Finding the most efficient order in which to tell a story can be a tricky process. Sometimes, a perfectly linear narrative storyline will suffice—the story begins, progresses through a series of events, and then comes to an end. More often than not, however, your narrative will have important background information: events that happened before the book itself began that are important for understanding the plot. Some stories have only a little background information to be worked into the narrative; other stories are made up of fifty percent or more backstory.
When the characters learn a backstory that they didn’t know, it is usually easy to work into the narrative—the audience learns it in the same manner as the characters. Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father, he wants to find out how this could be true, he asks Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan tells him (and us) the backstory. Simple as can be. Other times, however, the characters already know their backstories, and your task as an author is to find a smooth way to inform your audience of the information.
The problem that often arises with backstory is one of tense: if your story is already written in past tense, then how do you relate information that is even more past tense?
|Because it's timey-wimey and past tense within past tense! Eh? Eh?|
Past Perfect Tense
The answer lies on our list of the sixteen different tenses in English. Most stories in past tense employ the “Past Simple” tense (Freja picked up the gun and pointed it at the guard). In order to relate events that happened before the current narrative, you simply need to switch to “Past Perfect” tense—it’s the tense that uses the word “had” a whole lot:
Freja studied the ramshackle warehouse from the pub across the street. There were no signs of activity around it. But she had visited every other building on the list, and had found nothing. If this wasn’t where the cultists were hiding, then the list was wrong.
Most of that paragraph is written in past simple tense: “Freja studied,” “There were,” and “This wasn’t.” But that third, highlighted sentence is relating events that happened before the rest of the paragraph, so it uses had to drop into past perfect tense—even further in the past than the rest of the story.
Many writers forget the hads, leaving background events in the same tense as the rest of the narrative, like so:
Freja studied the ramshackle warehouse from the pub across the street. There were no signs of activity around it. But she visited every other building on the list, and found nothing. If this wasn’t where the cultists were hiding, then the list was wrong.
See the problem? Now there’s nothing in that third sentence to indicate that those events happened before the rest of the paragraph—it almost sounds like Freja sat in the pub studying the warehouse, left and visited a bunch of other buildings, and then returned. Readers would probably puzzle out what the writer really meant, but it’s needlessly confusing.
So, you can use “had” in past perfect tense to relate events that happened before the current events of the narrative, but there’s still a problem: all those hads can really clutter up your prose. Past perfect tense can become really tiresome to read and to write if it goes on for more than a paragraph or so. For backstory that would take any longer than that to relate (anything you might call a bona fide flashback), you’ll probably want to use another method to share the information.
Past Perfect Introduction
One method is to use a few passages of hads to introduce your flashback, and then transition back into past simple tense for the rest of the backstory. Then, when you return to the “present” events of the narrative, you mark that transition with the word now or something similar. For example:
Freja approached the warehouse empty-handed and alone. She had learned that weapons and backup would do her no good when she had gone up against the cult at the apartment complex in Copenhagen. She had been armed with an H&K MP5 rifle and her 9mm pistol, and had brought along two AKS squadrons for the raid.
The first squadron went into the complex through the front doors while Freja led the second squadron through the rear. They rammed in the doors, forgoing stealth for speed and surprise.
[More events, etcetera.]
When her backup pistol jammed as well, Freya was forced to withdraw with the rest of the squadron. It had been an unmitigated disaster.
This time, Freya was armed with only her wits and the small book of spells that Emil had given her. But with her new understanding of what the cultists were, she knew she could stop them on her own. She walked up to the warehouse door and pulled it open.
See how it works? A few sentences of past perfect tense at the beginning (and one at the end) let readers know that we’re jumping backwards in time. This can still be a little confusing for readers if you’re not careful with it, but it is far more readable than umpteen paragraphs of hads.
Break and Flashback
An even clearer method of relating a flashback is to simply use a line break or chapter break to show your readers that you are switching gears and to then relate your flashback in the same tense as the rest of the story. This method is used quite often by many authors. You can find some professionally-done examples in several books that I can think of off the top of my head:
The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan (Book four of The Wheel of Time)—this is the method by which Mr. Jordan related the history of the Aiel when Rand went to Rhuidean. Note that he used an in-world method of delivering the flashbacks; that is, these were memories being projected into the mind of the protagonist, and we received them as he did.
The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson—the first two books of The Stormlight Archive have both featured entire chapters devoted to the backstory of one of the characters (Kaladin in the first book and Shallan in the second). These chapters are scattered throughout the book, effectively serving as a series of flashbacks.
Holes by Louis Sachar—this book is actually unusually complex compared to most middle-grade stories. The story continually jumps around between the “present day” events of the story to the recent background of individual characters to various historical events that pertain to the narrative. In fact, in this book Mr. Sachar employs every single method of delivering backstory that I’ve outlined in this post. If you want to improve your flashback delivery, go read Holes and pay close attention to his tense usage. In fact, that’s your homework—who doesn’t want to read Holes again, am I right? Go do it.