There are seven steps to Butler’s technique:
- The narrator awakes from an anxious dream.
- The narrator notices an object. The object is experienced sensually.
- “The object evokes a memory as vivid as a dream…” The narrator enters that memory.
- This memory leads to a second memory.
- In the second memory, the narrator does something, takes an action.
- Some part of that action brings the narrator back to the present.
- Now in the present, aware of the memories, the narrator takes an action.
At any rate, I often use Tom Jones’s “The Pugilist at Rest” as an example of the Butlerian flashback paradigm:
The other day – Memorial Day, as it happened – I was cleaning some stuff out of the attic when I came upon my old dress-blue uniform. It’s a beautiful uniform, easily the most handsome worn by any of the U.S. armed forces. The rich color recalled Jorgeson’s eyes for me – not that the color matched, but in the sense that the color of each was so startling. The tunic does not have lapels, of course, but a high collar with red piping and the traditional golden eagle, globe, and anchor insignia on either side of the neck clasp. The tunic buttons are not brassy – although they are in fact made of brass – but are a delicate gold in color, like Florentine gold. On the sleeves of the tunic my staff sergeant’s chevrons are gold on red. High on the left breast is a rainbow display of fruit salad representing my various combat citations. Just below there are my marksmanship badges; I shot Expert in rifle as well as pistol.
I opened a sandalwood box and took my various medals out of the large plastic bag I had packed them in to prevent them from tarnishing. The Navy Cross and the two Silver Stars are the best; they are such pretty things they dazzle you. I found a couple of Thai sticks in the sandalwood box as well. I took a whiff of the box and smelled the smells of Saigon – the whores, the dope, the saffron, cloves, jasmine, and patchouli oil. I put the Thai sticks back, recalling the three-day hangover that particular batch of dope had given me more than twenty-three years before. Again I looked at my dress-blue tunic. My most distinctive badge, the crowning glory, and the one of which I am most proud, is the set of Airborne wings. I remember how it was, walking around Oceanside, California – the Airborne wings and the high-and-tight haircut were recognized by all the Marines; they meant you were the crème de la crème, you were a recon Marine.
Recon was all Jorgeson’s idea….
And forward momentum is important. A story has to keep moving forward, even though any particular flashback scene loops the reader back into the past.
I have been thinking about this the past week while reading student stories. Most of them attempt flashbacks, and some of them write them very well. But many seem to end up focusing on the past—on the flashback, on the backstory—at the expense of the present story.
I tell these young writers—If the backstory is so important, write that. Forget the present. Make the flashback the story. But if you want your story to stay in the present, concentrate on moving forward.
And then I had a flashback myself last Tuesday while driving to town for Thanksgiving supplies. Driving along, thinking about stuff. About writing. About student writing. Crossed a pretty little river, thought about fly fishing. About my high school friend and fishing buddy, K. About how K was an athlete, a track guy, a long jumper, one of the best in the state. About how writing’s sort of like jumping, maybe. Maybe? Maybe not. Thought again about those students with their flashbacks. Then I had a strange unexpected shot of memory—the somersault long jump.
The somersault long jump was a technique that surfaced in the early/mid-1970s. The jumper would jump and simultaneously spin forward, spinning, and the spinning motion would give the jumper better distance. K told me he got an extra four to six inches using it—that’s a lot. But then sports officials banned the technique for safety reasons—jumpers would go spinning spinning out of control and bust their heads open.
Here’s what the somersault long jump looked like:
You can do this. Just don't go spinning out of control and bust open your story's head.