We’ve been talking about time in story so much, I thought “Terra Incognita” would be a good episode to look at to discuss time and reality disruptions, specifically the differences among flashback, memory, dream, and hallucination, and how they can break or–in this case–make a story.
For linear, cause and effect storytelling, I start with the assumption that readers/viewers want the story they signed up for, the stuff that’s happening in the now. (Patterned storytelling is an entirely different matter.) That means that everything in a linear plot that’s not happening in the now of the story as part of the ongoing plot is an interruption. Any interruption weakens the flow of a linear story, and much more than that, weakens the reader/viewer’s connection to the story. Think of it as going out for a steak dinner, and being interrupted every ten minutes with the offer of sushi. It’s not that sushi is bad, you might really like sushi, it’s that you wanted a steak dinner, and there’s a steak dinner right there in front of you, and people keep shoving raw fish in your face.
My personal approach to this is No Raw Fish, but that’s not the same thing as No Back Story or No Time Disruptions. It’s not that I bar all use of flashback, memory, dream, and hallucination, it’s that there better be a really good reason it’s there, and that reason does not include “It was the only way to get that information to the reader.” No, it wasn’t. It was the easiest way and it screwed up the story. Stop doing that.
A prime example of this is the flashback. A flashback stops the story in the now and drags the reader back to tell her what really happened in the past, which is an incredibly dumb thing to do in linear storytelling because . . .
1. The stuff that actually happened in the past is irrelevant. Ask three people you had a conversation with an hour ago what happened during that conversation and you’ll get three different stories because there were three different people participating with three different worldviews and experiences to draw from to interpret it. Reality for them at that point isn’t what really happened, it’s what they remember happened. The same thing applies to the characters in a story: their memories are what’s going to inform their attitudes and drive their actions. What actually happened is lost in the past and irrelevant; what matters is what they think happened and how that makes them act now.
2. You have carefully built the tension in your plot, and the reader is really invested in OH MY GOD WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NOW???? and you say, “Hold that thought, I want to show you what really happened twenty years ago,” and you show her, and then you say, “Remember how excited and worried and enthralled you were back before the flashback? Yeah, feel that way again.” And the reader says, “Screw you,” and goes off to eat a pint of ice cream because you’ve frustrated and annoyed her.
Flashbacks kill story.
So when can you mess with time and reality? When it’s part of the story in the now:
Dreams: You know, just don’t. The character may be having the dream in the now of the story, but the use of dreams is so hackneyed and often so contrived in storytelling that it’s best to never go there. There’s a reason “It was all a dream” makes readers and viewers scream.
Memories: If your character experiences a memory, that memory was evoked by something in the now of the story, so they’re part of the now. As long as the memories do not become separate scenes (at which point, they’re flashbacks), as long as they stay connected to the action/event of the main story that evoked them and are brief, they’re not disruptions of the story. Instead, they’re disruptions of the PoV characters’ experience of reality within the story. That is, they’re the place in the story where the PoV character stares into space. Memories should be brief because if they go on too long, the other characters in the scene will start asking the PoV character if she’s smelling toast.
Hallucinations: Think of hallucinations as memories of things that never happened, but your character’s mind plays them anyway. The good thing about hallucinations is that they’ve probably been caused by something that happened in the main story: the character took drugs or was mentally incapacitated in some other way. The bad thing is that hallucinations invite you into the Dream School of Bad Writing, so unless they’re done carefully, they’re as annoying as dreams.
PoI did theirs carefully.
Reese’s backstory is a lot of PTSD from first his military and CID days and the loss of his first love, Jessica, and then his anguish over the loss of Carter, who died in his arms. None of that stops him from fighting the good fight, and he’s still loyal to the Machine Gang, but he never lets anyone get close, either, which is breaking him down, leading him to a crisis in this story. This episode is one of the rare stories that’s all about internal conflict, not as subtext but as text, told in Reese’s wished-for memories and hallucinations as he freezes to death. The wished-for memories and the hallucinations don’t interrupt the story because they are the story; the subplot here is the number who lost everything and is alone because of a murderer who was driven mad by rejection and loss and loneliness, all echoes of Reese’s terrible detachment and loss. Reese’s antagonist isn’t the guy who shoots him, it’s his longing for connection, made flesh by his hallucination of Carter in the car with him, so he can finally say everything he needs to say to her, hear the things he needs her to say, heartbreaking as he struggles to deny that he needs them. It’s one of the most beautiful stories in this series, and it’s also an outstanding example of the way to distort time and reality in the now of the story to devastating effect.
But it’s also important to remember that this story is always grounded in the now. This is not Reese sittin’ and thinkin’, this is Reese trying to put a cold case to rest because it was Carter’s and he wants to feel close to her again. That’s a real bullet in him, and he really is bleeding and freezing, in pain because he wanted to be close. And finally, that’s really Fusco behind those headlights, coming to save him because he is not alone.
• Anything with Root and Finch, who seem to be in here just to remind people they’re still in here, although it’s always fun to see them work together.
Smart Story Moves
• Beginning in the memory, and making it clear that it’s a daydream because Fusco says, “Wake up.”
• The use of black and white to show Reese’s memories and hallucinations, a fairly subtle effect in a show with a palette of mostly neutrals to begin with.
• Making the number one of Joss’s cases, tying the emotional plot to the action plot.
• Showing Reese imagining what Joss did through her case notes as he retraces her steps, trying to get close to her again.
• The Machine flashing the “Out of Range” screen, working on two levels.
• Reese ‘remembering” the things he wished he’d said.
• Everything Carter tells him in his wished-for memory.
• That incredible ending: “You never did.”
• Carter. Everything with Carter.
• Root showing up in a wedding dress: “Congratulations?”
• Fusco’s headlights.
And now a Table of Contents:
Links to all the PoI posts.