Verb Tense, Flashbacks, and Fiction: The Past of the Past in Creative Writing

looking backward

looking backward

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.

The Pluperfect

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.

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38 responses to “Verb Tense, Flashbacks, and Fiction: The Past of the Past in Creative Writing

  1. This is great, and here’s another tip of trivia in your foreign language knowledge jar.

    Japanese has no future tense. Present tense and future tense are the same, exactly. You have to add a word like “I’m planning to” to make a sentence even sound like the future.

    I like the sound of ‘pluperfect’… at our ESL school, it’s taught as Present Perfect also. 🙂

    • I’ve always learned the present perfect as “have + past participle”. Funny how terminology mixes and matches! And that is CRAZY about Japanese!!! I’ve heard that Russian has no verb for “to be” but I’d never heard that Japanese has no future tense. That’s amazing!

  2. When I’m not writing in first person, I put my flashbacks in italics, it seems to be a simple way to keep it straight, plus it helps me when I need to refer back to something said or done in that flashback.

  3. The term comes from the Latin plusquamperfectum, which means ‘more than perfectum’, and which works as you described. The ‘perfectum’ is another past tense, namelijk the ‘completed’ tense, which would be like: “I have walked, I have eaten” (in other words, you did something in the past and you completed that action). This is a different tense than your past 1, btw, which equals the Latin ‘imperfectum’ (not completed): “I walked, I ate” (there is no indication that you have completed this action).

    Sorry for the nerdism, I went through six years of Latin in high school. 🙂 Latin was a bit of a pain most of the time (due to the teacher), but it has given me SO MUCH insight in grammar in general and I am very glad that I took it.

    • I have always wanted to study Latin. I get doses of it with my Spanish, French, and Portuguese, but Latin is its own can of worms and like you said, it has to be incredible for helping people understand grammar. Thanks!!!

  4. Great post, this is a very clear explanation. I think I have a good sense of how sentences should flow, tenses should work, and things should be structured, but I don’t have much understanding of how things are named (and I still don’t know what a participle is). This is very helpful.

    A tip that I picked up somewhere and really like is transitioning between these past tenses in a shorter flashback, using the pluperfect (what a great word!) a few times at each end, and what you call “past 1” in the body of it. So the first sentence or two say “I had talked to him about it before…”, but then we switch to past 1, which is much easier on the reader than reading “had” over and over. Using the pluperfect again at the end of the flashback indicates to the reader that this is the end of the flashback, and they notice the switch back to past 1 in the next paragraph, when we return to the story’s “present.”

    I thought it was nuts (I’d never noticed it before), but now I spot when authors use it, and it really is clear, but invisible if you’re not looking for it. For longer flashback scenes that include dialogue and things like that I’d still want a clearer division, but it works when it’s only a few paragraphs, and it’s fun to play with. 🙂

    (I know you know this, I just thought I’d throw it into the discussion, since it’s helped me get rid of some “hads” and might help someone else)

    • That’s a wonderful tip, Kate. Thanks!!! It definitely sounds like you have a clear method to clean out the “hads.”

      So, participles are pretty simple. Present participles, or gerunds, are you -ing verbs. Past participles are your -ed verbs (or the irregular equivalents, such as written, spoken, etc)

      • Thanks, I’ll try to remember that one. One of these days I’ll get the terms all filed away in my brain. For now, I don’t mind most of them running around unidentified, as long as they behave themselves in my writing. 😉

  5. catherinelumb

    I recently wrote an entire short story in the Pluperfect. Trying to ensure that it was consistent drove me mad! Wish you’d written this post last month! lol! Might have to go back and see if I can retrospectovely use any of the tips you’ve mentioned. Thx!

    • That sure sounds like a BEAST, keeping verbs consistent in that story. It also sounds like a fun challenge though, one that would teach any writer a lot about grammar 🙂 Best of luck. I hope this post can help you retroactively!

  6. What I find is most tricky, especially if you know to use pluperfect, is not tripping over the word “had,” which can appear numerous times. Sometimes, I will switch to simple past tense just to unclutter the prose. I’ll also use abbreviations (which horrifies purists) for the same reason. At the end, you have to make a choice between grammatic perfection and readability.

  7. Oh, and for a long flashback, say, a chapter long, I will start in pluperfect, and then switch to past tense at some point, once the reader accepts its all in the past. It’s like movies where they start out in Russian with subtitles, and then switch to accented English once we get they are really speaking Russian (wink, wink).

  8. Reblogged this on …and then there was Sarah and commented:
    Really helpful for writers! (Actually, if you’re not following this blog and all their articles, check it out!)

  9. Great advice and information. You’re miles ahead of me since I never know the terms of what I’m doing.
    I actually hate using flashbacks outside of a prologue scene. Maybe it’s the present tense style that I gravitate toward, so it doesn’t work. I also remember a lot of fellow Writing Arts majors using them so much that I could never figure out what was a flashback and what was the real story. Worst one was someone I was working with on a private project. We got to the end of the first page and he suddenly yelled ‘Time for a Flashback!’ He was serious and wouldn’t let me continue until I wrote it. Sadly, that work was lost to a ‘computer crash’ and the physical notes were in the ‘wrong place’ when I spilled my soda. 🙂 Flashbacks really are easy to abuse if one isn’t careful.

    • That is a great point, Charles. You’re so right: it’s far too easy to abuse the beauty of a charm of a flashback. They can be great, but they should be few and far between. I never have more than two or three in a novel of 150,000 words. (And usually, my flashback scenes are short when I have them)

      • What do you typically use your flashbacks for?

        • a scene that takes place outside the span of the novel. Use one in the first novel of my trilogy to help show how the bad guy came to power and the effect of that on the protagonist’s family. Also in book two I use a couple of brief ones during a conversation for pacing purposes. It allowed me to insert a couple of mini-scenes with important information that nonetheless was too short to stand alone as a full scene.

        • I get it. It definitely sounds like flashbacks wouldn’t work in present tense writing. I have to rely on character’s hearing the knowledge or finding it in books when it deals with histories.

        • that makes sense. I wouldn’t know how to make a flashback work in present tense either…. unless maybe it’s stream of consciousness reflection or something? But that’s different than a traditional flashback, for sure.

  10. I need to read this through at least two more times to get it to sink in!

  11. Reblogged this on Girl in the Purple Glasses.

  12. OoPS SOrROops sorry my keyboard keeps disappearing and I hit post by accident. And now I forget what I was going to say lol. 

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  15. Thanks Victoria, I agree that it’s best to find ways to avoid the “had” tense. I had to edit out a ton of them with my last book.

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  18. PaperbackDiva

    Reblogged this on Being an Author and commented:
    An important topic. Really difficult for most beginning authors.

  19. Pingback: I’m Perfect, You’re Perfect, But Should We Use The Past Perfect? | The Write Transition

  20. Pingback: How to use the Past Perfect, Lesson 2: avoiding the need for it | Carol Louise Wilde

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