Saturday, August 15, 2015

Past-Perfect vs. Headings: Creating Smooth Flashback Scenes



I recently edited a piece from an author that had a significant number of what I term "flashback scenes." This particular piece was written in first-person past-tense (I was, I went, etc.), so when the main character expressed a reflection or memory within the regular narrative, in order to illustrate itself as a memory, it had to be written in past-perfect tense (or what a good friend and author terms "past-past" tense - I had been, I had gone, etc.). Is there a problem with this?

Grammatically speaking, no. However, it does make things complicated and somewhat tedious to read, if past-perfect reflections/memories are extensive. What if the memory or reflection is so extensive that you are remembering yourself remembering things from prior to the reflection? You end up with so many "had had" inserts that it's like looking at a puzzle. Without doing it like that, though, you risk the reader misunderstanding the sequence of events as you're attempting to lay it out.

This copy editor's opinion is that past-perfect tense should only be used selectively, in small doses. Does this mean I don't want to see flashback scenes and that I think every author's narrative should come out in a linear fashion? No, most definitely not. How boring would that be? My own writing certainly doesn't come out linearly.

But there's an alternative: headings, also known as subtitles. It's lately trendy to use subtitles at the beginning of each chapter to illustrate perspective change, so that a novel or story can be written from multiple perspectives. As a reader, and as a proofreader, I love this method - it's so clear, and with the headings, I, the editor, have less confusion that I have to go directly to the author to reconcile. If someone slips into the other perspective beneath the other character's heading, I can change that effectively. The same is true - perhaps even more so - of time changes. "First meeting," or "1975," can tell the reader to shift his or her perspective in just a few short words - the writing that follows will be much clearer and more understandable, as it will maintain the established tense of the book. Consider headings - and pepper in your past-perfect in tiny doses.

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