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I am thinking of employing the historical present tense in a first-person narrative (to achieve a greater level of immediacy). The problem is that I am telling the story in a non-linear manner, i.e. there is a flashback, which I would like to write in present tense, as well:

San Francisco is just coming to life. I can see all of downtown from my hotel room. Ten stories below, the traffic is backed up on Powell Street. ... etc. ... etc.

Two weeks earlier, I am sitting in a bar in New Orleans. The bartender asks me etc. etc.

This sounds odd. Is there a graceful way of handling the transition into the flashback, while maintaining the present tense voice? Or should I stick with past tense, or choose a linear story structure?

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3 Answers

Try this:

San Francisco is just coming to life. I can see all of downtown from my hotel room. Ten stories below, the traffic is backed up on Powell Street. ... etc. ... etc.

Two weeks earlier
I am sitting in a bar in New Orleans. The bartender asks me etc. etc.

The italics on their own line become a timestamp rather than part of the sentence.

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You're making the time shift too casual, too non-committing. That's a major jump granting a new section or at the very least a new paragraph. You can't just go by with a single clause of a longer sentence.

Lauren is quite right when making it stand out with italics, but if you want to avoid formatting it that way or think it disrupts the flow, you can fit it within your format by making the shift a clear, easily visible paragraph:

San Francisco is just coming to life. I can see all of downtown from my hotel room. Ten stories below, the traffic is backed up on Powell Street. ... etc. ... etc.

Cue to a bar in New Orleans, two weeks ago.

I am sitting in the bar. The bartender asks me etc. etc.

There are many ways to achieve that.

  • My mind wanders to the events from...
  • But let us leave ... and go backin time to...
  • That was two weeks ago. The events replay vividly in my memory.
  • So, how did we arrive at that? We must skip two weeks back, to...

Now there's still a matter of recovering smoothly from such a reminiscence and going back to the present day, but that's a subject for a different question.

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Cue to a bar ...? This sounds very odd if you're writing prose instead of a screenplay. (N.B. in a screenplay, the direction would be Cut to .... You don't use to with cue, as it takes a direct object: Cue jackhammer noises outside the window.) –  Robusto Feb 16 '13 at 14:32
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You can accomplish what you want with a single punctuation change, comma to colon:

Two weeks earlier: I am sitting in a bar in New Orleans . . .

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