Friday, 19 October 2007


There seems to be a lot of confusion about the ordering of time within a narrative.
What is the purpose of a flashback?
Why might I open in 1964 and then move to 1946, or why might I do the reverse?
Ricardo's fascinating examination Of Sarah Waters' The Night Watch is well worth a read.

Let's evaluate this dilemma using the following criteria:

What does the reader know?
What do the characters know?
What should the reader feel (position on emotional topography)?

And here's a really simple example:

John and Jane are getting it on.
John says he loves Jane.
Jane says she loves John.
The reader is invited to share their intimacy and feel good about life.
Afterwards, John leaves and chuckles to himself: he has some horrendous STD.

Now let's reorder this information and see its effect:

John has a horrendous STD.
He and Jane are getting it on.
The reader is invited to feel horrified! John is a bad man! Poor Jane.
John says he loves Jane. (See how this action is utterly transformed.)
Jane says she loves John.

The permutations are endless.
What would happen if John didn't say he loved Jane?
What if the reader knows that Jane too has a STD first? Or last? Or what if Jane knows that John has a STD?
And so on.

Quentin Tarantino, as far as I can tell, orders knowledge and arranges the emotional topography to achieve a very specific response from the audience.
Take the introduction to Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield:

1) They are driving in a '74 Chevy.
2) They are dressed in cheap black suits.
3) They discuss hash bars in Amsterdam.
4) They discuss the 'little differences' between Europe and America (the famous Royale with cheese!).
5) They stop, open the trunk, and take out two .45 automatics.

The audience is invited to join in with this familiarity: a world of beer and burgers and little differences and cheap suits. The audience feels comfortable with these two men.

The audience is jolted from their familiarity and led into anticipation with the introduction of the weapons, and the men's familiarity, indeed nonchalence, around them.
How would the audience have felt had the guns been introduced first?

Well, we have actually seen these two men in the diner in the opening (and preceding) scene.
But Quentin doesn't want to introduce us to them there: they are dressed in horrible shirts and have guns and a briefcase containing some valuable cargo.
Quentin wants us to empathize with these men first.
And then he wants us to be terrified of them - of what they can and might do.

It's not such a conundrum: knowledge and emotional response dictate the ordering of scenes.
If the desired response requires a little time-bending, then the reader will be cool with that convention.

Pulp Fiction script here.

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