Elliptical story telling

There was a point, yesterday afternoon, after watching episode five of A Spy Among Friends and while watching episode three of Station Eleven, when I started babbling at Jeff about ‘elliptical story telling’. As an example, there is a flashback inside a flashback in one episode.

almost a thousand words follow:

Now, the animated half hour series Archer, which I recommend if you want to watch the incredibly slow emotional growth of a hypersexual drunken mother-obsessed manbaby with the kind of reflexes god gives out sparingly, while he shoots out one-liners and messes for his coworkers to clean up and occasionally die from. I mean, the show is funny but if you’re a feminist (ha ha) there are parts that are very uncomfortable to watch. During one episode two characters are trying to write a spy movie script (they are spies, lol) and when one of them says “That’s a flashback inside a flashback” and the other one says “But that’s just bad writing.” (So now we’re caught up to the last sentence in the previous paragraph.)

So when the flashback inside a flashback appeared on our screen I was thinking, well, this is actually handled reasonably well and for the most part I’m staying oriented in the story. Jiggling the timeline like a busted toilet handle is not usually the way to earn my love, story-wise, but other times it’s a way to illustrate WHY a moment on screen is so important. Also, when you’re showing the same scene in the background and letting a few more ‘facts’ – within the story ‘facts’ – drip out at a time, certain viewers will engage with the iterations of the scenes trying to understand what’s different or new about each iteration. For example in “Station Eleven” we see a scene in the first episode, but it’s incomplete. When we see it again, an additional copy of the graphic novel, the woman’s life work, appears, so now we understand how it’s possible that more than one person in the post apocalyptic world (swine flu, in the novel the series is based on) has a copy of the book and can quote it to the only other person who’s ever seen it.

The Canadian author of “Station Eleven” has confirmed that in her opinion this is not science fiction, because there’s no tech. Post apocalyptic fiction which is not explicitly religious in nature is generally considered speculative fiction, which gets shelved with SF as a convenience for people who are allergic to both.

It will come as no surprise that the show runner for “Station Eleven”, Patrick Somerville, cut some story teeth on “The Leftovers” which is also spec fic but filed as a ‘supernatural drama’ on Wikipedia (sort of like “Lost” which also had the same producer Damian Lindelof).  The premise is, “What if 2% of the world’s population disappeared off the face of the earth in a single event which has neither explanation nor plausible theory.” So there’s a fondness for the WHAT IF story. And these stories give themselves to meandering explorations of various character backstories, which is supposed to flavour and enrich our eventual revelations. If it doesn’t confuse the living shit out of us first and make us hang it up.

In the spy series “A Spy among Friends” there are so many flashbacks that it can be a struggle to keep them oriented in your mind – this is Beirut in 1963, this is the US in 63, this is the present day in London, this is the present day in Moscow, this is during the Second World War somewhere in Europe. However, the show is paced so glacially (there are action sequences, but it’s almost always two people talking in a room that you can’t be sure isn’t bugged) that after a while it starts to make a little more sense. It’s holding our interest, but almost everyone in the story is such a dick that if it wasn’t about Kim Philby and thus of ongoing interest in terms of his cultural role, it would be much harder to watch. We’ll be watching the no doubt thrillingly tortoise-paced finale today. Let’s just say it’s a challenging show if you like your explosions every five minutes.

I don’t like flashbacks in fiction, and tend not to write them. However – I understand that’s laziness. If I was clever I’d be writing little five hundred word inserts of how Omar spends years putting a team in place to take his stepfather’s businesses down and squeezing them in between present action sequences but I’d rather write about how two very damaged, sex-repulsed individuals open up to each other and fall in love and arrange their lives to suit each other because it’s more fun than storyboarding an obsessed man’s vengeance arc.  So my stuff isn’t elliptical. It’s set in the present, and ever moving forward. Personally I think that’s part of the charm, plus I don’t know who’s going to show up next. Really I’m all about the romance, the feelings you have before you’re an established dyad and you’re still uncertain of your own feelings and those of your partner. The conversion of interest, and insecurity, and feelings of unworthiness or incapacity, into attachment, and comfort, and contentment AND BICKERING lololol (limerance into love) is where my interest rests. I’ve had people tell me I write the best bickering dialogue in all of English fiction and that pleases me because I put a lot of effort into it.


22368 words. Wordle in 5, which was annoying, and 2 top fives and a best ever score on Lumosity. (although I completely ate my shoe on ‘feel the beat’ and I acknowledge I could NEVER BE A DRUMMER).

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Born when atmospheric carbon was 316 PPM. Settled on MST country since 1997. Parent, grandparent.

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