“The Snows of Kilamanjaro”
I tend to use flashback in many if not most of my short stories to date. One of the comments I’ve heard about my creative writing is that I “need a better frame to hang the flashbacks on.” So I analyzed a story that uses flashback as a principle technique, to see what I could learn by identifying proven techniques and comparing those techniques to my own. Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is such a story.
“The Snows of Kilamanjaro” actually opens (in the Finca Vigia collection) with a footnote above the title: (p. 41)
Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at the altitude.
If analyzed like any other story beginning (which this is), this footnote establishes themes that will be carried onward throughout the story.
The story itself, under the title, opens with a scene between a writer/photographer and his wife in camp at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We soon learn the photographer is dying of gangrene from a scratch on his leg that he neglected to treat. The man is resigned to his fate. The woman is hopeful, scolding him for not being more positive, for drinking: (p. 41)
“Darling, please don’t drink that. We must do everything that we can.”
“You do it,” he said. “I’m tired.”
Then the story moves to a flashback about the writer’s experience in Karagatch: (p. 42)
Now in his mind he saw a railway station at Karagatch and he was standing with his pack and that was the headlight of the Simpleon-Orient cutting the dark now and he was leaving Thrace then after the retreat. That was one of the things he had saved to write, with, in the morning at breakfast, looking out the window and seeing snow on the mountains in Bulgaria and Nanson’s Secretary asking the old man if it were snow and the old man looking at it and saying, No, that’s not snow. It’s too early for snow. And the secretary repeating to the other girls. No, you see. It’s not snow and them all saying, It’s not snow we were mistaken. But it was the snow all right and he sent them on into it when he evolved exchange of populations. And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter…
The flashback ends with this sentence: (p. 43)
Knocking the bindings loose, kicking the skis free and leaning them up against the wooden wall of the inn, the lamplight coming from the window, where inside, in the smokey, new-wine-smelling warmth, they were playing the acordian.
Coming out of the writer’s flashback, Hemingway re-starts the main story thread with these words: (p. 43)
“Where did we stay in Paris?” he asked the woman who was sitting by him in a canvas chair, now, in Africa.
It strikes me that while “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” uses flashback extensively, it is one of the very few Hemingway stories that use flashback. He wrote most of his stories in the here-and-now. As Eurora Welty said in On Writing, “(Hemingway’s) stories are all taking place as entirely in the present as plays we watch being acted on the stage. Pasts and futures are among the things his characters have not” (Welty, p. 9). Welty’s observation on Hemingway’s stories reminds me of the “compresence” concept of H. Richard Niebuhr’s, that we all live in a “now” world of our past memories, present events, and future expectations compressed into every moment.
So perhaps the first rule of flashback to take from Hemingway is this: “Don’t use flashbacks.” Or at minimum, “Don’t use flashbacks unless they totally support the story line and tone and don’t feel like stylistic deviations.”
But let’s be bold here and assume I am not Ernest Hemingway and can’t usually write without flashbacks or stylistic “deviations” from the story line. What can I learn from the story where he does use flashback as a major structural device? I see the following techniques at work:
1. Each piece of writing is made up of independent scenes. Write all your scenes to stand alone.
2. If 1. above is the case, then you don’t need really need flashback, because a flashback is a scene. Write your story to stand without a flashback.
3. Knowing all this, why did Hemingway choose to use flashback here? Note the references in the flashback portion to images/themes suggested already in the story line that are carried through: snow, dying, seeking out (leopard and the refuges), leaving, choice (man that didn’t treat his scratch and got gangrene, refuges taking directions and tramping in the snow til they died). The same images used and themes established in the story line are repeated/reappear in the flashback. Therefore, Rule 3. is, use flashback to reinforce the story line, not digress from it – even though it looks like a digression on the page.
4. Give the readers immediate clues of where you/they are so as not to confuse them, and to transition solidly from story line scene to flashback scene to story line scene. In the example above, Hemingway establishes/re-establishes the place and characters quickly to ground the reader: “now in his mind he saw a railway station at Karagatch,” and “…he asked the woman who was sitting by him in a canvas chair, now, in Africa.” Follow the same rules you follow for beginnings (see my paper on subject).
5. A spot check of the other flashback transitions and scene transitions in the story show several repetitions of the word “now,” and a multitude of place names, time references (before, after, evening, night) and directional designators. Perhaps the other rule that could be stated is to get your readers in and out of flashbacks (or any structural/scene transitions) quickly and solidly. Use “now,” “there,” “here”, and repeat them to form a consistent pattern for time and place.
6. Hemingway uses flashbacks so blatantly in this story unlike many or most of his other stories because flashbacks have an additional purpose here: To support and portray the reality that his character is experiencing. After all, the main character is fading in and out of consciousness, why shouldn’t he fade in and out of memories, and places, and events?
7. Even in the next to the last scene, when the writer finally dies, he is in a plane flown by one of his friends Compie. This is not a dream-scene, although the character may indeed be dreaming it. It is the main character’s reality at the ultimate moment between life and death, conscious or unconscious, and Hemingway’s attempt to reproduce it. (p. 56)
Then they began to climb to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that that was where he was going.
If this isn’t a flashback, then it might be termed a “flash-forward.” Even though it may technically be a deviation from the linear structure of the story, it is absolutely necessary to the story, supports the story through continued images, realistic approach, simple language, same characters, and themes.
And that, as Hemingway might say, is the story of the flashback. A flashback can’t be any different stylistically from the rest of the story. The flashback has to be able to stand separately as an entity of its own. If the story can’t stand on its own without a flashback, don’t use it – unless it ADDS to the story in all meaningful ways and doesn’t disrupt the flow of the main story itself. The flashback is a scene: scenes have definite beginnings and endings. Get the reader in and out of a flashback quickly, and provide bearings and markers for the reader immediately.
In Hemingway-speak: Keep it real, stupid.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The FincaVigia Collection. New York: Scribner, Simon and Shuster, 1987.
Welty, Eudora. On Writing. New York: The Modern Library, 2002.