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?

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

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

Style Plays a Role in Flashbacks and Verb Tense

So to answer Joy’s question, to some degree it’s a matter of personal writing style whether you use the past perfect for your entire flashback, or look for an opportunity to ease into the simple past tense. If your flashback takes up an entire chapter, or section of a book, you’ll definitely want to slip into the more comfortable past tense, but for flashbacks of several paragraphs or several pages, styles differ. Even so, there are a couple of areas where our sample authors (and other authors I’ve read) agree. First, if you need to do a flashback within a flashback, it’s easier to do this if you’ve managed to shift to the past tense in the main flashback. And second, when it’s time to exit a flashback and return to the main narrative, insert a break in your text, and help your readers out by giving context clues to remind them of where you’re picking up the story again.

This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs about linguistics at literalminded.wordpress.com and is a regular columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus.

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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