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

Example: Mixing Past Perfect Tense and Past Tense

Let’s see what the author Tim Powers did in my favorite time-travel novel, The Anubis Gates. Don’t worry; I’m taking my examples from Chapter 1, so there won’t be spoilers! In this scene, the protagonist Brendan Doyle is on his way to meet a mysterious man named Darrow, who has offered him $20,000 for services yet to be named. Notice that the verb phrases “was hurrying” and “told himself” are in the past progressive and simple past tenses: 

On the other side of the fence a uniformed guard was hurrying toward them. Well, you’re in it now, Doyle told himself. At least you get to keep the five thousand dollar retainer check even if you decline his offer … whatever it turns out to be.

At this point, there’s a blank line in the text, showing a change of scene. Powers then uses the past perfect tense, along with the phrase “an hour earlier,” to shift to an earlier time:

Doyle had been grateful, an hour earlier, when the stewardess woke him to tell him to fasten his seat belt, for he’d been dreaming about Rebecca’s death again.

The verb phrases “had been grateful” and “had been dreaming” are in the past perfect and past perfect progressive tenses. Powers also uses the simple past tense in “when the stewardess woke him,” because he doesn’t need the past perfect in every clause to show that the time is still an hour earlier, during the airplane flight.

Next: More Examples: Going Even Further Back in a Flashback


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 find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.

You May Also Like...