Flashbacks in Books

Verb tense is already complicated. Throw some flashbacks in your book and it gets even worse. Here are some examples to help you manage flashbacks and verb tense in fiction.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #363

Recently, a listener named Joy had a question about writing a flashback in a work of fiction. She wrote:

I’m writing a story in the past tense and I’ve reached a scene where my protagonist recalls an event that happened further in the past. The story within a story runs for about a page and a half and starts with “I’d had a few drinks…”

Should I continue the whole recollection in the past perfect or shift to the simple [past]?

I want to be sure the past of the main storyline and the earlier past of the recollection don’t blend together and confuse the reader.

This is a great question, so I asked Neal Whitman to talk about techniques authors use to take their readers from one point in the past to a place even further in the past. He’ll use examples from two novels he’s enjoyed.

Joy is right that you can use the past perfect tense to show a flashback. The verb phrase “had had a few drinks” is in the past perfect tense because it begins with the past tense of the helping verb “have,” and then has the past participle of the ordinary verb “have,” to give us “had had.”

Past Perfect Tense Comes in Handy for Flashbacks

The past perfect tense is useful for showing a shift away from a time in the past to a time even further in the past. However, for an extended flashback, you might not want to use the past perfect tense for the whole thing, for a couple of reasons. First of all, some readers might find it distracting. Second, what if you need to do a flashback within your flashback? If you’re already using the past perfect tense, it’s difficult to use it to show an additional move back in time. So what do you do?


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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