I was reading Lost Mission by Athol Dickenson and noticed a curious thing in the narrative structure. One of the storylines focuses on Lupe, a small town shopkeeper in Mexico who feels called by God to preach in America. She shares her thoughts with her priest, who upon hearing her, takes her to see the retablo, a miraculous alterpiece said to date back to the early conquistadors.
Lupe made no move.
The priest's voice came from the shadows. "Come with me, daughter. Have no fear."
"Lupe, do you have faith in our Lord?"
"Yes, Padre, I do."
And thus commanded, Lupe bowed her head and entered.
The scene ends here. The next time we see Lupe, she is already on her way to America. It's only after she loses her way that we finally flash back to the scene where the priest takes her to the alterpiece. When Lupe first sees it, it looks like a normal painting of the crucifixion. But ...
"You must look more carefully. Draw closer, daughter."
Then Lupe saw the mourners and the Virgin... and she thought it could not be, and yet...
Lupe collapsed.. . .
Kneeling she stared at the altarpiece and trembled.
"Do not fear it, Lupe," said Padre Hinojosa, bending down beside her with a grunt, for he was not young. "It was ordained in love more than two centuries ago.
"But it is blasphemy!"
"Blasphemy? No, daughter. Not that."
After more arguing, the priest convinces Lupe that the altarpiece is indeed from God, and he gives it to her to take to America.
It's very rare for a writer to skip forward in a narrative and continue the the story later in flashback. I'm guessing Dickson had several reasons for doing this.
For one thing, marking a passage this way sets it apart as a crucial point in the story. I remember when a critique buddy submitted a scene with the same structure: buildup to climax -> jump cut -> reveal climax as flashback. In that case, the content of the flashback was a side plot, and not important to the core of the story. Narrating it this way felt too dramatic for the material, and all the group members independently suggested that the writer to narrate it more straightforwardly.
So Dickson uses the flashback to mark the scene as important -- which it certainly is. The altarpiece serves as a touchstone for the entire novel. But I think there's something else going on here too. In the flashback, we learn that the altarpiece is miraculous, but we don't know why. Lupe clearly reacts to something, but we never see what it is. We don't find that out until the big reveal towards the end.
Now if Dickson had narrated the whole thing straight without telling what Lupe saw, it would have seemed dishonest. There's something about a flashback that allows the writer more freedom to pick and choose information. We know that the narrator is hiding something, but it's less strange for him to do so in a flashback.
What do you guys think? Is there something about flashbacks (and perhaps other modes of narrativing -- prologues? epilogues?), that changes reader expectations?
Also, I received Lost Mission as a free review copy from the publisher and I will now pass it on to someone else who'd like to read it. If you'd like me to send you the book, retweet this post and paste the link to the tweet in the comments. I'll draw a name on Wednesday morning, June 30th.