in high school. I was smoking a little weed then. I read Carlos Castaneda. I believed in the astral self and I practiced techniques for separating from my body, but it never worked. I put all that behind me thirty years ago.”
“What made you change?”
Robert started to shake his head but that kicked off pain above his ear. “That astral stuff sounds psychotic now,” he said. He stared at Shaw. “You must think I’m a schizophrenic, right?” His eyes went to the plaque on Shaw’s wall.
“Schizophrenia is a long-term, severe mental disorder. You don’t strike me that way at all.”
“Then some circuits blew my mind and must have wiped out key parts of my memory.”
“Mr. Besch, you were in an extremely stressful life-and-death situation, totally unprepared, and helpless to do anything about it. That’s a lot for anyone to handle.”
“I guess I didn’t handle it very well.”