So, someone from ELL suggested that I ask my question on this forum. I do not want to know if nested flashbacks are okay. I am simply asking about tense. Thanks for the help! Question is below:

Should a flashback be written in past tense? And if so, should the flashback occurring in it be in past tense as well or past perfect tense?

Past perfect tense w/in present tense or Past tense w/in past tense or Past perfect tense w/in past tense Example below:

(Flashback 1 in present)

Samt takes hold of Judiada’s arms and says, “Ju . . . Judiada, I . . . I am hysterical.”

“I will be as forthright as possible, Samt . . .” Judiada bites his bottom lip and then folds his arms over his chest, “we have to calm the people of Tarbus. You are next in line. We’ll do an emergency coronation ceremony—”


“Samt, we have to,” pleads Judiada.

or (flashback 1 in past tense)

“The spirit of Anaris would never give her approval,” said Samt. “No emergency coronation is to be held, Judiada. Lāza’s still out there.” Walking in circles, Samt grabbed his sun-streaked, shoulder length hair in frustration and said, “He was here getting ready. Here. I just talked to him!” He stopped and looked at Judiada. “Doi minu teelio!” Three weeks ago!” Samt took a seat and remembered his last conversation with Lāza.

Three weeks earlier . . .

(Flashback 2 past perfect tense)

Samt had grown tired of listening to the takeoff and landings of spacecrafts while standing in the control room. His anxiousness had turned into boredom while he waited to talk with his superior, Lāza Holmes. Lāza was to set off for his next voyage after their meeting.

Samt looked at the numeral box and noticed that Lāza was beyond late. Samt packed his carrying bag and then headed to the door. He decided that he’d wait to talk to Lāza after he completed his mission. Samt opened the door and before he could walk out, Lāza was walking onto the space carrier deck.

  • 3
    There is no rule or even strong convention regarding how you tell a story. Abrupt shifts from one perspective to another are common even in formal history, and in fiction it's a matter entirely of the author's taste, intent, and knowledge of her audience. Jul 4, 2015 at 1:31
  • So, I wouldn't be "wrong" if I used any of the tenses? @ StoneyB I just want to use correct grammar and not seem like an idiot when I push this forward to my editor. My intent is to have as good a grasp on when and where to use certain tenses in narrative writing, i.e. flashbacks. Jul 4, 2015 at 1:38
  • It's a question of what effect you're aiming at, and how skilfully you aim. Jul 4, 2015 at 1:45
  • Well, I think that the best solution would be to write the first flashback in past tense and then write the flashback within it in past perfect tense. That way I won't confuse the reader since the rest of the story takes place in the third-person, present tense style. Jul 4, 2015 at 2:02

1 Answer 1


First of all, see my answer to a similar question on Writers.SE, it covers many different flashback-present time combos. But it does not cover the second flashback, which is very simple. The second flashback has two options: it can be in the same tense as the first flashback, or one tense more in the past. For convenience, I will list all of those tense combos here, in the form present time-flashback 1-flashback 2:

  • Present-present-present: Okay, as long as you make it clear that there is a flashback.
  • Present-past-past: This works very well, as the flashbacks are clear. You may want to go back to the present time quickly between flashbacks
  • Present-past-past perfect: This is okay and very clear, but it seems like the tense changes too much, and the reader gets a bit confused.
  • Past-past-past: Great option. As long as the flashbacks are clear.
  • Past-past-past perfect: Another good one.
  • Past-past perfect-past perfect: My personal favorite. Keeps it simple with two tenses, but the flashbacks are clear, and you get to write in past tense, which is good.
  • Past perfect-past perfect-past perfect: No.

So what's the answer? You choose! This is your writing, do whatever you want! If you don't have a choice, try them all out!

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