Feeling tense?  Need a flashback?

Do you know the difference between the past tense and the past perfect tense? It’s fairly common for novice writers to slip between tenses without realising it, so that the reader gets the odd impression that he’s stepped back in time, then forward to the present, then back again. So knowing the difference is important.

Here is my simple explanation, before we delve into flashbacks. Most writing is in the past tense e.g. ‘Diana stared with amazement as the squirming puma rolled across the savanna’. Oddly, even though it is in the past tense, the reader has the sense of immediacy, of the action happening now.  The only writer I’ve come across to use the present tense significantly is Damon Runyon e.g. ‘So I stare at the puma on Broadway but then I run straight into Harry the Horse’.  (But I’ve just come across another example, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr) The past perfect is like a doubled past:  in the past someone remembers or discusses something that happened even further back, and almost always has a ‘had’ in it e.g. ‘Diana told us that when she was in Africa she had stared with amazement at a squirming puma’.

The past perfect is what you need when you put a flashback in. However, the difficulty occurs when the flashback becomes an extended sequence. Most writers will smoothly guide the reader from past perfect into past so that the flashback becomes something experienced now.  E.g. ‘Diana remembered when she had stared with amazement at a puma. George had mocked her expression. She turned and shot him in the foot with her hunting rifle, then walked brazenly into the savanna and shot the puma.’

But when to make the switch? How many verbs or phrases or sentences in? I thought it would be easy to hunt through a few novels and find some examples of how the experts do it.  It was strangely difficult:  most of the places I found with flashbacks were just too complex and subtle:  interlaced with present emotions and events, or barely a sentence long.

But here’s one: from the ‘Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Royce:-

After the map present, they had taken an outing every day. She accompanied him to the crematorium with roses for Elizabeth, and afterwards they stopped for tea at Hope Cove…

This slips from past perfect with ‘they had taken an outing’ to past with ‘she accompanied him’. It’s interesting how soon the switch is made. I would have made it later, would you? But it’s even more interesting how few novels, even the brilliant, complex ones with interlaced sections of present and past events, use flashbacks like this.

I think maybe extended flashbacks aren’t that good an idea? Some advice is to reduce all flashbacks to a single sentence.  So that they are written as a short, simple memory from the point of view of a character.  Or just write in time, forwards, with no retrospectives to the past.  Like most novels.   What do you think?

I’ve been thinking about this because in one of my novels I have three main characters, separated for a long period of time, but with significant events happening during that period. So I have, in the present, the father searching for his son and travelling south, then I have the distant past (after he meets an old friend) and we get the history of what has happened to that friend (several chapters, covering many years and a key part of the plot) and then the narrative thread has to jump to the son’s experiences over the last few weeks, before all three join up. Long, unavoidable flashbacks. Interleaving the events so that it is all ‘now’ just won’t work. Aaargghhhh…






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