Structure and function

No, this is not a anatomy post.

One of the blessings (curses?) of being a writer is that you can never really shut it off. Once you train your brain to think like a writer—or, maybe more accurately, recognize you’ve always had a writer-brain and refine its skills—your inclination is to pick apart stories and try to make them better.

So the other night I watched the premier episode of The Americans, a series set in 1981 about two KGB spies living undercover as Americans. They’re “married”, have two children, and lead double lives. The pilot episode did for me what pilot episodes are meant to do: it got me interested in the conceit and the characters, introduced plenty of intrigue and suspense (a CIA agent moves into the house next door!) and made me look forward to the next episode. On reflection, though, I think they could have used different techniques to build more tension.

Spoiler alert!

Specifically, I’m thinking about their use of flashbacks. The episode is set mostly in 1981—however, there’s a few short segments set in the early ‘60s that outline the two main character’s training, how they met, and the very beginning of their “married” life. In the present day the duo kidnaps a former spy that has defected to the US and works for the CIA. They’re supposed to put the defector on boat for transport back to Russia but miss their connection after a run of bad luck. They keep the kidnapped man in the trunk of their car until the heat can die down a little bit. Near the middle of the episode, the wife checks on the man, and as she stares at him, the viewer is transported back to a training session in 1961. The wife—at that time a recruit—spars with the defector—at that time her superior—and she loses. While her superior has her pinned, he pulls down her sweatpants and rapes her.  Then we come back to present day. The wife stares at the defector for a few long moments before shutting the trunk. The tension is raised for the rest of the episode because the viewer is wondering when the wife will exact her revenge.

But what if the story had been told in chronological order? Would the tension have been heightened? If we’d learned before the first commercial break about the rape, we’d be wondering how that would come back to haunt the wife. And then once the kidnapping happens, we’d instantly recognize the defector as the wife’s rapist. The viewer would be “in the know” before the character, and so we’d be anticipating how it’s going to play out. And then once the wife recognizes the defector … we would be fully invested in how their interaction goes down.

I said all of that to say this: flashbacks are your friend when revealing back story, but if you’re using them to build tension, think twice. Chronological order might be a better method.

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