I started this series back in May, but it fell off after critiquing Mislaid. I still had a few writers I wanted to examine, and since Franzen was one of them and I just finished Purity, now is as good a time as any to pick it back up. Here’s the first in the series if you want a refresher.
Franzen is a really interesting case, because his prose style is a hybrid. In my experience, someone that follows all the “rules” will end up with clear but dry writing. Franzen isn’t as stylized as Chabon, but he also isn’t afraid to throw out rules to make more interesting and humorous writing.
It’s always hard to pick a passage for these things. I don’t like picking opening paragraphs, because the rules are slightly different for them. But if I pick something late, I have to give a lot more background. In this early passage Pip recalls something about her mother.
She’d been eight or nine when it occurred to her to ask why her birthday was the only on celebrated in their little cabin, in the redwoods outside Felton. Her mother had replied that she didn’t have a birthday; the only one that mattered to her was Pip’s. But Pip had pestered her until she agreed to celebrate the summer solstice with a cake that they would would call not-birthday. This had then raised the question of her mother’s age, which she’d refused to divulge, saying only, with a smile suitable to the posing of a koan, “I’m old enough to be your mother.”
There are many more interesting paragraphs in the novel to discuss, but I picked this one because it navigates a topic we haven’t discussed yet. As a general rule, you should stick to simple past tense. The above is in past perfect. As you can see, the paragraph is full of “had,” a word that is almost always extraneous. Not only does this tense get repetitive to read, but it can introduce confusion by lengthening a sentence so that subject and verb sit too far apart to naturally remember what they were.
That being said, it is necessary to use this tense sometimes (as in the above). The rest of the novel is in simple past tense, so the only way to make it clear when something in a character’s past is happening is to change tense. This way it is clear where the past event starts and stops. As a reader, this might seem obvious, but this type of thing is rarely discussed in writing books. As someone who’s looked at a lot of beginning writing over the past year, I can assure you, this isn’t as obvious as it sounds.
Right from the start we see smart handling of the past perfect. One of the easiest ways to hide the “had” repetition is to contract where possible. People who learned to write from academic essays (whether high school or college) are afraid to do this, because it has been drilled into them to never use a contraction. “She’d” is fine in fiction (and in academic settings, but let’s not get into that debate).
The next interesting thing is that this is a flashback. Most advice is to never use a flashback. It interrupts the flow of the story, pulls the reader out, and ruins any built suspense. Any information from a flashback can be delivered more naturally through character action, speech, etc. I agree wholeheartedly with this advice for short stories. There isn’t enough time to lose a reader like that and then get them back. A novel is different. Flashbacks can be a good tool when done well.
In an attempt to not waste time, many people forget their flashbacks need a setting. It doesn’t have to be much, but the characters need to be grounded somewhere. In this case the grounding gets tucked neatly in what looks like a throwaway fragment at the end: “in their little cabin, in the redwoods outside Felton.” I like this, because it doesn’t tangent on some long, unnecessary description for a short flashback. But it does place the characters in a very specific place that can be easily imagined.
Notice also the colloquial tone the flashback has; it feels as if someone is telling you this story. “Her mother had replied that she didn’t have a birthday; the only one that mattered to her was Pip’s.” Note how the tone changes if this were to be written in a more typical fashion. “I don’t have a birthday,” she replied. “The only one that matters to me is yours.” This formal dialogue would break up the flashback and ruin the flow of the memory. We are meant to see this as a brief interlude and not a substantial story to become invested in.
It ends with an interesting bit of description: “with a smile suitable to the posing of a koan.” If you haven’t read the book, you wouldn’t know this, but the mother is really into meditation and Eastern philosophy. This makes this description work on more than one level. It is pure description, but it also uses comparisons in line with the character’s personality.
Often writers go crazy with analogies and similes: her lips were as red as a Gala apple. Unless this person is an apple picker or something, that description is probably lazy. It was the first thing that popped into your head. Think of how enriching it would be to find similes that both work as description and fit with the personality of the character. You have to be careful with this, though, or it will become irritating to keep reading bizarre descriptions.
The last question to answer is whether this flashback is necessary. I think it is. In one short paragraph we get context for the upcoming actions of Pip. If it ended there, maybe this wouldn’t be worth it. We also get a better understanding of Pip’s relationship to her mother. But more than that, we also get a ton of characterization of the mother. We learn she is really secretive but also witty and funny. Some people have trouble conveying that much information in a whole short story, yet Franzen easily gets this across in one paragraph.