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I am thinking of employing the historical present tense in a first-person narrative (to achieve a greater level of immediacy). The problem is that I am telling the story in a non-linear manner, i.e. there is a flashback, which I would like to write in present tense, as well:

San Francisco is just coming to life. I can see all of downtown from my hotel room. Ten stories below, the traffic is backed up on Powell Street. ... etc. ... etc.

Two weeks earlier, I am sitting in a bar in New Orleans. The bartender asks me etc. etc.

This sounds odd. Is there a graceful way of handling the transition into the flashback, while maintaining the present tense voice? Or should I stick with past tense, or choose a linear story structure?

  • This seems fine to me. When you actually do the time jump, 3 quick words may not be enough. Presumably there are plot reasons to do this, so use something in the plot the reader knows is not current. If you follow "Two weeks earlier" with a conversation between the protagonist and another character the reader knows died a week ago, you use the story itself to reinforce the time jump. The MC can even say things like "…but I don't know that yet, see? He's lying right to my face and I'm believing every word…" Commit to the narrator voice, readers will follow the STORY, even if they miss a cue. – wetcircuit Oct 27 '18 at 16:55
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Try this:

San Francisco is just coming to life. I can see all of downtown from my hotel room. Ten stories below, the traffic is backed up on Powell Street. ... etc. ... etc.

Two weeks earlier
I am sitting in a bar in New Orleans. The bartender asks me etc. etc.

The italics on their own line become a timestamp rather than part of the sentence.

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You're making the time shift too casual, too non-committing. That's a major jump granting a new section or at the very least a new paragraph. You can't just go by with a single clause of a longer sentence.

Lauren is quite right when making it stand out with italics, but if you want to avoid formatting it that way or think it disrupts the flow, you can fit it within your format by making the shift a clear, easily visible paragraph:

San Francisco is just coming to life. I can see all of downtown from my hotel room. Ten stories below, the traffic is backed up on Powell Street. ... etc. ... etc.

Cue to a bar in New Orleans, two weeks ago.

I am sitting in the bar. The bartender asks me etc. etc.

There are many ways to achieve that.

  • My mind wanders to the events from...
  • But let us leave ... and go backin time to...
  • That was two weeks ago. The events replay vividly in my memory.
  • So, how did we arrive at that? We must skip two weeks back, to...

Now there's still a matter of recovering smoothly from such a reminiscence and going back to the present day, but that's a subject for a different question.

  • Cue to a bar ...? This sounds very odd if you're writing prose instead of a screenplay. (N.B. in a screenplay, the direction would be Cut to .... You don't use to with cue, as it takes a direct object: Cue jackhammer noises outside the window.) – Robusto Feb 16 '13 at 14:32
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You can accomplish what you want with a single punctuation change, comma to colon:

Two weeks earlier: I am sitting in a bar in New Orleans . . .

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Historical present tense can be used a little differently in fiction, and effectively. This works quite well in first-person narratives. To distinguish this between full present tense narration and full past tense narration, I suggest defining two types of events:

1) incidental events that happen, end, and are observed. Since one can only remark on an incidental event after it occurs, observation implies that the event has already happened, so it is now in the narrator's past, and takes the past tense.

2) Ongoing conditions. 'Ongoing' implies the observed condition is still happening and still exists, which can include the narrator's present location on the narrative timeline, so then takes the present tense.

One can have these in the same paragraph without that being an improper shift of tense. Example:

My visitor stepped forward and placed her little bottom precisely in a chair. She seems like a smart lady, speaks the King's English, carries herself well.

The narrator is describing an experience as it happens to him, as he observes it.

'Stepping and sitting' are incidental events. IOW, they happen and they're over, and the narrator comments on them, after. So, his comment refers to the immediate past, and it takes the past tense. But his observation of her nature is of an ongoing event. She seems smart to him, which is ongoing, happening 'now', and continuing, so it takes present tense.

This is much preferred to full present tense. If the narrator had said "My visitor steps forward and places her little bottom precisely in a chair", that might sound unnatural, weird, and awkward, and that could likely be the reason that present tense prose rarely finds an audience.

I also prefer it to full past tense. It places the reader right there in the room at the time the scene occurs, rather than them hearing about it later. The incidental events have 'just happened' in the immediate past, so they still provide the psychological feeling of the scene happening 'now' to both the narrator and the reader, and the reader can identify directly with the protagonist this way, mirror neurons firing strongly.

But it's tricky to do. We write in past tense naturally, but to do this you must look at every item in a scene and determine if it is an incidental event or an ongoing condition, and tense accordingly. This is writing tense by using a scalpel to craft it rather than a broadsword. But it works.

It is likely not recommended to extend this to flashbacks. A narrator telling the reader about something that obviously happened earlier (in reference to where the narrator is currently in the timeline) probably would be less confusing to that reader if it remains in past tense. But for moments or scenes that are happening to the narrator 'now', it makes a lot of sense. And not using it in the flashbacks makes both the 'present' stand out in the narrative for the reader, as well as the 'past' stand out in what is considered the narrator's past, so this can provide contrast and broaden the prose.

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