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How to Enter and Exit a Flashback

by BLH on February 4th, 2013

Nearly all stories use that classic story element, the flashback. It’s often a good idea for pacing to allow the present action to leap ahead while allowing brief back periods of explanation or emotional depth. But it can be tricky to transition from the present to the past and back again. It can seem awkward or forced, a heavy-handed switching of gears, a very deliberate and artificial device on the part of the writer. But there is a way to make the transition smooth and effective, matching the way we use tenses in common speech. Read on, writers, to hear how to solve your flashback problems!

I can’t take credit for coming up with this technique myself; it’s something one of my M.F.A. professors taught us, and I’m very grateful for his lesson. Here’s how the technique works: think of using the “had done” past tense twice to get in, and twice to get out.

Here’s how it works: your present action is happening in the regular old past tense:

She went to work that morning like she always did. She took the train and ordered an egg sandwich from her favorite food truck. It was raining.

Now it’s time to slip into the flashback. You can let your readership know you are entering the past by using the “had” past tense exactly twice. But it would be unnecessarily clumsy to have the entire flashback in the “had done” tense. So once you’ve transitioned with two “had”s, you can return to the simple past for the duration of the flashback. Here’s how it works:

She ordered an egg sandwich from her favorite food truck. It was raining. Yesterday, Bill had told her he was in love with someone else. He had cried and begged for forgiveness. He went to the movies with her and they tried to pretend for a while that everything was the same. They ate popcorn together.

As you can see in this example, the use of just two “had”s smoothly keys in the reader that we’ll be entering the past for a while. You can now continue the story in the flashback for as long as you like. But now it’s time to return to the present, and once again, you can tell us you’re slipping out of the flashback. Just let your last two verbs again use the “had” past tense. Here it is:

They tried to pretend for a while that everything was the same. They ate popcorn together. At the end of the night, he had kissed her on the forehead like a brother. She had pressed her hand to his cheek. Now she ate her egg sandwich and walked calmly into the office like it was any other day.

Just like that, you’ve slipped in and out of a flashback with clarity and precision. It’s the verbal equivalent of shimmering the screen the way TV shows do it. Now you can use flashbacks as you will, without fear of confusion. Good luck!

From → The Writing Life

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