Present tense has a faster pace than past tense. Combined with a first person narrative, a story written in present tense puts the reader directly into the action with the sense of immediacy and urgency that you create.
However present tense can tend to stick out like scaffolding, while past tense disappears into the background, much like the "said" dialogue tags.
Pluperfect Tense (Past Perfect Tense)
Lengthy flashbacks don't need to remain in pluperfect tense when you're writing your narrative in past tense. This is especially relevant if dialogue is quoted in the flashback scene, as it's jarring for the reader to see "had said" too often. The opening sentence or two indicate the reference to the past; once this is established the narrator can move into that "past" scene, making the action current, as long as the start and end points are clear to avoid confusion.
If you find yourself writing "had" often in scenes that are too short to easily move into current action, there are a few things you can do to avoid this problem. The simplest is to use contractions as much as possible. “She’d said”, “He’d walked” roll off the tongue much better than “She had said” and “He had walked”.
Another idea is to have your character tell the story to another character instead of using a flashback. This allows the use of past tense while making it clear that the event is a memory. Or rethink your use of an entire flashback scene. Is it really necessary?
If you can’t figure out another way around the issue, you might want to consider using present tense instead for your narrative, so that references to the past take the easier past tense.
Or another option that is gaining popularity is writing your flashbacks in present tense to give them the immediacy and timelessness of memories, while your current story is written in past tense. With this style it is important to clarify in some way (for example, leaving a double paragraph space as a segue) that you're referring to a memory and not accidentally mixing tenses.
Next time we'll look more at mixing tenses.
Thanks to Peg Herring, author of the Tudor mystery, Her Highness' First Murder and James Valco, author of The Find, who posed questions about tenses at our Ask the Editor session on Tuesday.
Elsa Neal owns HearWriteNow.com, an online magazine for writers. Download her free report on The Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them and read her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog. Elle is based in Melbourne, Australia.