I had a rather heated discussion with my writing group a couple of weeks ago. The topic was tense and flashbacks. I’m something of a pluperfect gal (come on, it comes from the Latin plus quam perfectum meaning “more than perfect”–how could you not use it?).
So my writing partner wrote the beginning portion of her flashback in pluperfect, then after a sentence or two switched to perfect. Huh? I marked it up, correcting everything into pluperfect until we entered the “now” of her book again. She got a bit peeved (who wouldn’t with “had” s inserted everywhere), saying she deliberately did it that way, she didn’t inadvertently switch tenses. Apparently all the kids are doing it, and my insistence on the pluperfect is old fashioned.
Okay, I’m not dogmatic about the pluperfect. I used to be, then I read Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and my sense of tense got all screwy. Besides having written an excellent book, Irving moves in and out of the past as gracefully as a dolphin leaps from the sea. The “now” of the book is the late 1980’s, but the main character is reminiscing and recounting events that happened ten, twenty years ago. And it’s all written in the perfect tense. None of this had had business. Irving needed to do it this way for the narrator’s recountings last for pages and pages. Imagine reading all of that in pluperfect. But never once are you confused about the when of the characters in a particular passage. The choice in avoiding the pluperfect integrates the fictional past and preset seamlessly, enhancing the mystic qualities of the book.
Inspired, I tried it myself. It’s tricker than it sounds, to differentiate relative fictional times without resorting to some sort of gimmicky “Back then she was pretty. Now as she stared into the mirror…” I think some of my instances work, some definitely don’t. In any event, I’ve come to the conclusion that you should still stick to one way or the other in a passage. No switching back and forth a couple of sentences into a flashback because it’s confusing. But apparently that’s no longer convention, either. I guess I’m just behind the times.