Hey there! I bet many of you will already know all about writing flashbacks. But when I first started writing stories, I was confounded by how exactly to handle past tense and past present tense in flashbacks and other passages about things that happened prior to the main narrative. I’ve seen people on writing forums ask about how to format sections like these, so I know I’m not the only one who’s been confused.

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How to Write Flashbacks So They're Not Clunky #past tense #present tense #formatting

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Now, some people will tell you there’s no such thing as a properly written flashback–they’re against them, full stop. Although I go along with a lot of the conventional wisdom about writing, I think flashbacks are fine. I write them, and more often than not, I enjoy them as a reader. But even if you’re anti-flashback, you still may run into issues with past tense versus past perfect tense.

Although present tense is becoming more popular in fiction, most of it is still written in the past tense.  That means when you start talking about something that happened before the current narrative, you need to use past perfect tense. 

 

 

 

 


Just to be clear: this is past tense. (I’m going to write it based on what’s happening in my apartment right now.)

Outside, a police siren wailed, and Pippin started barking. “Quiet,” Bryn said. She picked up his favorite rubber toy, making it squeak. The dog ran over to her, hoping for a game of fetch.

And this is past perfect tense:

Outside, a police siren had wailed, and Pippin had started barking. “Quiet,” Bryn had said. She’d picked up his favorite rubber toy, making it squeak. The dog had run to her, hoping for a game of fetch. 

You’ll notice that I made “she had” into a contraction. When I use past perfect tense in a novel, I usually make “she had,” “he had,” “I had,” “we had,” and “they had” into contractions for a smoother and quicker read—a trick I picked up from my editor.

But if you go on for several paragraphs, all those “hads” are going to sound clunky, even if you make some of them into contractions. You’ll get sick of writing them, and readers will get sick of reading them. So what do you do?

Here’s what I don’t recommend: putting the flashback in italics. Readers may get confused and think it’s describing a dream, which is a more standard reason to format a long passage in italics.

Instead, here’s one easy way to handle verb tenses in flashbacks and long passages about past events.

 

 

 

Write the first paragraph or the first few sentences of your flashback or long passage in past present tense.

Then, slip into simple past tense for most of your flashback. I usually start a new paragraph before I go into the simple past tense, rather than mixing two tenses in a paragraph, but this is a stylistic choice, and it may depend on what you’re writing about and even on the rhythm of the sentences.

You can switch back to past perfect tense for the last paragraph of the flashback.

Here’s another option for making the transition from the flashback. If something else jogs the main character’s thoughts and makes them aware of what’s happening around them—for instance, if there’s a knock on the door, or you talk about how the candle on the table burns out—that will shift the reader back into the main timeline as well. In cases like this, you don’t even really need to switch back to past perfect tense at the end.

I’ve noticed that when a few writers are in the middle of a flashback or any passage that happened before the main narrative, they switch into simple past tense, but sprinkle in past perfect in a couple of places. That’s an option, and I think it really depends on the flow of the sentences. 

Does that all make sense? I hope so!  

 

How to Write Flashbacks So They're Not Clunky #past tense #present tense #formatting

 

How do you feel about flashbacks? Do you have other tips for making transitions into and out of flashbacks more smooth? Let us know in the comments! Thanks for reading!