1. mashers
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    mashers Senior Member

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    Writing in past tense about things that happened before the current point in the timeline

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by mashers, Jun 17, 2016.

    Hi all

    My story is in 3rd person, written in past tense. Pretty standard I suppose. I'm having a bit of trouble describing an event which has happened in a character's past, before the current point in the timeline. The situation is that the character habitually breaks in to a derelict hotel to find resources. The things which are happening at the current point in the timeline are described using verbs conjugated in past tense, but I want to describe how the character discovered that he could get into the hotel. This obviously happened before the current point in the timeline, so I have been writing this part using 'had', as follows:

    There are a few paragraphs of description of this event, and I'm not sure whether I should continue using 'had' to describe it until I return to the current point in the timeline, or whether doing it once is enough to signal to the reader that we're going further back in time and should then return to just using past tense.

    Also, how do I signal to the reader that we are now returning to the current point in the timeline, before this 'flashback'?
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I wouldn't keep using "had." I think as long as you've got a block of text that takes place in the past, the initial use of "had" will be sufficient. To transition back, you can use something as simple as a "now" at the beginning of a sentence. For example, "Now, he was able to get into the hotel any time he felt like it," and then continue forward with the current events.

    I also think I'd take out the first "had been" in reference to the door being unlocked. That makes it sound, to me, like a single occurrence, when then idea seems to be that this door is always unlocked. So, something like (just by way of example; I'm also cutting some words, but that's just me. It's an example, not meant to imply you should write it the way I would :D ):

    The entire sea-facing side of the hotel was covered in a grid-like arrangement of balconies, each accessed from its hotel room through large French doors. One of the doors was always unlocked, a fact Arlo discovered on a particularly desperate night. He had shinned his way up a drainpipe and climbed over the glass barrier around the edge of the bottom left-most balcony.
     
  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    The general expectation is to use past perfect a few times to make it clear you've jumped back in time, then shift back to simple past. I don't like it, just because I like complete order and regularity in all things, but... it seems to be well accepted.

    And then when you're done the flashback, I think it's useful to use a couple phrases in past perfect to clarify the transition.

    For my taste, though? I really don't think it's all that awful to just stay in past perfect. If you were writing entire chapters in the further-back time it might be an issue, but for my taste, for a few paragraphs? I'd stay in past perfect. But brace yourself for editors to suggest changes....
     
  4. mashers
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    mashers Senior Member

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    Thanks for the responses guys. I have found while writing this passage that I've returned to past tense automatically and this feels more natural. I'm glad this would be acceptable and that I don't need to keep using 'had', as it would feel clumsy to me. I do see your point @BayView that this seems inconsistent, and that's what led me to ask this question. I wasn't sure if the reader would realise that they hadn't returned to the part before the flashback unless it was all written in past perfect. The tip of using 'now' to return to current time is a good one. As @BayView suggested, I'll include one more past perfect just for clarity, such as:

    Do you think that makes it clear enough that the flashback is over?

    With regard to 'One of these doors had been left unlocked', doesn't 'was always unlocked' imply that it had never been locked? How do we know that? To me, 'had been left unlocked' implies that at one point it had been locked, then somebody unlocked it, and then it was never locked again. But I don't know if I just think that because I have that knowledge and that's affecting my interpretation of the grammar :confused:
     
  5. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @mashers

    I like your sentence that starts with "But now, his quarry was more indulgent..." I think that works great to return to the present.

    I don't think that saying the door was always unlocked implies that it had never been locked. We're in a close third-person point of view, so all of this is filtered through the character's perception. "Was always unlocked," or anything along those lines, tells me that in the character's experience, it was always open. Not that it had never in its history been locked, just that it was never locked when the character tried it.
     
  6. mashers
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    mashers Senior Member

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    @Steerpike
    Ahh of course, in the character's perception it was always unlocked. So from his POV it makes perfect sense to word it this way. Thanks! :)
     
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  7. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Sure thing. Just my perspective, of course :)
     
  8. mashers
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    mashers Senior Member

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    Well as I said in my introduction thread, I find it hard to take others' perspectives and sometimes it helps for other people to help me work it out :)
     
  9. Elven Candy
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    Elven Candy Contributing Member

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    I love your transition back to the present! One of my biggest frustrations with flashbacks is the author rarely makes it obvious when the flashback begins and when it ends. When it starts is usually the most confusing, so be careful to make it obvious.
     
  10. mashers
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    mashers Senior Member

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    @Elven Candy
    That's good advice, and I appreciate the feedback :)
     
  11. Zorg
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    Zorg Member

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    This thread helped me also. I recently had an example of a flashback read by my writer's group, and even though it was kinda sorta obvious, it got missed all together.
     

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