This issue comes up a lot, framed in a lot of ways.
Essentially: “How do we manage chronology in our stories, vis-a-vis the narrative point-of-view?”*
First caveat: I’m no expert. In fact, there are no experts on this. (However, there are people who supposedly know all the “rules”—and have the paperwork to prove it—but in my experience you don’t want to take writing advice from them.) Because…
Second caveat: There are no rules. This is art, not science, right? Whatever works, works.
Third caveat: I can only tell you what works for me, and maybe a few other writers I know. You need to try things out and see what works for you. Your solution may be different than mine, which is wonderful.
[*For me, the only meaningful answer to this question is some version of: In a way that feels smooth and natural and transparent to the reader. That’s all that matters. All else is low-signal and high-noise.]
Let’s look at the most common example: managing flashbacks.
The very first issue to consider: Does the benefit of the flashback outweigh the cost of removing the reader from where she is and flinging her somewhere new, then waiting for her to get acclimated to the new place, then bringing her back to the present? That’s totally up to you, but overall I’d say there seems to be a tendency for newer writers to want to put flashbacks into their early pages because they think the most important thing is that the reader understands everything from the get-go. That’s not really the goal… the goal is to get the reader immersed in the character/scene to the point where they’re invested in the character and the story feels real to them. If you do that, they’ll follow you anywhere. (And of course they’ll expect you to catch them up a bit at a time as you go along, and you should hold up your end of the bargain and do just that, but not at the expense of throwing them out of the story by info-dumping or jerking them back and forth in time just so they have “all the facts.”)
In brief: Information is not nearly as important as interest.
But sooner or later—when the reader knows the character and the time/place in which they reside—you may need to jump back and show them something important that happened before the story started.
In the above sentence, the operative word is “show.” That’s why we use flashbacks… to show a scene instead of just telling us, Six months ago, X happened. If you can simply tell us that and it feels natural and doesn’t interrupt the flow (and we don’t need a high level of detail) then by all means, do that.
But otherwise, the goal of a flashback should be to make it feel like part of the story, not like a separate, non-story event. While still making us aware that it happened before the present story time.
One way to do this is to have the POV character say or think something that relates to previous events; have a scene break; set us clearly where—and when—the back-in-time scene happens. And then…
Then… if you’re going “by the rules,” you would use the past perfect tense to describe everything that happened in the past. (Ex: “I had done this, then she had done that, and then we’d decided to do this other thing…”) Which is 100% correct, except… (and feel free to insert f-bombs for emphasis as you read this) it doesn’t feel like story—it feels like someone telling you what happened. Which is in violation of the ‘how do we do it?’ answer, namely: In a way that feels smooth and natural and transparent to the reader.
So instead, consider tossing the rules and not doing the whole ‘past perfect tense’ thing. Instead, consider completing the three pre-flashback steps above, then starting the body of the flashback with one or two uses of past perfect tense, then segueing into regular past tense for the duration of the flashback scene (assuming the rest of the book is in past tense, of course, otherwise use whatever you’re using), then another mechanical scene break, then bring us back to the present with something (action, dialog) that takes up where the pre-flashback scene left off.
For an example, let’s make up a goofy little origin story which transitions present-past-present (as origin stories are wont to do)…
### ### ###
[story, story, story…]
…and as I crested the hill it occurred to me that riding a blazing unicycle from hell felt as natural to me as riding a bicycle did to most boys, but it sure wasn’t always that way…
I’d wanted a unicycle for as long as I could remember, but I’d never expected Krampus Himself to conjure me up the Flaming Wheel of Fire on Krampusnacht three years ago.
I woke early that morning—well before the sun—expecting the usual oranges and walnuts and such from Saint Nicholas, because I’d been “good.” (Well, except for that episode with Petra in her father’s barn, but we’re not talking about that.) But I guess that horned asshole knew all about it, because he showed up instead of Ol’ Nicky, and instead of treats he had a bundle of birch rods for whipping my bottom, along with a fierce grin... indicating he was going to enjoy said whipping rather more than I.
In a moment of terror-inspired brilliance I held up a finger, quietly reached behind the pantry curtain, and brought out a jug of my father’s favorite schnapps and a couple of stone mugs. “You can whip me and carry me off,” I offered, “or you can have a drink. Your choice, my good sir.”
Well, everyone knows schnapps is Krampus’ second-favorite thing, so pretty soon we were knocking 'em back like two old mates down to the public house.
“So, what do ya really want, my boy?” he rumbled.
Leaving that frighteningly possessive pronoun aside, visions of oranges and chocolates flew in one earhole and out the other. “Well, sir…”
“Drop that sir shit!” he boomed, half in his cups already.
I took a swig. “Well, Krampy… what I really want is a unicycle.”
“A unicycle???” I was certain he’d wake my parents, but you don’t just shush Krampus, now do you? I bobbed my head. He rubbed his hands. “But it’d have to be a… special sort of unicycle, wouldn’t ya think?” No, I did not think. But I just nodded again. What would you have done—argue with him, I s’pose?
He reached into his big black bag—I could just make out the mewling of some of the less-quick-on-their-feet village boys—then pulled out a feathered pinecone and flung it into the fireplace with such force that it cracked a brick. After the smoke cleared and he’d disappeared—precisely as my parents awoke—standing of its own accord in front of the hearth was my singular wish. Already alight.
As I barreled down the backside of the hill, I had to give the devil his due… that fiery rocket of a monocycle has changed my life in ways I couldn’t have fathomed back when he first gifted me—or cursed me—with it.
In fact, waiting for me at the bottom of the hill was…
[story, story, story…]
### ### ###
(1) POV thinks/says something related to the past;
(2) use a mechanical scene break of some kind;
(3) anchor the flashback early in the scene;
(4) maybe use a little past perfect—if at all—then;
(5) dump it and get back into your normal tense (which will feel way better to the reader), then;
(6) use another mechanical scene break, and finally;
(7) anchor us firmly back in the present with a familiar or expected action.
Or… use any other methodology of your choice.
I think the cardinal thing to keep in mind here is that a flashback should be a scene, and the sooner it feels like a scene and not an info-dumpy chunk of exposition, the smoother and more natural it’ll feel to the reader.
And, therefore, the lower the cost of diverting the reader from the present to the past and back again, which is all to the good.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.