Six Steps for Time Control in Flashbacks


If you’re like me, you’ve been irritated in the past by flashback scenes with unclear beginnings and endings… or worse, flashbacks that seem at first to have happened last week, but in fact happened 5000 years ago in the age of the Legendary Hero.

Insert Legendary Hero Here

Any time you use a flashback in fiction, you also introduce an opportunity for confusion.

So here are some tips I’ve collected for writing flashbacks clearly. To illustrate them, I’ve knocked off a scene in haste. And it probably shows. But at least it illustrates all the steps in turn.

Let’s assume you’re writing your story in past tense.

1) You can help to cue a flashback by giving a character’s mind the chance to wander.

On the way back from the station washroom, Detective Horton Locke peered out the narrow, triple-layered window of the fortress-type megastructure. Peachy sunlight shone through a tenuous spiderweb of cablecar lines, combing thin shadows against the vast habitat pylons of the megalopolis. The deadline was three hours away. The case was still unsolved.

He closed his crusty eyes, letting a hint of forbidden sleep tantalize his brain.

2) As you enter a flashback, use past perfect tense, and anchor the flashback with a CLEAR time marker:

He hadn’t felt this exhausted since three months ago at the air harbor, when he’d waited for Rosandre to arrive from Tsarmin Province. When she hadn’t showed up on the scheduled flight, he’d installed himself at a coffee kiosk, trying to read a novel.

3) Switch to simple past once the reader gets established:

But he never even got past page fifty. He ordered coffee after coffee, smoked lucifer after lucifer. He couldn’t allow himself to go to sleep. She might appear any instant, he told himself, materializing in the space where two other bodies parted like a curtain…

And he knew that at the moment she did appear, he would turn away, pretending not to see her — so that she would have to approach him.

4) As you exit the flashback, use past perfect again:

But he never got a chance to. For thirty-five solid hours, rocketship after rocketship had appeared on the display board, and Rosandre hadn’t been on any of them.

5) Optionally, use a move like “to this day”…

To this day, Locke knew nothing of where she had gone to — only that it wasn’t here, the city… and could he really blame her?

6) Re-anchor the reader to the original scene with a detail mentioned previously.

The morning sunlight hurt his eyes. Locke smeared his hand across his face and went back to his desk, to the case.

There had to be a connection he was missing. Some angle, some connection that would to explain the bizarre disappearance of the rock star Ranjan Thrust, the mysterious sandalwood box full of dried jellyfish stingers sent from House Nouelles, his boss’s unforeseen demand that he solve the case by noon or face suspension… but what?

Of course, using the same principles, you can also pull off more complicated tricks….

Let’s look now at a scene from Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait for Last Year, in which a flashback is INTERCUT WITH THE PRESENT. Here, POV character Eric is discussing his past with UN dictator Gino “The Mole” Molinari.

Dick manages this trick by mostly restricting the flashback to the past-perfect tense and the ongoing scene to the simple past. I’ve used boldface text to emphasize verb tense in this extended quotation.

Actually, in his case it had been a very small matter. Something which if told — and he had never been so foolish as to tell it, even to his professional headbasher — would have proved absurd, would have made him appear, and rightly so, an idiot. Or, even worse, mentally deranged.

It had been an incident between himself and—

Now the simple past tense intrudes:

“Your wife,” the Mole said, staring at him, never taking his eyes from him. And still the steady grip of his hand.

“Yes.” Eric nodded. “My Ampex video tapes… of the great mid-twentieth century comedian Jonathan Winters.”

For a while, Dick strictly alternates between past and past perfect to keep things clear.

The pretext for his first invitation of Kathy Lingrom had been his fabulous collection. She had expressed a desire to see them, to drop by his apt — at his invitation — to witness a few choice shots.

The Mole said, “And she read something psychological into your having the tapes. Something ‘meaningful’ about you.”

“Yes.” Eric nodded somberly.

After Kathy had sat curled up one night in his living room, as long-legged and smooth as a cat, her bare breasts faintly green from the light coating of polish she had given them (in the latest style), watching the screen fixedly and, of course, laughing — who could fail to? — she had said contemplatively, “You know, what’s great about Winters was his talent for role-playing. And, once in a role, he was submerged; he seemed actually to believe in it.”

“Is that bad?” Eric had said.

Now that the flashback scene has been going on for a while, Dick reverts to the simple past for a few verbs, but includes a past-perfect verb for good measure:

“No. But it tells me why you gravitate to Winters.” Kathy fondled the damp, cold glass of her drink, her long lashes lowered in thought. “It’s that residual quality in him that could never be suppressed in his role. It means you resist life, the role that you play out — being an org-trans surgeon, I suppose. Some childish, unconscious part of you won’t enter human society.”

“Well, is that bad?” He had tried to ask jokingly, wanting — even then — to turn this pseudopsychiatric, ponderous discussion to more convivial areas… areas clearly defined in his mind as he surveyed her pure, bare, pale-green breasts flickering with their own luminosity.

“It’s deceitful,” Kathy said.

As he leaves the flashback, Dick again uses past-perfect, emphasizing the transition to the present with “now.”

Hearing that, then, something in him had groaned, and something in him groaned now. The Mole seemed to hear it, to take note.

Flashback time control can be tricky, but by following these tips, you may find it easier. See you Monday!

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