Time is an important dimension in the writing of fiction. Usually, the story we’re reading took place in the past, and it’s generally written in the third person: “S/he said . . .”, “S/he thought . . .”, “S/he did . . . ” But it can also be told in the first person: “I said . . .”, “I thought . . .”, “I did . . .” It is possible, I suppose, to write a novel in the second person, past tense: “You said . . .”, “You thought . . .”, “You did . . .” The trouble with writing is the second person is that it is quite limiting: it puts another person (whoever “You” is) between the author and the other characters. Inevitably the reader will feel that “You” is acting as a filter of the events, and the reader will want to get rid of “You”, so that the author can report events, first-hand.
Novels can, of course be written in the present tense: “I say . . .”, “I think . . .”, “I do . . .” This construction has the advantage of being completely personal and focused on the central character. Also, the story seems to unfold in real time, so that cause and effect are more immediately clear. (It is possible, I suppose, to introduce flash-backs in a novel that is written in the present tense, but the author has to be very careful not to lose the reader.) Novels written in the third person, present tense are quite rare: “S/he says . . .”. “S/he thinks . . . “, “She does . . . ” They are rare because the author assumes a God-like position, reporting on all his characters in real time. This stretches the readers credibility, as would a novel written in the present tense, second person.
Novels written purely in the future tense (“S/he will say . . . “. “S/he will think . . .”, “S/he will do . . .” are pretty much impossible, because it raises the inevitable question from the reader: “How does the author know what this character will say or do?” Novelists tend to get around this problem by what one might call a ‘flash-forward technique’. This technique involves specifically telling the reader ‘what follows takes place in the future’. For example in Fishing in Foreign Seas, the book begins with a Prologue, which is signed by the ‘author’ in June 2029, and it closes with an Epilogue signed by the ‘author’ in November 2029. In between these chapters, the story unfolds between May 1992 and December 2004. This construction allows the principal characters’ daughter, born in 1994 to write the story about her parents in 2029. Who, but a daughter, would know all these secrets about her parents?
When one is writing a fast-moving story involving several influential characters who are in separate locations, one has to be careful about getting the sequence of events down perfectly. This is particularly true where several characters have a mistaken view of what has happened. For example, in my fourth novel, which involves the drugs trade in Afghanistan and Iran, a father and son are in Iran at the same time. But in a rapidly-evolving series of events, neither of them knows what has happened to the other, and both are dependent on external (and inaccurate) sources of information.
Flash-backs are, I think, a very useful way of letting the reader gain an understanding of a particular character’s motivation without the specific intervention of the author. In this regard, I am particularly fond of reporting a character’s dreams about a past event. In Efraim’s Eye, Efraim’s dreams help explain both his motivation to be a terrorist and his attitude toward women. And Naomi’s dreams cause her to seek shelter with Paul, which leads to their love affair.