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.