I'm thinking of writing a novel where my character narrates flashbacks through the hardest times of his life written in past tense, leading up to the present tense. I was considering switching to present tense only directly before and throughout the climax of the book so that the reader can understand the character's actions.

By writing the beggining of the book as a series of flashbacks I can skip through many years without boring the reader. Then, when he has described the events up to the present day, he will describe his current location and condition and proceed to initiate the climax.

So would this kind of switch be ok for a book written in first person point of view?

By the way, I'm not a pro writer at all this was just an idea that I had and would like to try.

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    If you want the Nobel prize, you should probably put the climax before the flashbacks, or in the middle. That's artsy. They'll love that. And make sure to borrow a line from a famous poet for your title. If you want to go all the way, screw around with your punctuation. But that takes real nerve. Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 7:27
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    Now now, Aerovistae, be gentle to the newbie. Have some eggnog and read a more conventionally-structured novel. You'll feel better. :) Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 13:00

3 Answers 3


That actually might be really interesting. Particularly if you label the flashbacks as "1958" or "Forty years ago," and then the present is "now" or "Present day." And if your flashbacks get closer together (one year ago, six months ago, four months ago, six weeks ago, three weeks ago, one week ago, three days ago, thirty-six hours ago...) and speed up, that adds its own tension.

I say go for it and see if you can make it work. At worst, if it fails, you'll only have to change the last part to past tense.

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    "Even if it doesn't work, it'll be easy to salvage" is a great rule of thumb for when to try something new in any endeavor! :] Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 15:26
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    Why be so obvious about them? Wouldn't it be far better to let the reader figure out that they're flashbacks by the narrative? Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 17:07
  • 1) Because it might not be obvious, especially if you open the book with a flashback. How are we supposed to know we are "flashing back" to childhood and that the "present" narrator is an adult if the first chapter starts with a child? 2) There's a fine line between "let the reader figure it out" and "making the reader struggle to figure out what's happening." I may want my readers to wrestle with moral issues, but I don't want them to fight for location and time. Which see Jay's answer. Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 18:28

I think that beginning with a series of flashbacks might be difficult for the reader to follow if there was no sense of what they are moving towards. This might not be exactly what you are doing, but in any case my advice would be to consider an in medias res structure. Instead of narrating consecutive flashbacks leading up to the present, begin with a moment just before the climax in present tense, and then revert to flashbacks. This introduces the narrator, introduces the conflict, and gives some context to the flashbacks. It also gives the reader added motivation to figure out what links the flashbacks. The key when using flashbacks of any kind, though, is in the effectiveness of the narrative transitions into and out of the present.

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    AUGH NO PLEASE NO That technique does work but it has been DONE. TO. DEATH. in every narrative medium in the last five years. I cannot turn on the TV without seeing an episode of something opening right before the climax and then cutting to "Twelve hours ago..." or "Two days ago...." If you label your flashbacks, you can even start your book with "Twenty-five years ago" and people will get it. But opening with the end is starting to feel like a cheap way to get the reader hooked. You can do better. Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 13:02
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    this technique is as old as storytelling. homer employed it, so did virgil, so did the norse epic singers. if it has been used contritely that is no fault of the technique. for that matter, comparing the tropes of television writing to novel writing is dangerous for precisely this reason. television is laden with contrived storytelling elements due to time constraints. an in medias res narrative structure doesn't have to begin just before the climax. the purpose, as i see it, is in creating early conflict. thus, homer begins the odyssey with odysseus on the brink of death. to be cont...
    – tylerharms
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 16:18
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    sure, there are countless bad examples of a story that begins with someone dangling from a cliff edge and a narrator saying something like, "before we go any further, let me back up to last week, when this precarious position..." that's contrite, that's been done, but that's an issue of personal style and not a criticism of the form. the same could be said of dateline tags leading us through flashback sequences. i'm not going to go any further. i agree that it could be contrite, but so could anything done poorly...
    – tylerharms
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 16:24
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    i'm offering a counter-perspective to OPs conflict. i don't know what the story is, but i think the in medias res structure is valid and has precedent, regardless of how television butchers it.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 16:28
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    I really want the climax to be a surprise so the reader is kept in suspense, instead of them already knowing the ending.
    – Nick
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 20:45

One can debate the validity of the flashback technique, as Lauren Ipsum and Tylerharms do in the comments on another answer. Like many techniques, it can be done well and it can be done lamely.

(Oh, how I hate movies that start out with a character brooding over the scene of the disaster -- whether it's the end of his marriage or the end of the world or whatever -- and then he stares soulfully at the camera and says, "Let me remember, how did it all begin ..." Lame lame lame!!)

What's the difference between a good use of flashbacks and a lame use of flashbacks? I wish I knew simple criteria I could give.

One point: Make it clear to the reader what's the present and what's a flashback. I've read many books where I got really confused because it wasn't clear what was what. I'd be halfway through a scene before I realized it was a flashback. I recall one book where I was halfway through the book before I realized that it was all a flashback from the first scene. Whether that's a simple, "Twenty years ago ..." or something more artistic, make it obvious.

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