There is a difference between moving between the past and the present and moving between the past and present tense. In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, Smith moves between the past and the present. To tell the story of an unnamed narrator and her friend Tracey, Smith goes back and forth in time. She talks about the present day, and she talks about how they grew up in the 1970s and ’80s.
Despite the flashbacks, the novel is written in the past tense. Even the scenes that take place in the present are written in the past tense. Past tense is a way of expressing action that has happened. Many authors use the past tense to describe both the past and the present because the past tense tends to be more stable and less jarring.
Swing Time begins with “It was the first day of my humiliation.” The “was” indicates past tense. Despite the fact that this scene is happening in the present, Smith sticks with the past tense. The tense doesn’t necessarily reflect the period.
One great book that employs both flashbacks and different tenses is Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This book is about a boy who’s trying to figure out who killed his neighbor’s dog. The boy, whose name is Christopher John Francis Boone, uses the past tense to talk about what happened with the dog and the present tense to talk about what he’s doing right now—writing the book.
In chapter 7, Christopher writes, “This is a murder mystery novel.” The “is” alerts the reader that this is happening now. Christopher is telling his story this very moment. The “is” indicates present tense.
In chapter 11, things get a tad tricky. Christopher says, “Then the police arrived. I like the police.” The first sentence is in the past tense: Christopher uses “arrived” and not “arrive.” The second sentence then switches to the present tense, with Christopher using “like” and not “liked.” Yet Christopher manages to keeps things clear with short sentences.
Indeed, Haddon’s novel provides a solid blueprint for beginning writers seeking to understand how to best move between the past and the present, as well as the past and present tense. Basically, try and keep the sentences small and the chapters tight and organized. As a writer begins to get a firmer grasp on tenses and time periods, their sentences and chapters can gradually expand.