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: Going Even Further Back in a Flashback

In the rest of the paragraph, Powers uses the simple past tense to describe Doyle’s nightmares. This frees up the past perfect tense to shift us even further into the past as needed. For example, near the end of the paragraph, Powers writes, in the simple past tense, “[g]enerally he was able to force himself awake,” but then he switches to the past perfect again, this time to refer even further back, to an earlier part of the flight. He writes, “but he’d had several scotches earlier….”

Example: Ending a Flashback

The flashback continues for four and a half more pages, using mostly the simple past tense, with an occasional past perfect to reveal a few events that occurred in the days and weeks before Doyle’s journey. The flashback ends as the plane is touching down. Then Powers resumes the story at the point where Doyle is standing outside the gate as a guard comes to let him in. How does Powers show that the flashback is over? Visually, there’s another break in the text, which prepares us for a scene change. In addition, he mentions some of the important items from where we left off, writing “The guard unlocked the gate and took Doyle’s suitcase from the driver….”

More Examples

To see how a different author handles an extended flashback, I’m now turning to the novel Reamde, by Neal Stephenson. Again, my example comes from early in the book, so there are no major spoilers. Coincidentally, this example involves a plane flight, too. The character of Richard Forthrast is looking down at the neat squares of farmland. Listen to how Stephenson uses the past perfect tense to put us into the flashback talking about Richard’s old friend, Chet:

Richard could never look at them without thinking of Chet. For Chet was a Midwestern boy too and had grown up in a small town in the eastern, neatly gridded part of South Dakota where he and his boyhood friends had formed a proto-motorcyle gang….

Stephenson continues to use the past perfect tense to describe Chet’s activities for four more sentences. Now listen to how he slips us into the simple past tense, just in time to tell a dramatic story:

One evening in 1977 he had been riding south from a lucrative rendezvous in Pipestone, Minnesota. It was a warm summer night; the moon and stars were out. He leaned back against his sissy bar and let the wind blow in his long hair and cranked up the throttle. Then he woke up in a long-term care facility in Minneapolis in February.

Stephenson begins with a past perfect progressive tense, “had been riding,” and then takes advantage of a sentence that doesn’t contain an action to make his move to the simple past: “It was a warm summer night….” After that, all the verbs are in the simple past: “leaned,” “let,” “cranked,” and “woke up.” In this way, Stephenson has freed up the past perfect tense to give us a sub-flashback to explain what in the world happened that landed Chet in a hospital. Listen:

As was slowly explained to him by the occupational therapists, he had been found in the middle of a cornfield by a farmer’s dog. It seemed that this nocturnal ride had been terminated by a sudden westward jog in the section-line road. Failing to jog, he had flown off straight into the cornfield, doing something like ninety miles an hour.

Then Stephenson has to take us out of the flashback describing the accident to the main flashback, where Chet is recovering in the hospital. Here, Stephenson continues to use the past perfect tense, but the context makes it clear that we are back in the primary flashback; he writes, “The recovery had taken a while.”

Interestingly, Stephenson takes a different approach than Powers did. For the remainder of the flashback, which goes on for several more pages, Stephenson continues to use the past perfect tense, with occasional uses of the simple past to show states or habitual actions. However, when we finally pop out of the flashback to Richard’s airplane flight, Stephenson uses the same technique as Powers, and many other authors: He inserts a break in the text, and reminds us of where we left off. The first sentence after the flashback begins, “Turning his attention back to matters inside the plane’s cabin, Richard resumed reading the T’Rain Gazette….”

Next: Your Own Style Matters


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.

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