Home

Back_to_the_FutureEven if you’re not writing a fantasy novel during NaNoWriMo, there’s likely going to be some time travel in your manuscript. Thankfully you don’t need “Doc’s” time machine to handle flashbacks or backstory, you just need a little thing called the past perfect tense.

The past perfect tense shows that something has happened before another specific action in the past. I like to think of it as “the past-past tense.” Bear with me for a two-second grammar lesson: We form the past perfect tense by using the word had plus a past participle verb: had run, had eaten, had said, etc.

You should use the past perfect tense in your novel to represent a character’s flashback or to write backstory. And, no, you don’t have to go all the way back to 1955 like Marty McFly; you can write about last week or even two hours prior.

Let’s imagine that you’ve chosen to write your novel in the past tense. (I will talk about what happens with flashbacks in present tense later on in the post.) So you’re writing along swimmingly until you come to a spot where you want your character to remember her relationship with her father. This is when you use the past tense. Here’s an example:

June got into the Jeep, threw it in reverse and backed out of the driveway. Gravel crunched underneath the tires as she rumbled along the back roads from her house to her sister’s. The sound reminded her of the first time her father had let her drive. She’d climbed into the driver’s side door of his truck. It smelled of salty peanut shells. She tentatively grabbed the wheel and then looked over at him. “So what do I do now?” she asked. She paid diligent attention as he explained the gears and the clutch. Then she turned the key. First, she checked the rearview mirror and then she rolled down the window and pretended to adjust the side mirror to her liking.

Her father sighed. “Get moving, girl,” he said. He’d seen right through her stalling. She’d taken a deep breath, shifted into first and guided the truck slowly over the crunching gravel. She felt his eyes on her now in the Jeep in the darkness. The funeral would be tomorrow. There was nothing she could do to stop it. He would be buried and gone forever by afternoon. Get moving, girl, she heard her father say…

In this passage, I’ve bolded the use of the past perfect tense. You can see where the flashback begins: The sound reminded her of the first time her father had let her drive. And you can see that it ends with the last use of a past perfect verb: She’d taken a deep breath, shifted into first and guided the truck slowly over the crunching gravel.

You do not have to use past perfect tense throughout the entire flashback passage; only use a few past perfect verbs at the beginning and the end. If you use them throughout, the passage would become quite cumbersome with all the “hads.” Think of the use of past perfect tense as a way to bracket the flashback or backstory passage.

So what happens if you are writing your novel in present tense? That’s easy. Simply use the past tense (not past perfect tense) all the way through your flashback. Here’s the same scene written in present tense with only the past tense verbs bolded:

June gets into the Jeep, throws it in reverse and backs out of the driveway. Gravel crunches underneath the tires as she rumbles along the back roads from her house to her sister’s. The sound reminds her of the first time her father let her drive. She climbed into the driver’s side door of his truck. It smelled of salty peanut shells. She tentatively grabbed the wheel and then looked over at him. “So what do I do now?” she asked. She paid diligent attention as he explained the gears and the clutch. Then she turned the key. First, she checked the rearview mirror and then she rolled down the window and pretended to adjust the side mirror to her liking.

Her father sighed. “Get moving, girl,” he said. He saw right through her stalling. She took a deep breath, shifted into first and guided the truck slowly over the crunching gravel. She feels his eyes on her now in the Jeep in the darkness. The funeral would be tomorrow. There was nothing she could do to stop it. He would be buried and gone forever by afternoon. Get moving, girl, she heard her father say…

So there you have it: time travel made simple. In the words of Doc Brown: “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s