The Ability to Control Time – Part 2

The great thing about fiction writing is that writers can manipulate time to move the story forward; however, there are also times that need to move the story backward. 

This is the premise of a flashback or indirect recollection.

Part 1 looked at how to move the story forward to clearly show the reader the passing of time – known as transition – so that they understand a period of time has continued from one scene or chapter to another, without confusing things. That ability to control time in a novel gives the writer the freedom to show much more to the reader than reality would allow.

In order to tell the entire story, time must be controlled, whether that’s going forward or backward. That way, the readers can that see that some events that have happened in the past directly relate to the present story. If used correctly, the use of flashback – known as analepsis – is a good way of providing necessary or vital information to the reader to keep the story moving forward, and to retain the reader’s interest. A well written flashback provides more context and depth, not only to the story, but also to the characters, since what has happened to them in the past directly influences how they behave in the present.

The structure of a flashback, while not complicated, means that most of them slow the pace, because they’re recollections (unless the flashback is actually action packed), so it’s important to know when to place a flashback without interrupting the flow of your story. For example, don’t place a flashback during or just before an action scene because this will disrupt the story, kill the pace (and the action) and it will frustrate your reader.

Think about why the flashback is needed and what it wants to impart to the reader and how it affects the present. Often they are most effective towards the beginning or in the middle of your story.

Flashbacks are distinguished by way of their structure – the verb tense changes to past pluperfect tense, which is the past tense of the verb to have (had) + the past participle of the main verb. This shows the reader that time has moved from present to sometime in the past, for instance:

He sipped his coffee and thought about the photograph in his hand.

He had seen that symbol before. At school. It had adorned the halls in pictures and flags at the time, and he remembered the old headmaster’s signet ring also had the same cross key emblem.

The narrative – written in past tense – shows the character in the present, drinking coffee, but then moves effortlessly into a flashback. The use of ‘had’ is past pluperfect. It shows the reader that the event being described is in the distant past, rather than the recent past. It also describes a school and the headmaster, so it gives the reader more clues as to when this happened. In other words, it’s part of the character’s distant memories. 

Flashbacks – as long as they’re not overused and are not overly long – give the reader tantalizing glimpses into the past. Along with transitional scenes, they allow some narrative time travel – forward and backward…minutes, days, months and even years.

How you use time within your novel is down to you, but the ability to control time is what gives a story more depth and perspective.



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