My understanding was that it's fairly normal for a present-tense novel to switch into past tense in a backstory sequence. But I was having a conversation with a friend and he insists any tense switching is distracting. I'm confused, is this true? What would be the alternative device in switching to a backstory narrative other than switching into a past tense?

And also a follow-up question. I sometimes mix "right-now" scenes with a flashback, in that a scene cuts in the middle, space break, flashback, space break, and back to the scene. Is this too distracting?

2 Answers 2


It is uncommon and feels unnatural to narrate anything in one tense only.

Instead of believing your friend (what makes him an expert?) you might want to pick some contemporary fiction and confirm for yourself what writers (and editors) do.

Something like this is fairly commonplace:

I barely manage to drag myself from sleep when the alarm goes off. The night has been much too short, and the sun feels blindingly bright.

Does the tense switch feel wrong? No. People think of the past and future all the time, so if you write from the perspective of your protagonist, of course that person will remember things that have led up to the present moment and consider the future consequences. A person who lives completely in the present is either mentally disabled or a buddhist monk.

What might feel wrong and what you need to do well is how you integrate your backstory into the present events. When do you narrate it? Does it break the pace of the main plot? Is the backstory so long that it feels like you have switched to telling another story? Stuff like that. Only include as much of the backstory as you need for your main story. And include it in a way that feels natural to the narrative viewpoint.

A third person narrator can deviate farther and more completely from the main narrative, while a first person narrator will always be where he is and perceive and process his surroundings. He will usually not "drop out" of the here and now and relive the past as if in a trance, instead he will think of bits and pieces of the past while dealing with the present. So a full chapter backstory in a first person present tense narrative might indeed feel out of place.


"What would be the alternative device in switching to a backstory narrative other than switching into a past tense?"

An alternative device I have often seen work well is doing the opposite tense switch - that is, having the main narrative in the past tense and the back story in the present tense as a flashback. (In fact I don't see any significant difference between a backstory narrative and a flashback.) I perceive the past tense as the default tense for a story, so when I read a main narrative in the past tense I scarcely think about when the action is happening and concentrate on the action itself. In desirable contrast, when the flashback/backstory switches to the present tense the fact that the characters do not know what the future will bring is brought vividly to life. If the writer knows his or her job, that unknown future depicted in the main story is going to be dramatic. Thus the switch of tense can generate strong emotions of foreboding or pity.

I do not wish to suggest that this is the only "correct" way to handle time-switches, but it is quite common in commercially successful novels, particularly thrillers.

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