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FlashForward: War Memoirs and the Jump Cut Introduction

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

When Michael C and I began writing screenplays, one of our projects didn’t work. The opening bored the hell out of us. In screenwriting, the first ten pages are the most important ten pages. If they bore a reader, your screenplay will never get read, and, thus, never get made. So we cheated. We included a flash-forward (The literary technique, also called a “prolepsis”, not the cancelled TV show. Damn you, ABC.), showing events from the middle of the screenplay, hopefully enticing a reader to want to know what happened next.

It didn’t work.

Why? Because we cheated. We artificially manipulated the structure and plot to try to make a boring screenplay exciting. We didn’t advance the plot or characters, just superficially covered up larger structural issues. If you’re familiar with On Violence, you may see where this is going...

War memoirs lean on this crutch all the time.

Life isn’t exciting enough on its own. So post-9/11 war memoirs, to address this problem, open up in the middle of a battle, as if to tell the reader, “Go with me here. There will be battles, but first I want to tell you how I became a soldier.” Over half of the post-9/11 war memoirs I’ve reviewed for this memoir project open this way. It happens in memoirs I loved (Kaboom, War, The Forever War, Generation Kill) and the ones I didn’t (This Man’s Army, Joker One, Lone Survivor). Of all these books, only one did it well.

The “flash forward intro” usually occurs mid-battle. The Forever War opens in the battle of Fallujah, but the first chapter cuts all the way back to Afghanistan under pre-9/11 Taliban rule. Joker One begins, literally, with a bang, as Donovan Campbell and his men lie on the floor following an explosion; the second chapter takes the reader back to the beginning, before he deployed. Evan Wright opens Generation Kill getting shot at in a humvee in “another Iraqi town, nameless”; the memoir then opens in Kuwait before Wright even found a platoon to embed with.

Like the false start on our screenplay, these flash-forward introductions don’t move the story forward; they have no narrative or thematic function. In every case, the author never mentions the event again. It made me wonder: were these memoirs written this way, or did an editor just lop off a section in the middle and put it in the front?

(Ironically--for longtime readers of On Violence--Lone Survivor actually uses this technique well, at least better than the other memoirs I’ve read. The plot, if you will, is the most contained. Instead of covering the entirety of Luttrell’s military experience, it covers one specific mission. The opening doesn’t take place mid-battle, but in preparation for the climatic battle at the center of the memoir.)

Some readers may be thinking, “You wanker, time jumping works. What about modern cinema, like Pulp Fiction? Or every film by Christopher Nolan?” To which I respond, “You’re absolutely correct.” I’m not against time jumping in memoirs. In fact, I love it. As avid media consumers, many modern readers/viewers are more sophisticated, which means modern stories are more thematically and narratively sophisticated than ever before.

This applies to war memoirs. Look at both Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The former bounces around in time with anecdotes and memories, focusing its chapters on topics (war reporters), themes (loss, depression), or specific locations (Hue City or Khe Sahn). The latter is a short story collection arranged non-chronologically. Both work. Both promote character above story. Both commit to the emotional truth of war, not real life chronology.

Except for the opening time jump, most memoirs never change time again. Commit one way or the other. The Forever War would have worked better non-chronologically, following the example of Herr’s Dispatches. The same goes for Junger’s War, whose chapter titles were organized by theme, but its content by chronology. For Generation Kill, This Man’s Army, and Joker One, I wish each memoir just began at the beginning. Kaboom, which has a great first chapter, could have been written either chronologically or non-chronologically.

Two of my favorite post-9/11 war memoirs did commit to fractured narratives, and the commitment pays off. Brandon Friedman contrasts his war in Afghanistan with his war in Iraq in The War I Always Wanted, to elevate each chapter through the contrast. In Soft Spots, Clint Van Winkle relives his time in Iraq from his post-war viewpoint in America--and there really was no better way to write that story. Both were organized around theme--the loss of innocence and the struggle with PTSD, respectively--and both authors wrote their memoirs with these themes leading the way, not true-to-life chronology.

More memoirists should follow their lead.

three comments

Two of my favorites (The Thing They Carried and Catch 22) also committed to the fractured perspective. Of course, they are not memoirs. They’re fiction.

In some ways, it feels more real. Like you’re listening to a veteran struggle to recall events exactly. I’ve heard many war stories told and retold, and it’s rarely a matter-o-fact experience. My great uncle, a ball-turret gunner in WWII, went off on a 15 min tangent on the best places he ate in England.

I don’t think I;ve read a flashforward intro in a war novel, but it could not just be coming to mind.

not quite a war story, but I just finished listening to The Gone-Away World on my drive from SEA to STL. It starts with a jump-cut and generally paces itself weirdly (I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall when he met his editor).

I think it works for sci-fi/fantasy pretty well, because you need to set up the premise and then work out the world around that. The sci-fi world has to be normal to its characters and not to us, so the jumpcut is effective there.

On the other hand, I could argue that any war memoir written for a non-military audience has an element of sci-fi to it. It is describing a world that us non-fighters do not understand and cannot understand. I’m not sure if I’m totally satisfied with this argument for the jumpcut, but I think its valid.