Today, I want to explore one of the trickier aspects of writing mechanics: verb tense and the past, especially where flashback scenes are concerned. I was asked by one of the blog’s followers to write this, and I thought it was a great idea!
Levels of Temporality
The first thing to keep in mind is that there are levels of temporality, or time, within your average text. Assuming you’re writing a standard text using past tense verbs instead of the present tense, you have:
- THE PRESENT. This is the level where your narrator is located, looking back at past events.
- PAST 1. This is the basic level of your action, where the major events of your plot occur and where your characters are. As this level is in the past in comparison to the narration, the basic past tense of verbs is used. Said, yelled, ran, broke down, screamed, etc.
- PAST 2. When your characters, in PAST 1, or your narrator, refers to something that happened in the past where PAST 1 is concerned, you get PAST 2. Past two uses the pluperfect tense.
I just love the pluperfect, for its name. In Spanish it’s called “el pluscuamperfecto,” and in French “le plus-que-parfait.” How fun is that???
Anyway: the pluperfect means your “had” verbs. “Had walked.” “Had talked.” “Had eaten.” “Had taken.”
As I said above, one of its uses is to demonstrate that an action took place in a more distant past in comparison to a second past action. For example:
- When I arrived, the show had already finished. (The show ended before I arrived.)
- How was I supposed to he’d cooked dinner? (He had already cooked dinner before I did something I wouldn’t have done, if I’d realized that at the time.)
- The reason I didn’t come was that they‘d said he wouldn’t be there. (They told me, before an event, that he wouldn’t be there, so when the event happened, I didn’t go.)
This layering of events in the past is the exact situation that occurs in fiction when you have characters, during a passage narrated in the past, remembering events that occurred previously.
In other words: a flashback.
A quick note on dialogue
Don’t forget that you’re narrator’s PAST 1 is your character’s PRESENT. So when you consider dialogue in contrast to narration, your verb tenses might shift a level. In fact, unless your characters are discussing hypothetical situations, they probably will shift. This might sound complicated, but it’s really not that difficult. In fact, it’s probably something you do instinctively. For instance:
- Jane said he‘d brought her flowers at work and given her a box of chocolates the day before.
- Jane said, “He brought me flowers at work and gave me a box of chocolates yesterday.”
- Jamie knew Larry hadn’t taken the train.
- Jamie said, “Larry didn’t take the train.”
- Arthur didn’t believe June had stolen the necklace.
- Arthur said, “I don’t believe June stole the necklace.”
So, one way to avoid the pluperfect for a long passage dealing with a past within the past, is to convert the scene to dialogue or to a character’s direct thoughts. Your character’s thoughts would be on the same temporal plane as dialogue, allowing you to talk about PAST 2 events using PAST 1 verbs, or the simple past.
Using a Pure Flashback
There are various ways to handle a flashback. A common one–and my preferred method–is to make it clear that a flashback is occurring, then separate the text of the flashback some way. I usually space an empty line or two, or insert this:
This is an effective strategy. Because the preceding section and the textual division establish that the passage to follow occurred further in the past, and isn’t chronological with the rest of the book’s action, I can then narrate it as I narrate the rest of the book–using the simple past–without confusing anybody or forcing the flashback events into a dialogue or a progression of thought.
The reason I love this strategy so much is that is helps me avoid an overuse of the pluperfect, because all those “had”s can get tedious to deal with!
I wouldn’t do this more than two or three times in the course of a book, because it’s so marked a strategy that your reader will notice it and remember it. You don’t want to abuse how useful it is. But it’s great!
Tense in English can be a bit more fluid than in other languages.
Another thing to remember, talking about tense, is that tense in English can be fluid. Sometimes you can find yourself in a situation where either one choice or another would be appropriate.
One great example comes from above. I wrote:
- The reason I didn’t come was that they‘d said he wouldn’t be there.
Well, putting that pluperfect verb in the simple past would work too.
- The reason I didn’t come was that they said he wouldn’t be there.
You could get away with using the simple past there, for sure.
If nothing else, tense in English is less rigid than in Spanish or French. For instance, in English we could always say, “Oh, yeah, I knew him as a kid. His name is Jack.”
Yes, I knew Jack in the past. But his name’s still Jack. So I can put that verb in the present tense. In fact, if I put it in the past, I might give the impression that Jack’s not alive anymore. In either case, the tense of that second verb isn’t dependent on the tense of the first one.
In Spanish, that’s not the case. In Spanish, you would have to say, “His name was Jack” to use standard style. (“Se llamaba Jack.”) And everyone would know the man’s name is still Jack in the present. You’re just talking about Jack in the past, so you use a past tense verb. It’s a much more rigid system. Everything has to match up and flow together.
This means that in English, upon occasion, we can get away with sometimes NOT using the pluperfect, especially if it sounds better not to and it’s clear the action took place in a more distant past.
In fact, talking with some writers I know from college, I’ve heard them mention that tense is one of the things they play around with most during editing. They’ll change things, and then change them back. And then maybe change them again.
So if tense issues and the pluperfect drive you nuts, because you’re not sure if you need it or not, you’re definitely not alone.