In my 13 years of editing, proofreading, and workshopping with aspiring writers, there’s one mistake that seems to crop up over and over again. An awful lot of inexperienced writers seem to have trouble writing in a consistent tense.
On the surface, it seems simple. Tense is merely whether your story is set in the past, present, or future. Yet time and time again, I will see writers start out a story in past tense and then suddenly slip into the present for a paragraph or two. (Or even the rest of the story.) Why do so many writers make this same mistake?
Here’s my personal theory. We’re used to talking about things happening in the present moment. We experience time as an endless progression of events, all of which happen right now. In casual conversation, we often describe past events in the present tense, as if we are reliving them. Compare this to most literature, which is usually set in the past tense. It’s easy to see how someone who’s mostly used to narrating aloud might make this mistake.
It gets even more complicated when you’re writing in the present tense and your characters are talking about an event that’s already occurred. Or if you’re writing in the past tense about an event that happened even earlier than the events in the story. It’s easy to slip up after shifting back and forth grammatically for a few paragraphs.
The obvious problem with unintentional tense shifts runs a little deeper than just proper grammar. Over the course of a story, it can quickly become very confusing for the reader. Are we talking about a past event or not? Are we suddenly transported into the (character’s) future? What exactly is going on?
To get around this tricky problem, you need to do two things: pick a tense that fits the narrative, and stick with it.
How should you choose your story’s tense?
That’s a tough question. Past tense is the traditionally-accepted form and most of the books you’ll see on shelves today use it. If I had to venture a guess, I’d assume this is because the earliest stories were passed down orally through generations — often they were a history of that particular group of people, or a tale about how the Earth came to be the way it is. In those situations, past tense is the only form that makes sense. If you’re writing epic fantasy or a “traditional” narrative, past tense is the way to go.
But there are definitely situations where present tense makes more sense. In fact, present tense stories have become fairly mainstream in recent years. Here are just a few examples of books which do amazing things with the form:
- The Hunger Games
- Fight Club
- The Night Circus
- The Time Traveller’s Wife
- And the list continues over at Goodreads…for 18 pages!
In these particular books, the choice to write in present tense makes a lot of sense. The Hunger Games and Fight Club both deal with violent, dystopian realities. They draw you into a world where the past and future cease to matter. Everything that happens is a matter of survival in the present moment.
The Night Circus and The Time Traveller’s Wife are both stories that play with the concept of time — chapters happen out of sequential order, skipping between past, present, and future. Each scene is self-contained, and neither the reader or characters has any idea how it fits into the larger picture until they near the end of the book. In this way you are truly able to immerse yourself in the characters’ experiences, knowing exactly as much as they know about the bigger picture as you progress through the story.
You don’t have to have a narrative “reason” to write in the present tense, but it can be a powerful storytelling tool if used mindfully.
Oh, and about future tense? You could write a story in it if you want…but it will probably be hard to find an editor (or reader) who’s interested. I’ve never seen it done well. Anything you write in future tense will probably end up being pretty experimental. That being said, in the right hands it could work. Just think very carefully about whether it serves your story or simply confuses things.
Now, how to make sure you don’t slip into the wrong tense while writing?
Part of this is just practice! If you’re not used to writing in a particular tense, you will probably make mistakes. Here are the major trouble points I notice when I work with writers:
- You start in one tense and shift a couple of paragraphs in. The rest of the story is in a completely different tense. This is an easy fix: just change the first few paragraphs to match the rest of the story.
- You’re writing in one tense and then a character talks about or remembers an event in a different tense. For example: Jenny says, innocently batting her eyelashes, “Remember that time when we ran naked on the beach?” Ben nodded. He could still remember the salt spray beneath the moonlight. Your brain doesn’t always switch over when the dialogue ends. If you know this is a trouble spot for you, keep an eye out and proofread carefully.
- You aren’t clear on which verb tenses are appropriate in which situations. Since grammar isn’t really taught in many schools anymore, it’s a common difficulty. Luckily there’s some great resources out there to help you figure out which tense is appropriate for a particular situation, like this guide from Grammar Girl.
- Ever notice how S and D are right next to each other on the keyboard? It’s really easy to accidentally type one when you mean the other. (Especially if you’re a fast and careless typist like I am.) And when you do, most spellcheckers will helpfully “fix” any resulting spelling errors like “walkes” or “jumpd.” So you can accidentally end up with a word or two in the middle of a sentence in the wrong tense. Sometimes, you can even accidentally shift into that tense in the next few sentences, too — the brain likes to look at the sentence before the one you’re writing and latch on.
- Or maybe you’ve gone back in to make a minor revision to your story after it’s done. Your mind may not be in the same mode as it was when you first sat down to write and you may accidentally switch without realizing it.
In all of these cases, the solution is the same: make sure to have someone proofread that manuscript before you finish it up, publish it, or submit it somewhere. If you’ve got a sharp eye you can do this yourself. If you tend to miss tense shifts in your own word, enlist a friend or hire a professional editor.
When is tense-switching appropriate?
That all being said, there’s a few situations where tense-switching on purpose can really add to the narrative. I’ve seen stories written in past tense with dream sequences written in present tense, so that you easily tell what is reality and what’s in the character’s head.
This also makes sense if you’re writing a past-tense story where a character finds a diary or note written in present tense. I’ve even seen a present-tense story interspersed with fictional newspaper clippings, which are written in past tense (as news stories generally are).
If you’re still not sure exactly which tense works best for a particular story, play around with it. Try writing stories in different styles (or the same story in different styles) and see what effect it has on the narrative. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Do you struggle with tense-switching? Do you have a favorite tense to write in? Have you ever read a book written in future tense? Have your say in the comments below.