I'm writing a novella. A lot of it is told from the protagonist's point of view when he is telling someone about the events of the last three years. I'm struggling with tenses.

I have written the pieces from the past in the present tense and the 'current day' pieces in past tense. Does this go against convention too much or can it work? What's the best way to tell a story with long flashbacks into present day?

  • Could you include an example of your writing, with the tenses you've described above? It may be easier to answer if you do. Apr 9, 2016 at 16:04
  • It seems relatively OK. Without an example, it's hard to give an answer. The biggest problem you'll have is when your time frame shifts, i.e., when you are referring to the past from your past time, or when you're referring to the present from your present time frame. I think you'll wind up with a lot of past and present perfect paragraphs. These are tricky. It can be done, but it's a huge pain in the arse. You'll wind up with mixed tense in the same paragraph to make it sound right.
    – Stu W
    Apr 10, 2016 at 14:25
  • 1
    Is there a reason you have set yourself this task, other than to attempt some sort of feat? If it's excellent writing, it will work. But it will have to be truly excellent.
    – Robusto
    Apr 11, 2016 at 1:50

1 Answer 1


Re. tenses - choice of tense is entirely up to you, but make sure you have considered the reason/s for your choice, and that they will make sense to your reader (e.g. does use of present tense make past events sound more immediate?).

Sometimes re-writing a paragraph in different tenses can help clarify which tense 'feels' most suitable.

If your reader can clearly understand when your action takes place, there should be no real issue with which tense you choose. However, if you want to make things less explicit (leave the reader to work out what is happening when) then you may need to reconsider your choice of tenses.

Re. telling a story with long flashbacks:

Try to make sure you have strong connections between flashback and present day, a logical reason to structure a past narrative at that point, and that the flashback is always necessary to your plot. Then structure it in a way that makes sense to you - it's your story.

I recommend asking others for feedback quite early on, to see what their impression is as readers of how both these issues are working in your story.

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