Are any of you writing fiction? Besides writing my own stories, I teach classes about fiction writing techniques. My most popular classes are those I teach online for various chapters of Romance Writers of America. Last week I posted my original slant for “Making Sense of Time and Manipulating It” for the Savvy Authors’ blog.
Write your story in present or past tense, but be consistent. Either is fine, but for fiction past tense is more common:
Sophia snatched up her cell. She hoped the caller would be Garrett, but it was only Lorenda. “Oh, hi,” she said.
Here it is in present tense:
Sophia snatches up her cell. She hopes the caller is Garrett, but it’s only Lorenda. “Oh, hi,” she says.
Whichever tense you choose, stick with it. If you want to continue this scene in present tense, you’d write:
Lorenda sounds excited. “You won’t believe what just happened!”
If you were to continue in past tense, you’d write:
Lorenda sounded excited. “You won’t believe what just happened!”
What you wouldn’t do is switch from one tense to the other:
Sophia snatched up the phone. She hoped the caller would be Garrett, but it was only Lorenda. “Oh, hi,” she said.
Lorenda sounds excited. “You won’t believe what just happened.
That switch from past to present tense was jarring, wasn’t it?
Suppose you want to let your reader know about things that happened before the time your story takes place. If you’re writing in past tense, attach the word “had” to your verbs to signal that you’ve moved back in time.
Sophia and Lorenda had been best friends since sigh school. They’d shared ballet lessons and gymnastics. When Sophia had failed her driver’s test, it was Lorenda who had consoled her.
If you’re writing in the present tense, add the word “has” or (plural) “have” to accomplish the same thing.
Sophia and Lorenda have been best friends since high school. They’ve shared ballet lessons and gymnastics . . .
Once you have dealt with the prior event, you need to return your reader to the time of your story. The way to do that is to use the word “now”.
For a past-tense story:
Now Sophia sighed. She wished Lorenda would get off the phone. The beep meant Garrett was calling.
For a present-tense story:
Now Sophia sighs. She wishes Lorenda would get off the phone . . .
As writers of commercial fiction, we minimize back story. We sift a little in when necessary. Flashbacks serve one purpose, and that is to present an important moment in your character’s past that has a direct bearing in the present plot of your story. Your character’s thoughts whisk him or her to what went on before. Although a flashback only builds tension if it’s launched at the right moment, it increases suspense by postponing the conflict resolution. The example of a flashback below is written in past tense. The flashback is written in past perfect tense.
Note the unclear transition in the example below. Surely the reader will get lost because the hero’s POV is weak:
Rick Listened to his Favorite Song
Rick leaned toward the radio and turned up the volume. It was one of his favorite songs from the ‘60s, The Brown Eyed Girl. As the cheery “sha-la-la” chorus filled the room, he sat back and listened, remembering. Ann Marie came in and sat down beside him. He had asked if he wanted to stay for dinner. He was glad he accepted.
The problem with the above is with the transition. When did Ann Marie come in and sit down by Rick? Was it back in the past or could it be happening now as Rick listens to The Brown Eyed Girl?
Second version, Rick Listened to his Favorite Song
Rick dashed toward the radio and turned up the volume. It was one of his favorite songs from the ‘60s, The Brown Eyed Girl. It brought back the memory of one special night when Ann Marie had come in and sat beside him. Working on a project in middle school, she had asked if he wanted to stay for dinner. Now, as he listened to the old song, he was glad he had accepted.
The second pass at the flashback had two changes of great significance. The first was the use of a clear transition to alert the reader that you are about to take a trip to the past. “It brought back a memory” served this purpose. “He remembered” would do fine, or he could ask the question, “Was it really that long ago?”
As previously mentioned, to bring an end to the flashback and return to the present, the simple “now” will suffice. The other transition phrase, “long ago”, also indicates the flashback has ended.
The second technique used to clarify the beginning and ending flashback is verb tenses. Notice that the first example is written in past tense. Rick turned up the volume. When the flashback begins, you move backward in time to past perfect tense. This makes the action more remote. Marie had come in. He was glad he had accepted. When the flashback ends, the move moves to simple past tense. Now as he listened, he was glad.
Remember these two things to write effective flashbacks:
- Provide transitional words at the beginning and end of a flashback.
- Shift verb tenses to indicate time.
Give your reader a clue to what lies ahead. A hint builds suspense. Use it just when your reader wants more information. After a flashback, you’ve got a reader with heightened curiosity or apprehension. If your flashback ended a chapter, you could open the next one with something about Ann Marie:
Rick was sitting on Huntington Beach the morning after New Year’s when Ann Marie’s body washed up, half dead.
The average reader can’t stop there. The author might add another detail:
Rick began to wish he’d never gone to see that fortune- teller.
The reader knows it’s a story about the occult, and dark forces will be at work. Here’s another clue, using a brief flashback:
The last time Rick had talked with Ann Marie, she’d been in Los Angeles. (Something foreshadowing could set the mood such as her fear that day, his rapture, a strange electrical storm, or why he thinks there was a murder attempt on Ann Marie.)
A flashback can be a mini-cliff hanger. But, flashbacks are not effective if overused. Use them to include a crucial scene. This can happen before the true action of the book begins or somewhere in the opening scene. Romance writers most commonly use a flashback to fill in the past relationship between a hero and heroine who knew each other before the book began. In my reunion story and romantic suspense, WINDWARD WHISPERINGS, the hero and heroine both had flashbacks. Their past relationship colored everything happening in the present and formed the basis of the book. Just saying that they were involved once didn’t get across the emotional impact I wanted.
If you are writing a reunion story or any romance, you can and should have two characters talk about their issues in the course of the book. You won’t recount every detail because they lived through it together; it wouldn’t be natural.
Some situations will beg for a flashback. An appropriate point in your story might be following an encounter between the two of them. Was it emotionally intense? Is one of them thinking back to how things used to be or how things fell apart? Use a flashback when it makes sense to you. You will use the transition technique and the past perfect verb tense when you are within the flashback.
Flashbacks are often set off with the double-line skip.