Flashbacks and Tenses

Flashbacks and tenses—what is the connection? It’s very subtle and simply something done naturally. However, flashbacks are complicated, so it bears mentioning.

Some stories are written in present tense. How should a flashback be handled in such a story? The flashback is the past, but the actual story is in the present. We live in the present, but we often think or tell stories of the past, and when we do that, it’s often in past tense. For this reason, flashbacks in present tense stories should be written in past tense, and when the flashback is finished, the tense should switch back to present tense.

Yes, I’m recommending switching tenses in the middle of a story, and this is frowned upon. Handling flashbacks is tricky—especially signaling when they start and when they conclude. In film, this signal is often done by different lighting, but because we can’t use that mechanism in stories, we use tense shifts.

“But there isn’t a switch when the story is already in past tense.” Well, let’s consider that for a moment. Now, there are no hard, fast rules to flashbacks, so everyone does it differently, but what I’ve observed is the tense actually does shift even in a story written in past tense. It goes from past to past perfect tense, and yes—that’s a shift. Yes, both are forms of ‘past’, but if you want to be technical, it’s still a shift. However though, because the past perfect tense lends itself to passive voice, you wouldn’t want to stay in that tense for the duration of the flashback. You would use the past perfect tense as a transition into the flashback, but once you’re settled there, you can slide into simple past tense. Here’s an example:

Jadkon paused at the mention of their sister, Deborah. He had learned of her death after being released from the dungeon for crimes he did not commit. When he realized what had happened to Deborah—as he always had people watching his brother and sister—it crushed him. He went to see Conrad then, but he saw how broken his brother had been in that moment, and he knew having a long lost brother return at such a terrible time would bode well, so he refrained and observed from a distance—consoling that his little brother had the princes of Aquila there for him.

Now let’s take that apart:

Jadkon paused (past tense) at the mention of their sister, Deborah. He had learned (past perfect: we switched from past tense to past perfect tense now) of her death after being released from the dungeon for crimes he did not commit. When he realized what had happened (past perfect) to Deborah—as he always had people watching (past perfect) his brother and sister—it crushed him. He went (past tense: switched tenses again) to see Conrad then, but he saw (past tense) how broken his brother had been in that moment, and he knew (past tense) having a long lost brother return at such a terrible time would bode well, so he refrained and observed (past tense) from a distance—consoling that his little brother had the princes of Aquila there for him.

Now, with that settled, how do you wrap up a flashback? Well, that’s relatively easy, and most people don’t have trouble with that. If the flashback started in a person’s thoughts, yank them out of their thoughts. If it started a them telling a story, have them conclude the story. Do you have to change tenses? It depends on how you managed the tense in the flashback and which tense you end up with at the end of it.

So, what was the point to all this? It’s a simple reminder of the use of tense when handling flashbacks in a story. Is this an absolute rule? No. Writing is more fluid than that, but if you’re having trouble with the flow of your story, especially if it’s in present tense, it might be because of this. Something worth considering.

 

Overview of the Different Tenses

Let’s examine the different tenses. Next week’s post will show how important tense is especially when handling a flashback, but today, let’s familiarize ourselves with the basics.

Tense can be simple or very, very complex—depends on however you want to make it. Simply put, tense tells us when something was or will be done—past, present or future. There four categories of tenses, and each category has a past, present and future tense. This is where the confusion comes in, so let me just show you:

Tense Categories:

Simple

Progressive

Perfect

Perfect Progressive

Simple Tense:

Past: John tried cooking yesterday

Present: Hannah knows better than to let him cook again.

Future: He will burn the house down next time.

Progressive:

Past: John was taking cooking lessons.

Present: Hannah is trying to convince him that pouring oil on a heated pan is not a good idea.

Future: John will be returning to class.

Perfect:

Past: Hannah had scrubbed the stains off the pan.

Present: John has asked for her not to throw away all the food.

Future: Hannah will have gotten new plates tomorrow.

Progressive Perfect:

Past: John had been trying to become a chef for a long time.

Present: He has been working very hard.

Future: Next week, he will have been taking cooking classes for exactly three years.

Confused or bored? Yeah, so am I. The good news is we’re not going to focus on every category, but let’s summarize:

Progressive uses helping verbs (am, is, are,was, were, will be) attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.
Perfect uses forms of ‘have’ (have, has, had) attached to a verb ending with ‘ed’
Progressive Perfect uses ‘have’ and ‘been’ attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.

In other words, all three of those forms are telling rather than showing because they make the verb passive rather than active. That is why we try to avoid those and work with the simple tense

95% of stories are written in Simple Past Tense. More recently there has been a rise in Simple Present Tense, but it’s still not as popular as past tense. This is because the roots of storytelling go back to oral tradition, and such a tradition began by the boasting of adventures and accomplishments our ancestors did. No one sat around the fire listening to Homer tell what ‘is happening’ to Troy; he told the story as it had happened. Go to any storytelling competition, and see how many stories are told in present tense.

Is writing in present tense wrong?” Not at all. Simply be aware that it is not the most popular or preferred tense in the reading world because it feels unnatural. When I see a book is written in present tense, I often put the book down because I don’t want to know what ‘will’ be happening. I want the story to be finished and completed before I even pick it up. The past tense gives me the reassurance that the events in the story are the past, and the consequences have already been realized.

Now, some people prefer present over past, and that’s all right.

The single pet peeve of any reader (be it your audience, fellow writer, or editor) is shifting tenses within a story. If the story begins in past tense, keep it in past tense. If it starts in present tense, don’t change it to past because you want to.

What about flashbacks? If the story is written in present tense, can’t the flashbacks be written in past tense?” Ah, flashbacks—a complicated creature, but we will discuss that in next week’s post since there is a connection to flashbacks and tenses.