Stories are part of our everyday life, but a story may be nothing more than a chronological record of events, i.e. This morning, I got out of bed, walked the dog, watered my plants, and ate breakfast. A plot is something more than a story. It is a more skillful organization of events, and it focuses on how one event impacts and causes another. E. M. Forster distinguishes between a plot and a story as follows:
“The king died and then the queen died is a story.
The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” – E. M. Forster
A well-crafted plot may not follow a logical progression of time. For elements of drama and suspense, an author may skip about a timeline.
On another post, I provide quotes from the book Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf Here
In the free MOOC How to Read a Novel, the instructor uses the novel Mrs. Dalloway to illustrate the use of flashbacks in novels:
“When it comes to novels, flashbacks usually allow us to gain some information about a character’s past that will provide an insight into their motive, to reveal why he or she might be acting in a certain way at the current time. To take a famous example, Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, which takes place over a single day in London in June 1923, opens onto a flashback, as the title character’s memory is jolted by the thought of some squeaking doors – there is work going on in the house – which reminds her of a similar sound from her youth.
:This leads to a cascade of memories from over 30 years ago, when she was aged 18 years old on her father’s estate, and had the feeling that something awful might be about to happen. The middle-aged, present time Clarissa Dalloway has some errands to run on this particular morning. She is hosting an important party that evening. But memories from her past continue to interrupt her thoughts as she goes about her business. These flashbacks have a specific purpose because, although the action of the novel takes place over one day in June, they enable the reader to learn more about Clarissa’s girlhood and youth.
“What events have led her up to this point, made her into the type of woman she now is – a member of high society, married to a politician, thoroughly respectable? Because she wasn’t always like this. In another flashback, just a few pages later, she recalls a quarrel years back with her former lover, Peter Walsh, when he had made her cry at the future he predicted for her. “For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; she never wrote a letter and his were dry sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say?
“- some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people; they came back in the middle of St. James’s Park on a fine morning – indeed they did. But Peter – however beautiful the day might be, and the trees and the grass, and the little girl in pink – Peter never saw a thing of all that. He would put on his spectacles, if she told him to; he would look. It was the state of the world that interested him; Wagner, Pope’s poetry, people’s characters eternally, and the defects of her own soul. How he scolded her! How they argued!
. . .
“But in the context of a novel, we as readers are learning something out of sequence, being given too much information for that stage of the plot.”
You can register for the free course How to Read A Novel Here
In the same course, the instructor points out that the Charles Dickens book A Christmas Carol is based on flashbacks, as well as flashforwards:
When Scrooge saw Marley’s face in the doorknob, a flashback begins.
“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” [The Christmas Carol, p. 5]
“It was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. He was obliged to sit close to it, and brood over it, before he could extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel. The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures. There were Cains and Abels, Pharaoh’s daughters; Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts; and yet that face of Marley, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet’s rod, and swallowed up the whole.” [A Christmas Carol, p. 11].
“The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.
“The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.
“ ‘It’s humbug still!’ said Scrooge. ‘I won’t believe it.’
“His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him; Marley’s Ghost!’ and fell again.” [p. 11].
Description of Marley’s Ghost
“The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see [p.12] the two buttons on his coat behind.
“Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.
“No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.” [p.13]
. . .
“…they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The city had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground.
‘Good Heaven!’ said Scrooge, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. ‘I was bred in this place. I was a boy here!’
The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man’s sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!
‘Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?’
. . .
“They walked along the road, Scrooge recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river. Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with boys upon their backs, who called to other boys in country gigs and carts, driven by farmers. All these boys were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it!”
. . .
“The school is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.” Scrooge said he knew it. And he sobbed. They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and soon approached a mansion of dull red brick, with a little weathercock-surmounted cupola, on the roof, and a [p. 20] a bell hanging in it. It was a large house, but one of broken fortunes; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables; and the coach-houses and sheds were over-run with grass. Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open doors of many rooms, they found them poorly furnished, cold, and vast. There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat.
They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.” [p. 21]
Flash-forward in A Christmas Carol
Stave Four – The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
“The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.
“It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.
“He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.
`I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.’ said Scrooge.
[Scrooge has died and then arrives at a beetling shop. In Victorian England, a beetling shop is where they pounded fibers together to create a linen-like fabric. In the book A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s linens were being processed, trying to turn them into a small profit.]
“Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones. Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a charcoal stove, made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal, nearly seventy years of age; who had screened himself from the cold air without, by a frousy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked his pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement.”
[Since Scrooge had no one to see after him, upon his death, several people had gathered Scrooge’s belongings to sell to Joe, at the beetling shop.]
“Joe went down on his knees for the greater convenience of opening it, and having unfastened a great many knots, dragged out a large and heavy roll of some dark stuff.
`What do you call this.’ said Joe. `Bed-curtains.’
`Ah.’ returned the woman, laughing and leaning forward on her crossed arms. `Bed-curtains.’
`You don’t mean to say you took them down, rings and all, with him lying there.’ said Joe.
`Yes I do,’ replied the woman. `Why not.’
. . .
`His blankets.’ asked Joe.
`Whose else’s do you think.’ replied the woman. `He isn’t likely to take cold without them, I dare say.’
`I hope he didn’t die of any thing catching. Eh.’ said old Joe, stopping in his work, and looking up.
`Don’t you be afraid of that,’ returned the woman. `I an’t so fond of his company that I’d loiter about him for such things, if he did. Ah. you may look through that shirt till your eyes ache; but you won’t find a hole in it, nor a threadbare place. It’s the best he had, and a fine one too. They’d have wasted it, if it hadn’t been for me.’
`What do you call wasting of it.’ asked old Joe.
`Putting it on him to be buried in, to be sure,’ replied the woman with a laugh. `Somebody was fool enough to do it, but I took it off again. If calico an’t good enough for such a purpose, it isn’t good enough for anything. It’s quite as becoming to the body. He can’t look uglier than he did in that one.’